ISRAEL and the Palestinians appeared to be moving towards the brink of war in the middle of the week, as countless appeals for restraint were ignored.
Several days of clashes in Jerusalem prompted the Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip to escalate the violence by firing hundreds of rockets into Israel, which in turn drew a fierce Israeli military response. Later, Israeli Arabs in towns inside Israel joined in violent protests. A state of emergency was declared at Lod, near Tel Aviv.
At least 40 Palestinians and six Israelis have been killed, and hundreds of people — Israelis as well as Arabs — have been injured. The UN warned on Wednesday that the conflict risked getting out of control.
Over the weekend, hundreds of Palestinians and dozens of Israeli police were injured in lengthy clashes at the al-Aqsa Mosque, as ultra-nationalist Israelis sought to enter the area. Meanwhile in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem there was more violence, as Israeli security forces encountered resistance as they tried to evict Palestinian families to make way for Israeli settlements.
These events unfolded as the end of the Islamic sacred month of Ramadan approached. The atmosphere was charged on both sides. The involvement of Hamas, and its missiles launched from Gaza into civilian areas of Israel, moved the conflict up to a new level.
On Monday evening, the 14 patriarchs and heads of Churches in the Holy Land, including the Anglican Archbishop, issued a joint statement saying: “These concerning developments, whether at al-Aqsa Mosque or Sheikh Jarrah, violate the sanctity of the people of Jerusalem, and Jerusalem as the city of peace. The actions undermining the safety of worshippers and the dignity of the Palestinians who are subject to eviction are unacceptable.”
The church leaders called on the international community and “all people of good will to intervene in order to put an end to these provocative actions”.
While Palestinian leaders insisted that innocent civilians praying at al-Aqsa or trying to go about their lives in Sheikh Jarrah were targeted, the Israeli authorities said that the violence was the work of Palestinian agitators.
AlamyAn Israeli firefighter inspects a burned-out bus after it was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip on Tuesday
The World Methodist Council said: “We have been horrified by the scenes of violence in East Jerusalem which threaten the fragility of the Holy City, and call on the Israeli government to permanently halt the threatened evictions of Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah”. The statement called for “calm on all sides”.
Quakers in Britain said that the acts of violence perpetrated by both sides were “grave violations of international law and must end immediately”. The interim general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Revd Dr Ioan Sauca, urged the Israeli security forces and Palestinian protesters to put aside violence in favour of dialogue and understanding.
Christian Aid’s head of Middle East, William Bell, said “the images of violence in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the region are shocking and tragic. This is a situation that has the potential to spiral out of control very quickly, not least due to the lack of coherent political leadership across Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory.”
Disillusionment at the political vacuum in the Palestinian community is one of several factors that have contributed to the sudden rise in tension in the Holy Land. The recent decision by the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, to postpone indefinitely parliamentary elections that were scheduled for later this month caused public dismay and anger (News, 7 May). This would have been the first election since 2006. Most Palestinians believe that he feared defeat at the poll at the hands of the Gaza-based Hamas organisation.
This could account for Hamas’s decision to launch rockets towards Jerusalem and other urban centres in Israel, making the point that the group was prepared to take action to defend Jerusalem and go on the offensive against Israel, when, for years, President Abbas’s Fatah party has been unable to counter Israeli policies such settlement expansion.
Hamas’s logic is questionable, because the price of indiscriminate attacks against Israeli civilians is another heavy Israeli military response, and the deaths of yet more Palestinian civilians, including women and children. It will do nothing to stop the growth of Jewish settlements, or pave the way towards a Palestinian state. Seldom has peace in the Holy Land looked more distant.