Politics

Why are there fears in Jerusalem during Ramadan?





After 11 lives were lost in a spate of attacks, some linked to the Islamic State group, Israel placed its forces on high alert for Ramadan, which began last weekend.

Why has the Jewish state stepped up security for the Muslim holy month of fasting?

Why is Jerusalem important?

Every evening during Ramadan, thousands of Muslims gather for prayers at Al-Aqsa mosque in east Jerusalem.

Al-Aqsa – known by Jews as the Temple Mount – is located in the Old City in mainly Palestinian east Jerusalem.

The third-holiest site in Islam, it is a flashpoint in the long-running Middle East conflict that is often the scene of clashes.

Last year, nightly demonstrations in Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa compound escalated into 11 days of war between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist movement that runs the Gaza Strip.

Violent demonstrations have already left dozens injured this Ramadan.

On Tuesday, while visiting the West Bank, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Israel had “already prevented more than 15 serious attacks… carried out 207 arrests, and interrogated 400 suspects in contact with IS”, referring to the jihadist group.

Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz told Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in a phone call that “Ramadan must be a month of peace and quiet and not a period marked by terror.”

What does Hamas stand to lose?

The number of rocket attacks from Gaza has dropped dramatically since the end of last year’s devastating war.

Israel announced last week an increase in work permits, from 12,000 to 20,000, in the hope of breathing life into Gaza and deterring Hamas from another confrontation. It also extended the enclave’s permitted fishing zone.

“Our ability to implement these measures is now threatened by terrorism, and we will only implement them if the security situation stabilises again,” Gantz said.

Hamas has much to lose in the event of escalation, one Israeli security source told AFP.

“Hamas faces quite a dilemma because workers are coming to Israel, the fishing zone has been expanded, and they have suffered a heavy loss last year that the Gazan population is weary of suffering again. This might act as a deterrence.

“I don’t see Hamas’ appetite for a confrontation right now, but the PIJ are an unexpected factor,” the source said, referring to Islamic Jihad, another Gaza-based militant group.

“I am more confident in Hamas’ attempt to avoid escalation than the PIJ’s,” the source added.

Why the emphasis on Islamic Jihad?

In the wake of attacks near Tel Aviv, Israeli forces carried out operations in and around Jenin, a city in the northern West Bank from which the assailant hailed.

At least three members of the Islamic Jihad were killed in the raids.

The group is designated a terror organisation by the United States and European Union, and has thousands of supporters across both Gaza and the West Bank. Israeli security officials consider it close to Iran.

If Israel carries out new operations, “it could lead to a military escalation, especially with Islamic Jihad”, said Mukhaimer Abu Saada, professor of political science at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University.

“But I believe that it would be a slight escalation, because Hamas does not want a new confrontation,” he added.

Why the diplomatic dance with Jordan?

In the past week, Israel’s president and defence minister have both visited to Jordan for talks with King Abdullah II, who has also spoken on the phone with Prime Minister Bennett.

In the run-up to Ramadan, Abdullah visited Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, for the first time in five years, for talks with Abbas.

Jordan occupied east Jerusalem before it was captured by Israel in 1967, and is still charged with managing the Muslim holy sites of the Old City such as the Al-Aqsa compound.

Yet access to these sites is controlled by Israel. The recent diplomatic exchanges are an effort to ensure the freedom to worship while preventing the situation from boiling over like last year.



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