Violence in Jerusalem risks sparking a third intifada

We know why fighting has broken out, but not how it will end

As far as symbols of resistance go, an old photo of one’s grandmother sitting in her family home is an unlikely one. But on Monday a well-known Palestinian activist posted such a photo, taken in 1970 in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, to serve as a reminder of the inter-generational struggle Palestinians have endured for the right to live in their own homes.

A grandmother in 1970 in the East Jersualem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Credit: Instagram

Sheikh Jarrah has become the focal point of some of the worst violence Palestinians and Israelis have experienced in years. Arab residents face eviction as the result of a legal case brought in Israeli courts by Jewish settler organisations relying on a law that gives privilege to Jewish landowners from the early 20th century. Many of the Arabs living in Sheikh Jarrah moved there decades ago, when it was under Jordanian control, after fleeing their homes elsewhere in the country during Israel's creation, and Israeli law prevents the refugees from reclaiming them.

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Eid celebrations have been cancelled in Palestine

Tensions have been rising for weeks, resulting in protests in several Palestinian and Israeli cities. These were put down with excessive force by Israeli police. The violence is intensifying as Hamas, the extremist group that controls Gaza, continues to fire hundreds of rockets into Israeli territory, which have so far killed two civilians and injured at least seven. Israel has responded with air strikes. As a result of them, 25 Gazans, nine of whom were children, are dead.

Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam's holiest sites, has also served as a boiling point, with Israeli police firing stun grenades and tear gas into the mosque itself. This happened as Muslims worldwide prepare for the religious holiday of Eid Al Fitr. Celebrations have been cancelled in Palestine, and a cloud will be hanging over the occasion across the Muslim world.

The right-wing extremists who support settler organisations have waged a broader campaign to deny Palestinian rights in East Jerusalem, which the UN considers to be occupied Palestinian land. As the events in Al Aqsa Mosque compound unfolded, a crowd of right-wing Israelis gathered nearby to celebrate "Jerusalem Day", which marks the anniversary of Israel's capture of the eastern part of the city in 1967. The situation is escalating at such a pace that many worry it could be the beginning of a third intifada.

Even if it does not reach that point, the scale of the violence will have major consequences at home and abroad. Fragile peace processes are taking place across the region. US President Joe Biden's administration has a role in them all. If he is perceived as being incapable of action or pressuring either side, parties who want to spurn American mediation will now have the perfect excuse.

It does not help matters that in both Palestine and Israel, domestic politics appear to be in disarray. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could be on the cusp of fighting his fifth election in two years. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recently called off what would have been the territory's first vote since 2006. The uncertainty of these circumstances, which are the product of both leaders’ cynical desire to prioritise their own grip on power, has resulted in the continued absence of sensible policymaking and moral clarity at a time when they are sorely needed.

Palestinian frustration is mounting, justifiably, and it is ripe for exploitation by those who would wish to see more violence in the days ahead. The onus is on Israelis, who are favoured by an overwhelming asymmetry of force, to ensure that they are not among them.