East Jerusalem on the Eve of Ramadan and Municipal Elections

Since October 7th, tension between Israel and the Palestinians has significantly increased across the country. In Jerusalem, this tension is felt on a daily basis, and the steps taken by the government towards the Palestinians are bringing Jerusalem to the brink of an explosion. According to data provided by the Palestinian Authority, since October 7th, 49 Palestinians have been killed and 156 injured in Jerusalem (some during the execution of attacks against Israelis), and 990 Palestinian residents have been arrested. According to data from Ir Amim, the municipality has carried out over 94 demolitions, destroying at least 63 residential homes. The police impose restrictions on the entry of Muslims to the Temple Mount/A-Haram Al-Sharif, and every Friday, they forcibly disperse Muslim worshippers gathering to pray in the streets leading to the Old City.

In the recent weeks, as Ramadan approaches and the municipal elections draw nearer, there has been an increase in the activities of the municipality and the government that add to the tension in Jerusalem. Some of these actions can be explained against the backdrop of Israel’s national political situation and the upcoming municipal elections.

The Temple Mount/Al-Haram Al-Sharif

On Sunday, February 18, Prime Minister Netanyahu held consultations with senior ministers and security officials regarding preparations for Muslim prayers at the Temple Mount/Al-Haram Al-Sharif during Ramadan, which is expected to start around March 11. According to reports, the heads of the Shin Bet and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) believe that in order to prevent an escalation and outbreak of violence, as much free access as possible should be allowed for worshippers during Ramadan. In contrast, police officials, who have been serving under Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir for the past year, believe that restrictions should be imposed on the entry of worshippers, including Israeli Muslim citizens. Immediately following the consultation, media reports emerged (likely leaked by sources in Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s office) indicating that the Prime Minister had accepted the police’s stance to impose restrictions. However, there were also reports suggesting that a decision had not yet been made and would be made closer to the start of Ramadan. These conflicting reports highlight how the decision, at least in the eyes of the politicians who leaked the information, is perceived as a political issue rather than a security concern. The very act of leaking information about the disagreement turns the subject into a political dispute and increases pressure from right-wing factions in the coalition to impose restrictions on Ramadan prayers.

Experience from recent years shows that imposing restrictions often leads to flare-ups. The Temple Mount/Al-Haram Al-Sharif is a symbol of Palestinian religious and national identity that is closely monitored daily by Palestinians, who pay close attention to the number of Jews visiting it on organized tours, while thousands of Palestinians are prevented from entering. It is no coincidence that Hamas called the attack on October 7th “The Al-Aqsa Flood.”

It seems that Netanyahu is well aware of the potential for escalation that comes with imposing restrictions during Ramadan. When Netanyahu was the Prime Minister in 1996, he decided to open an exit in the Western Wall tunnels, which led to the outbreak of the “Tunnel Intifada” and the death of dozens of Israelis and Palestinians. The attempt by Netanyahu’s government to install metal detectors at the entrances to the compound in 2017 brought the situation to the brink of a regional escalation.

The Municipal Context

The issue of prayer on the Temple Mount during this tense period is a political matter, yet it very likely also has a political-municipal aspect. On Tuesday, February 27, local authority elections will be held, including for the Jerusalem municipality. Historically, Palestinians, residents of East Jerusalem, abstain from voting for the mayor and city council, and the battle is over the vote of the Israeli-Jewish public in Jerusalem. Moshe Lion’s election as mayor seems assured, but there is fierce competition for council seats. Out of 31 council members, it is assumed that the ultra-Orthodox parties will receive about half of the votes. This means that the secular and religious parties are competing for about 15 seats. In the upcoming elections, there are at least four distinct right-wing parties: Likud, Hamafdal-the Religious Zionism party, Jerusalem with Noam, and United with Aryeh King. Moshe Lion’s party, ‘Jerusalem United,’ does not give up on the right-wing vote either. Three of these right-wing parties are identified with the extreme right. United is supported by Itamar Ben-Gvir, Jerusalem with Noam is part of the Noam party, and HaMafdal is supported by Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party.

It can be cautiously estimated that the political decisions in East Jerusalem are also tied to the municipal battle that will be decided in about a week. In a situation with multiple parties having a similar potential voter, each side wants to show achievements and a struggle against Muslims accessing the Temple Mount/Al-Haram Al-Sharif could strengthen Likud and Aryeh King’s party, which has received Ben-Gvir’s support. It is very possible that the media information about tightening the conditions for Muslim access to the Haram al-Sharif during the Ramadan month is linked to the interests of Netanyahu, Ben-Gvir, and Moshe Lion, to showcase achievements in this area.

Demolition of Palestinian Homes in East Jerusalem

The demolition of Palestinian constructions in East Jerusalem, observed since the beginning of the Gaza conflict, has continued in recent months. According to data from Ir Amim, the pace of home demolitions has increased by 60% since the start of the Gaza war. In the first nine months of 2023, an average of ten apartments were demolished per month, but since October 7th, the rate has escalated to an average of about 17 demolitions per month. On Wednesday, February 14, 2024, the Jerusalem Municipality demolished the home of Fahri Abu-Diab, a resident of Silwan and a well-known social activist for decades. Recently, his home was visited by Andrew Miller, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Palestinian Affairs in the US government, as well as representatives from the European Union, France, Turkey, the UK, and many other diplomats. Unlike most house demolitions, where residents do not receive prior notice, this time Fahri was informed in advance, as was the media. It seems that it was important for politicians at the municipal and/or national level to showcase the demolition of the home of one of the leading figures in the Palestinian struggle in East Jerusalem as part of what is called “the fight against illegal Palestinian construction and the strengthening of Israeli sovereignty in the city.”

The Sheep Market of the Old City

On Thursday, February 15, 2024, development work began near the walls of the Old City, in the parking area known as “The Sheep Market.” The parking lot is located east of the old city walls, adjacent to the Bab al-Rahma Muslim cemetery. A legal debate is ongoing regarding the municipality’s right to develop the site as part of a tourist promenade, and it has yet to be resolved. The work in the parking area is aimed at tourist development, and it is clear that there is no urgency for these types of projects at this time. Although previous work in the area led to tensions between the Palestinian residents and the Muslim Waqf, this step seems to align with other political decisions. On one hand, it demonstrates to the right-wing public that their elected officials are “advancing Israeli sovereignty” in the eastern part of the city, while on the other hand, it increases tensions with the Palestinian population in Jerusalem and beyond.

Batan al-Hawa – Silwan

On Monday, February 19, 2024, Israeli settlers, accompanied by security guards, police, and heavy machinery, entered a plot of land in the Batan al-Hawa neighborhood of Silwan (plot 29986, part 84) and began clearing and leveling the land, presumably to prepare for a parking lot. The area prepared is a plot of land located in a densely built and populated area with Palestinian residents, alongside a few settler homes.

It is important to note that in Batan al-Hawa, there are about a hundred Palestinian families at risk of eviction, and for around three decades, settlers have been attempting to expand their presence in the neighborhood. The decision to enter this new area during the Gaza war, at a time when tensions in East Jerusalem are at its peak, is an extraordinary event. It also reflects the strong political desire of some municipal actors to demonstrate their support for Jewish control in the eastern part of the city.

Discussion on Objections to the Mount Scopus Slopes National Park Plan

On Tuesday, March 5, 2024, the Jerusalem District Planning Committee will take place to discuss objections to the designation of the Mount Scopus Slopes as a national park over the lands of the Issawiya and a-Tur neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. The plan aims to designate an area of 535 dunams (approximately 132 acres) as a national park, thereby preventing the expansion of these neighborhoods into the last remaining open spaces available to them. Further information on the plan and the objections can be found on the Bimkom organization’s alert.