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Jerusalem's worrying al-Aqsa clashes, explained

Israeli police arrest a Palestinian during September 18 clashes in Shuafat, an east Jerusalem refugee camp.
Israeli police arrest a Palestinian during September 18 clashes in Shuafat, an east Jerusalem refugee camp.
(Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The Israel-Palestine conflict has been out of the news of late — but a new round of violence in the West Bank and in east Jerusalem, which is predominantly Arab, has brought it back into focus.

Clashes over the past few days, between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters, have reportedly wounded dozens of people on both sides. This began several days ago in East Jerusalem, but has spread to other parts of the West Bank. Israel called up hundreds of reserve policemen on Friday and stepped up its police presence in East Jerusalem.

While these clashes were triggered by a recent dispute over a part of Jerusalem, they're symptoms of the inherent instability of the Israel-Palestine conflict, in which the slightest provocation can trigger this kind of violence. This is just a feature of the status quo.

What triggered the violence: al-Aqsa and stonethrowing

palestinian pray street israelis

A Palestinian man prays on the street on Friday, as entry to the al-Aqsa mosque was restricted for men under 40 at the time. (Muammar Awad/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

This all began on Sunday, near Jerusalem's most controversial religious site: what Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary. The East Jerusalem hill is Judaism's holiest place, home to the Western Wall, and Islam's third-holiest site, the al-Aqsa mosque.

Just before the holiday began Sunday, "Palestinians barricaded themselves inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque and threw rocks and firecrackers at officers," according to Associated Press story. "Police said pipe bombs were also found there."

Why they did this isn't totally clear, though it appears to be related to a long-running campaign by radical Jewish activists to assert exclusive Jewish control over the holy site. Jeremy Pressman, an expert on the conflict at the University of Connecticut, sees the timing as relevant: Palestinians may have expected provocations from Jewish extremists timed to the holiday, Rosh Hashanah.

"Why were Palestinians potentially holed up and marshaling forces on the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary? I assume that they know when the Jewish New Year is, and they were anticipating visits from Jewish radicals," he told me in a phone conversation.

The Israeli police stormed the mosque and seized the rock stockpiles and what they say were pipe bombs.

That didn't end things. According to the AP, "police entered the hilltop compound three days in a row to disperse Palestinians who had holed up inside the mosque with stockpiles of rocks and fireworks." This prompted "condemnations across the Arab world" of the incursions into the Muslim holy site.

That was the key triggering event of all this: Palestinians are angry about what they see as an Israeli threat to their access to an Islamic holy site, and have taken to the streets in protest.

But something else happened on Sunday that's important to understanding this violence.

Sunday evening, after Rosh Hashanah services, Alexander Levlovich was driving home from synagogue in East Jerusalem. Arab youth pelted his car with rocks, in what appeared to be an outgrowth of protests over the Temple Mount confrontation. He lost control of the car and crashed, and died on Monday morning.

This infuriated the Israeli public, which is already alarmed over an uptick of stone-throwing attacks on Israeli motorists in recent years. Levlovich's death prompted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to announce "heavy fines" for stonethrowers. Newsweek reports that he's even considering giving Israeli authorities the green light to shoot-to-kill when engaging stone throwers (Israeli policy currently bans that).

This creates a situation where, as in all of the worst Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, both sides see themselves as the victims. Palestinians see an Israeli assault on their holy site, while Israelis see Palestinians attacking innocent Israelis. That makes neither side particularly interested in backing down.

The deeper story here: the unresolved conflict

hebron clashes september 2015

A Palestinian throws a petrol bomb at Israeli police during Friday clashes in Hebron. (Hazem Badr/AFP/Getty Images

But in this case and in others, it would be a mistake to focus too much on the latest provocation or escalation by one side or the other. This is really about the not-so-frozen state of the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

East Jerusalem is a political powder keg, and not just because of perpetual religious tension surrounding the Temple Mount. Its Arab residents are significantly poorer than the Jewish ones. They're governed by Israel but mostly aren't Israeli citizens. That means, in practice, that East Jerusalemites don't have meaningful political representation — creating an impoverished, disenfranchised population.

Just last year, East Jerusalem saw the murder of a Palestinian teenager, an assassination attempt against a extreme Jewish activist, and a terrorist attack at a West Jerusalem synagogue that killed five Israeli civilians.

Jerusalem's status, because it is so important to both sides, is tied closely to the larger Israel-Palestine peace process. But as long as that process remains stalled at best, East Jerusalemites will remain alienated and disenfranchised.

"I don't think you can talk about Jerusalem without talking about the national conflict between Israelis and Palestinians," Pressman told me. "As long as the national conflict goes on, these things will go on."

The past week of conflict, then, is more about the failures of the peace process than any one triggering event.

"This, unfortunately, nicely illustrates the challenge of not having an actual political process," Pressman explains. "You have these situations like Jerusalem, or this situation in Gaza, that are just waiting there, festering — and are ripe for violence and blowing out of control."

He added, "What's happening in Jerusalem this week illustrates that the conflict doesn't stand still."