The Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem is a hotbed of tension between the Israeli Occupation Forces and Palestinians. The “clashes” which are often depicted by international media reports as a struggle between two equal counterparts are part of a larger system used by the Israeli government to prevent and put into check any form of Palestinian resistance. However, when it comes to Al-Aqsa, media accounts tend to amplify certain narratives that justify police or military retaliation. Accounts from Israeli official sources vary greatly from the official Palestinian accounts and point to the large role that narratives about rights play in shaping the conflict on the ground. From the Israeli perspective, the presence of Palestinians in Al-Aqsa overnight is framed as a potential security threat while for Palestinians, the heavy presence of Israeli police and frequent raids, particularly during prayer times in the holy month of Ramadan, is a violation of their basic right to worship. Identifying the exact cause of violent escalation then becomes an issue of validating the accounts presented by each side which often pits official reports by the occupation forces against individual Palestinian accounts and those of rights organisations present in the areas; arguably contributing further to international complacency. However, although the raids on Al-Aqsa Mosque are an annual occurrence, especially during Ramadan, the 2023 raids come under different circumstances than previous years.
This year the raids came in the wake of unprecedented Israeli protests, an intense internal political struggle within Israel and violent civilian attacks on both sides. They also came against a backdrop of increasing provocations around Jerusalem’s holy sites from both right-wing Israeli officials and extreme right-wing Israelis who have become emboldened by politicians. Shortly after being appointed National Security Minister in November 2022, far-right Itamar Ben-Gvir made a controversial visit to Al-Aqsa, known to Jews as Temple Mount, provoking international condemnation and sparking concerns within the UN Security Council which held an emergency meeting to address the emerging risk. Ben Gvir has explicitly stated he has no intent to change his behaviour or approach towards the holy site and has in general, been a proponent of legalising racist and discriminatory policies. It was also Ben Gvir who strongly encouraged Jews to visit the Temple Mount during Passover, which coincided with Ramadan when hundreds of Muslims would be visiting to pray. Although he dissuaded people from performing ritual animal sacrifices at the holy site, reports that Jewish extremists would try to sacrifice a goat for Passover reached Palestinians who responded by barricading themselves in the mosque following the evening prayer; prompting Israeli police to raid the mosque. According to the Times of Israel, several people were in fact detained for attempting to carry out animal sacrifices at the site. The overlap of Ramadan and Passover as well as the already growing tension and uncertainty regarding the fate of Palestinian access to Al-Aqsa as a result of unexpected bold moves made by Israeli officials, have all contributed to the recent escalations.
At the same time, 2023 has already seen a clear increase in violence against Palestinians with at least 60 killed by Israeli forces or settlers in the occupied West Bank. On the other side, attacks by Palestinian citizens have resulted in the death of around 14 Israelis. This increase in violence has only further politicised the issue of security within Israel which is now one of the government’s biggest concerns, both in terms of physical threat and reputation. The Israeli protests, against Netanyahu’s now stalled judicial reform, contributed greatly to the current complex security situation with a new mass wave of youth refusing to serve in the army in addition to the surprising decision to fire Defence Minister Yoav Gallant (which Netanyahu reversed two weeks later). While Netanyahu’s decision to stall the judicial reform process may have temporarily saved him from public discontent, he is still under the spotlight and security is first on the list of entry points for scrutiny from the opposition. Notably, his decision to reverse the firing of Yoav Gallant came shortly after opposition leader Yair Lapid slammed him following a security briefing and expressed deep concerns about the Al-Aqsa escalations and particularly about Ben-Gvir’s role as Security Minister.
Israel is witnessing a clear shift in its security situation, one that is becoming more entwined with Netanyahu’s uncertain political fate each day. International spectators are noticing a change in the Israeli Prime Minister’s ability to strategize and juggle the country’s multiple high priority regional and national issues while anticipating the impact of public opinion on internal stability. According to various sources close to the government, Netanyahu was surprised at Saudi Arabia’s recent announcement that it would resume ties with Iran; one of the top risks that the government is consistently working to mitigate. Moreover, tensions with bordering Syria have also been intensifying with rocket firings infiltrating Israeli borders, near Golan Heights, and leading to numerous counter-attacks against Syrian army sites. The rocket attacks from Syria were claimed by a Damascus-based Palestinian group which stated its intention was to retaliate in response to the raids on Al-Aqsa. Although Israeli strikes on Syria are frequent and consistent, the need to prevent Iranian entrenchment in Syria has become more urgent for the government in light of recent dynamic shifts in the region.
As Netanyahu continues to navigate both internal and external pressures, Israel’s security situation remains at the mercy of political ebbs and flows. Whether the Prime Minister will become increasingly conservative or more bold in his decisions remains uncertain, as does the fate of Ben Gvir who is arguably much more difficult to remove now given his popularity among right-wingers and most important his latest plans to form a “National Guard” consisting of volunteer armed forces that would operate under his orders. Given that Netanyahu has shown his commitment to making Ben Gvir’s ambitions come true, it seems unlikely that the National Security Minister’s position will come into question soon; however, the high risk situation is unfolding quickly and any radical decisions can lead to costly consequences for the Israelis.