What's Behind the Growing Violence in Jerusalem?

Briefing Note

What's Behind the Growing Violence in Jerusalem?

13 Oct 2015

As tensions over access to the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem become increasingly violent, the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics contextualises a conflict imbued with growing religious significance.

Attacks in the West Bank and Israel have drastically increased in recent weeks, with casualties mounting for both Israelis and Palestinians. But dismissing the current escalation in violence as being a perpetuation of quid pro quo attacks that have long existed in the region ignores the deeply religious rhetoric that both sides have used in garnering support.

The Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif complex in Jerusalem is of religious significance to Muslims and Jews alike, so when Israeli forces and Palestinian youths clashed at the site in mid-September, resentment and frustration that had been building on both sides began to boil over.

The spark behind the current spate of attacks originates in rumours that the Israeli government has been planning to make changes to the agreements that govern access to the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif complex, changes that would see greater access to the site for Jews and increased restrictions on Muslims.

But despite the repeated denial of such rumours by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, they gained enough momentum to prompt some Palestinian demonstrations at the site to protect it from the perceived threat of Israeli action, resulting in fierce clashes with Israeli security forces. Unsurprisingly, the sustained propagation of such rumours about the diminishing of Muslims access to the site has renewed existing religious tensions.

Youth members of the Islamic Movement in Israel have been accused by Israeli authorities of instigating the attacks by calling for action on university campuses and via social media platforms. Unlike previous periods of unrest, there is a marked absence of any Palestinian organisation taking the lead in the current series of attacks. Although Hamas and the Islamic Movement in Israel have both initiated campaigns directly linked to the supposed Israeli plans for the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif complex in Jerusalem, known as "At Your Service al-Aqsa" and "It Will Not Be Divided" respectively, the fact that these groups have joined in retrospectively may indicate their eagerness to capitalise on the frustration and resentment of Palestinians to further their own objectives, rather than having any driving force in fomenting the unrest.

Unlike previous unrest, no Palestinian organisation is taking the lead.

Unlike the large-scale attacks that were witnessed during the second Intifada, in which armed wings of Fatah and Hamas carried out a number of suicide attacks against Israeli targets, the current wave of violence is far less organised. For the most part, ramming cars into pedestrians and stabbings have been the methods of choice for Palestinian attackers, apparently acting alone or in small groups, but despite the simplicity of the attacks, there is a credible possibility that if left unchecked they could develop into something more substantial. Worryingly, groups like Hamas have been portraying attackers killed by Israeli security services as martyrs to further the religious overtones of the violence

The Israeli government has tried to quash the rumours that sparked the current violence, but its efforts have been hampered by the actions of members of its own coalition. Despite government objections, Knesset members have gone to the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif complex to offer prayers, and continue to push development plans for the site. Such is the perceived damage of these actions that the Prime Minister has imposed a ban on members of Israel's Knesset from entering the complex, a move that aims to defuse the situation but has also angered many Israelis.

Jerusalem has always been a site of global significance, and the violence currently engulfing the city has strong regional and international aspects. Speaking at the UN General Assembly in September 2015, King Abdullah of Jordan said that "violations of the sanctity of Al-Aqsa Mosque" were driving regional extremism, serving to "empower those who seek to wage a religious war." Abdullah tied the violence to the wider Middle East peace process, saying that "a world that allows the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to move further away from a two-state solution is a world that fuels extremists' recruitment."

The imagery of Jerusalem is an ideological galvaniser.

Meanwhile, jihadi groups as far away as the Afghan Taliban have seized hold of the tensions as a lens of grievance through which to frame their own struggle. The movement has portrayed Israeli actions as an attack on Islam itself, with a Taliban statement on 8 October saying "the entire Ummah... must defend its sacred premises and repel the transgressing Jews." Jihadi narratives often try to capitalise on the suffering of Muslims around the world, with ISIS and al-Qaeda statements referring to persecution as far afield as India and Myanmar. In this regards, the imagery of Jerusalem is a particularly emotive mobiliser and ideological galvaniser.

The exploiting of religious insecurities in the region has long been the modus operandi of both Jewish and Islamist extremist groups to spread discord and perpetuate ulterior objectives, but the broader religious and geopolitical consequences make the situation particularly volatile. Despite efforts by leaders from both Israel and the Palestinian Authority to defuse the situation and restore a degree of calm, the continued use of religious rhetoric by groups on both sides is continuing to build the tension.

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