The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians erupted this week, quickly escalating into one of the worst rounds of violence between the two sides in recent years.
An already tense situation exacerbated by moves to evict Palestinian families from their homes near Jerusalem’s Old City erupted at one of the city’s holiest sites, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount.
Israeli police stormed the Al Aqsa Mosque and clashed with Palestinians inside, using stun grenades and throwing stones.
Hundreds of Palestinians and Israeli police officers were injured in the ensuing clashes in the Old City and elsewhere. Gaza militant groups joined the fray by firing rockets into Israel, which responded with airstrikes.
The next day, a United Nations representative warned that the situation was “escalating towards a full-fledged war.”
“Stop the fire immediately. We’re escalating towards full-scale war. Leaders on all sides have to take the responsibility of de-escalation,” UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland said.
However, putting a stop to the violence may be difficult. The situation is influenced by political, religious, and nationalist factors.
The city had been on edge for several weeks, with Palestinians outraged at the closure of a popular plaza just as Ramadan began, and as a years-long legal battle to evict seven Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem appeared to be coming to an end.
The families have been living in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, just north of the Old City, since 1956, as part of a United Nations-brokered agreement to find homes in Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem for families who lost their property when the state of Israel was established in 1948.
An Israeli nationalist organization called Nahalat Shimon is using a 1970 law enacted after Israel took control of East Jerusalem to argue that the previous owners of the land were Jewish families, implying that the current Palestinian occupants should be evicted and their properties given to Israeli Jews.
Palestinians argue that Israel’s restitution laws are unjust because they lack legal recourse to reclaim property lost to Jewish families in the late 1940s in what became the state of Israel.
On May 10, Israel’s Supreme Court was scheduled to hear an appeal in the Sheikh Jarrah case. However, Israel’s Attorney General requested a postponement.
The legal battle over the Sheikh Jarrah homes has reignited a simmering debate over who owns the city, its holy sites, and its history. Jerusalem has always been the most contentious issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Small changes to an already volatile situation can spark massive protests. And extremist voices are frequently present and make themselves heard.
Hundreds of Jewish extremists marched through Jerusalem at the end of April, chanting “Death to Arabs,” on a night when the city’s Jewish and Arab communities were both targeted for attack.
The annual Jerusalem Day march, which normally passes through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, was rerouted earlier this week in an attempt to avoid further escalation.
The city of Jerusalem was divided for nearly two decades after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. East Jerusalem was under Jordanian control, while West Jerusalem was under Israeli control, who made it their capital.
The Old City of Jerusalem and its holy sites, crucially, were in East Jerusalem.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christians believe Jesus Christ was buried, is located in the Old City.
It is the location of the Al Aqsa Mosque, where Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammed travelled on his Night Voyage and ascended to heaven.
And it is home to the holiest site in the world for Jews, the stone where they believe Abraham came to sacrifice his son, Isaac, as well as the ancient sites of the First and Second Temples.
During the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel captured East Jerusalem, effectively taking control of the entire city. Israel also took control of the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula. The latter was returned to Egypt as part of the 1979 peace treaty, but East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights have remained completely under Israeli control. Palestinians have limited autonomy in Gaza and parts of the West Bank, but Israel controls all borders and security.