In Jerusalem crisis, Hamas sees opportunity to take center stage again
Early Monday evening, as air raid sirens roared over Jerusalem, residents of the capital stood in shock for a few moments before running for safety.
Hamas immediately claimed responsibility for the first rocket fire at the capital in years. She and other terrorist groups fired hundreds of rockets from Gaza into Israel over the next few hours.
Even as the rockets were flying, a senior Hamas official spoke to a Lebanese television station to say that – apparently the opposite – the terrorist group was not interested in an all-out struggle. He demanded that Israeli forces stop deploying to Al-Aqsa Mosque and engage in pitched battles with worshipers.
Clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinians have left hundreds of Palestinians injured in recent days in the Old City. The clashes were particularly intense near the Al-Aqsa Mosque – the third holiest mosque in Islam, which sits on the Temple Mount, revered by Jews as the site of the two Biblical temples.
“We are not interested in starting a war, but if Israel continues to harm the al-Aqsa mosque and the worshipers, we will not be able to not respond,” said Hamas lawmaker Saleh al-Arouri.
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Hamas likely wants a brief and dramatic conflagration before a return to the status quo, former senior defense official Michael Milshtein said.
“Hamas understands that the circumstances are in its favor: the Palestinian Authority is weak, with its reputation in landfills, Israel is in absolute chaos without a government – this gives it the opportunity to act,” Milshtein said.
A decade and a half of rule in the Gaza Strip by the terrorist group has brought little progress to ordinary Gazans. The coastal enclave is blocked by both Israel and Egypt, and most countries around the world are still boycotting the terrorist group. The bitter year of the coronavirus pandemic has hit Gaza particularly hard, pushing already sky-high unemployment to unprecedented levels.
“Any war we enter would not benefit Gazans. We have not yet healed scenes from the 2014 war. The houses and apartments destroyed that year have not been rebuilt. Hamas cannot go into a war that will only bring destruction, ”said Mukhaimar Abu Saada, who teaches political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza.
Around 20 Gazans have already been killed in Israeli airstrikes, according to the Hamas-led Gaza health ministry. The IDF said 11 of those killed were fighters.
Against the backdrop of the crisis are the recently canceled Palestinian elections.
Hamas officials had publicly expressed hope that the planned Palestinian legislative vote – the first in 15 years – was moving forward. After years of isolation in Gaza, the elections offered the promise of a unity government with their rivals Fatah, a notion widely popular among Palestinians.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas indefinitely delayed elections earlier in May, angering many Hamas members, Abu Saada said. But dismal election polls also revealed that Hamas was far less popular than the leaders had hoped.
“The latest opinion polls carried out during the elections revealed that Hamas’s popularity was waning. In fact, it was extremely bad, ”said Abu Saada.
But an ongoing crisis in Jerusalem – which Hamas has had little role to play – has opened up the opportunity for Hamas to take center stage again.
For several weeks, Jerusalem experienced a protracted emergency. Hundreds of Palestinians and dozens of police have been injured in clashes throughout the city, including on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Police said the Palestinians threw stones and bottles at the cops, leading them to fire stun grenades and tear gas at the holy site.
Right-wing Jewish extremists marched through downtown Jerusalem, seeking to attack any Palestinian in sight. On Monday, a march of thousands of religious nationalists was scheduled to cross the Damascus Gate lightning zone to celebrate Jerusalem Day; The Israeli security services intervened at the last moment to redirect him.
In recent days, the tension in the city has reached its peak. Nightly protests against the evictions of Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem have led to clashes with police, as well as scenes of agents dispersing apparently peaceful protesters with foul-smelling water and stun grenades.
“The central axis that propelled this forward was Jerusalem. There have been other events – the cancellation of the Palestinian elections, terrorist attacks scattered across the West Bank – but Jerusalem is the main story here, ”Milshtein said.
Abbas indefinitely postponed the first Palestinian elections in 15 years on the pretext that Israel refused to allow them to be held in East Jerusalem. “I want elections in Jerusalem, just like in Ramallah and the West Bank,” Abbas said at a rally of Palestinian leaders in early May.
The Oslo Accords, a series of agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, specify that a symbolic small number of Palestinians can vote at post offices in the capital. Israel has annexed all of Jerusalem, while many Palestinians hope to see a capital in the eastern half of the city as part of their future state.
Abbas’s opponents protested what was to all intents and purposes a long-awaited cancellation of the vote, calling for election day in Jerusalem to be “a day of clashes with Israel.” Abbas objected, in what his critics saw as reflecting fear of electoral defeat.
And yet, unrelated to the ongoing Palestinian vote, clashes between Palestinians and Israeli forces began to erupt in the disputed capital just days before Abbas announced the delay.
The clashes began with hundreds of Palestinians arguing with police to protest Israeli restrictions on Damascus Gate and spread throughout the city. The protests appeared to be leaderless and motivated by local causes.
Last Friday, clashes reached the Temple Mount, with hundreds of Palestinians injured near the sacred Al-Aqsa Mosque. On Monday, Jerusalem Day, hundreds more were hospitalized following clashes with police.
Where some saw a crisis, Hamas saw an opportunity, Milshtein said. The Palestinian Authority is banned from operating in Jerusalem, works closely with Israel on security, and uses simple condemnations.
But the missiles in Jerusalem that sent the Israelis seeking shelter in their own capital quickly brought Hamas back to the headlines. In addition, the Palestinian Authority had just renounced Jerusalem after Israel had not approved its request to hold the vote.
“Hamas wants to present itself as the defender of Jerusalem at a time when the Palestinian Authority is unable to do so,” Milshtein said.
Hamas officials have accused Israel of being responsible for the rising tensions in the region. “Don’t play with fire,” warned Hamas terrorist leader Ismail Haniyeh as thousands of Palestinians clashed with Israeli police on the Temple Mount on Friday.
The repeated clashes at Islam’s third holiest site have essentially forced Hamas’s hand, say those close to the terrorist group.
“Hamas was forced to do it,” Fayez Abu Shemala, a Gaza-based political commentator close to Hamas, said in a phone call.
Abu Shemala, who was previously mayor of Khan Younis, now writes a daily column for Hamas spokesman Filasteen. He argued that despite the shock many Israelis felt upon hearing the sirens of airstrikes in Jerusalem, Hamas had done just enough to satisfy public pressure for a meaningful response.
“Hamas’ response consisted of six rockets, landing in places near Jerusalem without causing damage or casualties, is a calculated and considered response: we are not interested in an escalation,” Abu Shemala argued.
“The message is simple: stop assaulting the Al-Aqsa Mosque,” Abu Shemala said.
Abu Shemala protested that the remaining rockets were fired at more traditional targets near the Gaza Strip, such as Sderot and Ashkelon – those whose constant shelling made them part of the give and take between Israel and the terror group .
“The remaining missiles and shells were fired at the peripheral area of Gaza, which corresponds to the same rules of engagement as before,” said Abu Shemala.
Late Monday night, Hamas’s military wing issued a statement that could be interpreted as a call for both sides to pull out of the chasm.
“Jerusalem called us and we fulfilled its call. If you continue, so will we, ”Hamas’s military wing said in a statement.
Israel has become accustomed to dealing with repeated rounds of escalation with the terrorist group in Gaza. The escalations follow a clear pattern: rockets from Gaza, followed by Israeli airstrikes. Tensions mount for days before Egypt, Qatar and the international community intervene and the two sides seek a truce.
But the war is disorderly; in the event of a major slippage, there is always a risk that things will get out of hand, Milshtein said.
“Israel has a big dilemma on its shoulders. On the one hand, Israel must restore its deterrence and conduct an operation that causes significant damage to Hamas. But as soon as Israel does that – and if it starts to get tangled up, if mistakes are made – then it could get out of hand, ”Milshtein said.