A confluence of major events, within the country and beyond, threatens serious violence in the days ahead.
In truth it has already begun, encouraged by a decision made far away in Washington, when President Trump on Tuesday withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear agreement. That night Israeli jets struck inside Syria against what Israel said were Iranian militiamen preparing to launch rockets against Israel. The following evening, Iranian proxies under the command of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fired a barrage of rockets against Israeli positions on the Golan Heights, an Israeli-controlled sliver of land on the Syrian frontier, drawing a massive Israeli retaliation strike against over 50 Iranian targets.
Beginning May 13, though, the action centers on Jerusalem, with “Jerusalem Day,” a semi-official Israeli holiday commemorating the reunification of the ancient city during the 1967 war, after the Israelis seized the eastern part then occupied by Jordan. On the occasion, tens of thousands of marchers, many of them extreme nationalists and many from the West Bank settlements, parade through the city waving Israeli flags. In the past, the march has even wound through the Arab Quarter of the Old City, with some revelers chanting anti-Arab slogans and vandalizing local property. Seen live, the march through East Jerusalem, and with it the heavy police presence and shuttering of Arab businesses, underscores the day’s use for some as a show of force and Israeli ownership over the entire contested city. (Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem is not recognized internationally.) One former Israeli intelligence chief has already called this month “the most dangerous May since 1967,” alluding to the anxious eve of the June 1967 war.
The Palestinians view the establishment of the state of Israel very differently. For them, the following day, May 15, is known as Nakba Day; in Arabic, nakba means “catastrophe.” Historically, the date has seen violent clashes between Palestinian protestors and Israeli security forces. Given the general sentiment among Palestinians that Trump has ceded Jerusalem to Israel, coupled with the preceding two days’ events in the city, the likelihood of mass demonstrations in both Jerusalem and the West Bank is high.
Israeli intelligence assessments still maintain that the PA in general, and President Mahmoud Abbas in particular, don’t want things to spiral out of control. There will be demonstrations, the thinking goes, but they will be contained. Indeed, since Trump’s embassy announcement in December, the West Bank has remained remarkably calm. But as one senior Israeli defense official told me, “I can’t commit on whether it’ll stay this way.”
Neither, it turns out, can the Palestinians. “It’s not something you can anticipate or expect. On the day nothing may happen,” a Palestinian official close to Abbas told me. “But all the components are there for people’s rejection of what they see around them, when you suffocate hope in their hearts.” In this official’s mind, the loss of hope was tied directly to the Trump administration’s conduct. Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the embassy, he said, served as a declaration of America’s “withdrawal from the peace process and a two-state solution, and [entailed] completely siding with one side.”
At its height, the demonstrations drew 40,000 people on a single day, split between five different locations up and down the coastal territory. Ahead of next week, Hamas leaders are vowing to unleash “the mother of all marches”; some Israeli officials now worry about 100,000 protestors, and perhaps more, coming out. There is, in reality, no effective Israeli military response to such a development. “Imagine if 13,000 [protestors] break through [at one location], with a total loss of control,” a senior Israeli officer responsible for Gaza recently told me. “There would be a major loss of life. … We would be on the verge of war.”
Compounding matters, sunset on May 15 will mark the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan—often a period of heightened religious sentiment and, with that, political tensions. Previous years have seen an uptick in terrorist attacks and, in 2014, full-scale war between Hamas and Israel in Gaza.
Iran and its allies “must remember,” Lieberman threatened on Thursday, “that if it rains here [in Israel], it will pour there.” The freak confluence of events this week, beginning with Trump’s Iran nuclear decision, the escalation of hostilities over Syria, and consolidating around the days ahead in Jerusalem and the Palestinian Territories, hold the potential at least for a major tempest.
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