The situation in Jerusalem is boiling over

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Israel struck Hamas targets in Lebanon and Gaza after rocket attacks from southern Lebanon. No deaths reported, only damage to buildings and cars. The exchange of fire followed Israeli police raids on Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque, and a shooting in the West Bank killed two sisters. The violence coincides with Ramadan and Passover, and comes amid Israel’s ongoing protests over a judicial overhaul. The al-Aqsa mosque is a holy site for both Muslims and Jews, located in the eastern sector of Jerusalem, which is considered under Israeli occupation. The specifics of the “status quo” agreement governing the holy sites are constantly changing.

Israeli police raids of al-Aqsa mosque have led to violent escalation in the past and were a trigger for the 2021 war between Hamas and Israel. The compound is under the custodianship of Jordan, but Israeli police control East Jerusalem and have increased their raids of the area since the Second Palestinian Intifada. The current climate of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, along with inflammatory rhetoric by some Israeli ministers, has exacerbated tensions. The recent raid occurred after Jewish extremist groups encouraged Jews to go to the compound and perform a Passover ritual. Videos on social media showed police using force against Muslim worshipers.

Arab outrage over raid on al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan, Israel’s allies criticize. Overnight Muslim prayers at the mosque have been repeatedly prohibited by Israel despite no explicit agreement. Itikaf is a customary ritual of overnight prayers, often used as a tool in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The Waqf will continue to allow itikaf prayers throughout Ramadan, despite the violence. Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, under Jordanian custodianship, is the only recognized authority responsible for managing the site as per the status quo agreement. Israel’s recent strikes on Gaza and Lebanon are seen as relatively restrained compared to previous years.

While security threats have traditionally unified Israelis and masked domestic divisions, some say too great an escalation could trigger the opposite effect for the Israeli government.

“The public is always supportive when these things begin, there is always a rallying around the flag phenomenon,” said Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security advisor in Israel and senior fellow at Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Israel, adding that while limited tension may divert attention away from the controversy over the judicial overhaul, any further escalation risks damaging Netanyahu’s image, especially as it is taking place over the Passover holidays.

Netanyahu’s response comes not only amid domestic upheaval, but also amid strained relations with the United States and Gulf allies, he said, adding that Netanyahu has generally been known to be cautious in his use of military force.

“The hope is that (the government) can de-escalate it, but I am not sure they will succeed,” he said, adding that it may be in the interest of Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah — both backed by Israel’s longtime foe Iran — to “take advantage of Israel’s disarray.”

“There is a potential for this to escalate further at a time when Israel is deeply divided domestically,” he said.

Additional reporting from Abeer Salman and Amir Tal in Jerusalem, Lauren Izso in Tel Aviv and Ibrahim Dahman in Gaza

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