Israeli police entered the Al Aqsa Mosque and clashed with Palestinians inside the sacred site, firing stun grenades while Palestinians threw stones.
The resulting clashes there and in other parts of the Old City left hundreds of Palestinians and some Israeli police officers injured. Palestinian militant groups in Gaza joined the fray by firing rockets into Israel, which responded with airstrikes.
A United Nations representative warned the situation was “escalating towards a full-scale war.”
Since then, hundreds more rockets have been fired by Palestinian militant groups from Gaza and Israel has stepped up its artillery and airstrike bombardment of the territory. Israel has also called up reservists, fueling fears of an imminent ground invasion in Gaza.
Meanwhile, several cities in Israel have been rocked by rioting and violent clashes between Arab and Jewish citizens.
Putting a lid on the violence may not be easy. Political, religious, and nationalist factors all play a role in the situation.
The city had been on edge for several weeks, with Palestinians angered over the closure of a popular plaza just as Ramadan was beginning, and as a years-long legal battle to remove seven Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem appeared set to end with eviction.
The families have been living in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, just north of the Old City, since 1956 — in an arrangement brokered by the United Nations to find homes in Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem for families who lost their property in what became the state of Israel in 1948.
An Israeli nationalist organization called Nahalat Shimon is using a 1970 law — passed after Israel gained control over East Jerusalem — to argue that the owners of the land before 1948 were Jewish families, meaning the current Palestinian occupants should be evicted and their properties given to Israeli Jews.
Palestinians contend that restitution laws in Israel are unfair because they have no legal means to reclaim the property they lost to Jewish families in the late 1940s in what became the state of Israel.
The legal battle over the homes in Sheikh Jarrah has reignited a simmering debate about who has claim to the city, its holy sites, and its history. Jerusalem has always been the most sensitive part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Small changes to a delicate situation can ignite massive protests. And extremist voices are often on hand and make themselves known.
Earlier this week, the annual Jerusalem Day march, which normally works its way through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, was re-rerouted in an attempt to avoid further escalation.
For nearly two decades after the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, the city of Jerusalem was divided. East Jerusalem was controlled by the Jordanians, while West Jerusalem was controlled by the Israelis, who made it their capital.
Crucially, the Old City of Jerusalem and its holy sites were in East Jerusalem.
The Old City is home to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Christians believe Jesus Christ was buried.
It is home to the Al Aqsa Mosque where Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammed journeyed on his Night Voyage, as well as the site where they believe he ascended to heaven.
And it is home to the holiest site in the world for Jews, the stone where they believe Abraham came to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and where the First and Second Temples stood in ancient times.
During the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel captured East Jerusalem, placing the entire city under Israeli control. Israel also captured the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula. The latter was returned to Egypt under the 1979 peace agreement, but East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights have remained under full Israeli control. The Palestinians enjoy limited autonomy in Gaza and parts of the West Bank, but Israel maintains control of all borders and security.
The entire city of Jerusalem is under Israeli control. Israel says there is no difference between the city’s east and west, instead describing the city as its united capital. (Even so, the city is largely self-segregated. East Jerusalem is largely Palestinian, while West Jerusalem is largely Israeli. Israeli cab drivers often refuse to drive to locations in East Jerusalem.)
International law does not distinguish between settlements in the West Bank or settlements in East Jerusalem, considering them both occupied territory.
The Old City, and more specifically the Al Aqsa compound, is governed by its own agreement known as the Status Quo.
Israel is in charge of security on the site, and Jordan, through an Islamic organization called the Waqf, administers the religious sites.
In normal times, visitors of all faiths are allowed to visit the complex, but only Muslims are allowed to pray there.
Palestinians view East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
Palestinian leaders say the effort to evict families from their homes is nothing less than “ethnic cleansing” aimed at “Judaizing the holy city,” the official Palestinian news agency Wafa reported.
Israel says the conflict is simply a “real-estate dispute.” The Foreign Ministry accused the Palestinian Authority and militant groups of “presenting a real-estate dispute between private parties, as a nationalistic cause, in order to incite violence in Jerusalem.”
The effort to evict Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood has been widely criticized.
The Sheikh Jarrah case is the flashpoint for tensions, but they quickly spread throughout the city and far beyond the confines of Jerusalem.
The situation in Jerusalem can escalate in a hurry on its own, but the sensitivities in the city have been compounded by a combination of religious and nationalist factors.
Two holidays fell on the same weekend this year: the Muslim Night of Power (Leylet el-Qadr) on the night of May 8, considered the holiest night of the year; and the Israeli holiday of Jerusalem Day (Yom Yerushalayim) on May 9-10, celebrating the day the Israeli military took control of the Old City in 1967.
Each holiday on its own can inspire religious and nationalist fervor, and together they are even more liable to ignite an already tense situation.
The political situation has not helped. Israel has had four inconclusive elections in a row, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has courted some openly extreme racist politicians as he struggles to build a coalition and stay in power. That has emboldened some far-right Jewish groups.
Right-wing Israeli politicians Itamar Ben-Gvir and Arieh King came to Sheikh Jarrah to send a message that the entire city belongs to Israel. Their presence fanned the flames.
The Palestinian political situation is hardly clearer than the Israeli one. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in April delayed the first parliamentary elections in 15 years, extending a long-running rivalry where his Fatah movement governs the West Bank, while Gaza is run by the militant Hamas, with Islamic Jihad also active there.
Such is the power of Jerusalem. Protests in Jerusalem can ignite protests in Israel and the West Bank, as well as prompt militant groups in Gaza to fire rockets and the Israel Defense Forces to launch airstrikes. A situation that began in one neighborhood in Jerusalem has now spread across the area and brought international attention to Israel and the Palestinian territories once again.
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