The tinder box of Jerusalem and the tyranny of the religious calendar

The holiday crunch doesn't bode well for a population already strained by repression and attacks.

Palestinian women pray during Ramadan in front of the Dome of the Rock shrine at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's old city, Friday, April 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

(RNS) — On any day, the old city of Jerusalem is a densely packed cluster of religions, ethnicities and nationalities. This April, the overlap of their religious and historical holidays will cram more crowds into this disputed space. Competing celebrations will literally be a stone’s throw away from each other.

Feelings were running high even before the month of April began as the usual cycle of violence has been on an upswing. In the first few months of this year alone, 18 Palestinians and 15 Israelis have been killed, including this week’s attack in Tel Aviv.

There is continuing friction caused by Jewish radicals, who have kept up their daily practice of going up in groups to the esplanade around the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Their repeated presence contravenes an understanding forged with King Abdullah II of Jordan, whose Hashemite line is the custodian of Jerusalem’s holy sites, by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in 2014, who agreed that “Al-Aqsa is for Muslims to worship and for all others to visit.”

The provocative visits, which include prayers and other ceremonies, threaten to draw an angry response from Muslim worshippers who see it, not without reason, as an attempt to prepare the way for a third Jewish temple.

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For Jews, Passover week this year begins April 15, followed two weeks later by Holocaust Remembrance Day. Palestinian Muslims’ monthlong fast of Ramadan began April 2 and will come to a climax April 29. Interspersed are Palm Sunday and Easter, which Catholic and Protestant Christians celebrate on April 10 and 17, respectively, while Orthodox Christians and other Eastern rites celebrate the two on April 17 and 24.

Last May Israeli security forces clashed with thousands of Palestinians enjoying themselves at the Damascus Gate Plaza after prayer on the nearby Al-Aqsa Mosque complex, contributing to an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas forces in Gaza. This year, Israel’s insistence on keeping a large, visible security force at the gate has been seen as a provocation, with soldiers using excessive force in arresting protesters. (Although, this year, some Palestinians have remarked that the Israeli police, likely bowing to American and Jordanian pressure, were more restrained than they were last year.)

Tensions will likely be highest the third Friday in Ramadan, April 22, which will bring no fewer than 250,000 Muslim worshippers to the old city, if they follow the example of previous years. That Friday also happens to be the next-to-last day of Passover, when tens of thousands of Jewish worshippers will descend on the Western Wall, which physically separates the esplanade of Al-Aqsa, which Jews call the Temple Mount.

A Palestinian man hangs decorative lights in preparation for the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, at the streets of Jerusalem's Old City, Friday, April 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

A Palestinian man hangs decorative lights in preparation for the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, at the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, Friday, April 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Then, on Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, on the 28th, the Israeli army often swears in new conscripts at the Western Wall. The next day, April 29, is Laylat al Qadr, when Muslims believe the Quran was mostly likely revealed. 

With so many potential friction points packed into this crowded calendar, all relevant parties have to enter these two weeks with a genuine commitment to restraint. Heavy-handed security action has long proven to be a goad to violence. 

It is important that politicians provide an environment conducive to quiet. The confluence of holidays has prompted Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid to meet with Palestinian and Jordanian leaders recently, but the lines of communication with Israel, whose current administration has taken to boasting about the fact that they are not holding discussions with Palestinians about ending the occupation, are not in good shape.

Instead, the U.S. State Department has sent envoys to Jerusalem and Arab capitals in the region on the theory that communication is one key to keeping the peace. “The more you talk about it, the more the chances are that the Israelis, Egyptians and Jordanians will calm things down,” Thomas Nides, the American ambassador to Israel, said at an online event last month, “to make sure this holy week does not blow up.”

Most important of all is to allow the believers to worship freely. Israel needs to provide free access to all believers and to prevent a few radicals from trying to change the facts on the ground. In past years, reasonable Israeli political leaders have worked hard to avoid friction by keeping Jews out of the Al-Aqsa complex during Ramadan. Israeli Prime Minister Bennett has so far shown an unwillingness to stand up to hardline Jewish groups, knowing full well that their actions could turn a time of celebration into ugly violence.

With the resignation of a key member of his governing coalition, Bennett is focused on juggling internal politics to keep his government in power. He is more vulnerable than ever to allowing ideologically driven politics to affect his policy. In response to the Tel Aviv attack, he has vowed there would be “no restrictions” placed on Israeli security forces in battling terror.

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While calm is needed this month, further heavy-handed repression is not the answer; a much-delayed longer-term solution is needed. The top priority should be to provide hope and optimism to the people living under occupation. Without hope, frustration and helplessness will drive Palestinians to radicalism. There is no escaping the fact that the conflict can only be finally addressed by providing Palestinians a political horizon.

(Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist from Jerusalem who now lives in Jordan, is a former Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton University. He is on Twitter @daoudkuttab. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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