Israel Braces as Hamas Sets Sights on Jerusalem for Ramadan

With war still raging in the Gaza Strip, Israel is bracing for a potential new explosion of violence in Jerusalem as Hamas threatens to escalate in response to any restrictions against Muslim worshippers in the contested holy city during the sacred month of Ramadan.

Israeli officials have openly discussed instituting specific security measures, such as setting limits on age and location as Muslim prayer-goers flock to the revered Al-Aqsa Mosque for Ramadan, which begins March 10. These talks have spurred outrage from Hamas and other Palestinian factions as they sought to portray the Israeli government as the provocative party to the deadliest yet flare-up of violence in the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

‘Fuel to the Fire’

“The recent Israeli decisions regarding Al-Aqsa Mosque during the month of Ramadan confirm what we have always warned of,” Hamas spokesperson Bassem Naim told Newsweek, “that this racist government in Israel wants to transform this conflict from a political conflict into a religious conflict, which means expanding the circle of conflict beyond the borders of Palestine and turning it into a zero-sum conflict that cannot be resolved.

“These measures will add fuel to the fire of the conflict, and will certainly lead to an escalation of the confrontation, in general, and outside the Gaza Strip in particular,” he added. “This round of conflict is being waged by the resistance under the name ‘Al-Aqsa Flood.’ It is not for the sake of Gaza or the West Bank, but rather for the sake of Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa.”

In light of the controversy, Naim asserted that “the resistance will definitely do whatever it takes and make plans everywhere to disrupt these plans,” and “the Palestinians will not allow extremists to monopolize Al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy city.”

Palestinians, pray, as, Israel, guards, in, Jerusalem
Israeli security forces stand guard as Palestinian Muslims perform the Friday noon prayer on a street in East Jerusalem on February 23, with reports of age restrictions already being imposed to access the Al-Aqsa Mosque…


Fears of a Second Front

Such threats have raised concerns for those tasked with running the city that has long been at the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and centuries of warfare predating it.

Israel’s Deputy Jerusalem Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum pointed to what she called the “Hamas playbook” in which she accused the group of sending provocateurs to the Al-Aqsa Mosque each Ramadan, particularly on the second Friday of the month, in order to lure Israeli security personnel into raiding the site by hurling rocks and rudimentary explosives. Clashes at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and surrounding Temple Mount compound have served as catalysts for greater unrest, including rocket launches from Gaza, in past years.

“Now this year, they said they’ll try again, as they always do, and they’ll try to do it more intensely,” Hassan-Nahoum told Newsweek, “and our security forces have to have their eyes on the ball even more than normal, especially from worshippers coming from the different areas of Judea and Samaria, which by the way, we facilitate them coming in and provide buses from many of the checkpoints to Temple Mount.”

The Judea and Samaria Area is the official Israeli term for the West Bank, a Palestinian territory surrounding Jerusalem that is partially under the control of the Palestinian National Authority (PA) but largely administered by Israel. While the PA, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, does not outright reject cooperation with Israel, the expansion of Israeli settlements, growing support for Hamas and mounting frustration over allegations of corruption in the absence of elections has cultivated fertile ground for armed factions.

Last Ramadan, amid a record spike in Israeli-Palestinian violence even before the war in Gaza erupted, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officials shared with Newsweek intelligence purporting to show how new, independent Palestinian groups were on the rise in the West Bank and proliferating specific tactics to target Israeli security officials and civilians, including in Jerusalem.

Contacted in connection with the current situation, the IDF referred Newsweek to the Israeli National Security Ministry, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Trying to Stop the Flood

Hassan-Nahoum, for her part, defended Israel’s approach to the sensitive matter, emphasizing, how, whether it be restrictions on the age or locations that are put in place during Ramadan, “we’re just trying to keep the peace.”

“We’re obviously in the middle of a war,” Hassan-Nahoum said. “This takes on completely new shape, and therefore, we have to be more careful, and we have to ban the people who have affiliation to Hamas from coming anywhere near. That’s what we have to do.”

So far, since the Hamas-led surprise “Al-Aqsa Flood” attack on October 7 of last year that sparked ongoing war, she said efforts to avoid the conflict spilling over to Jerusalem have been largely successful. She also credited the absence of large-scale unrest to locals rejecting the “brutality” of Hamas’ tactics and ideology.

But she noted that the upcoming holy season would present a new challenge given the sheer number of worshippers expected to arrive in the city.

“Ramadan is when all of the country comes to Temple Mount, and that’s a completely different thing,” Hassan-Nahoum said. “The numbers are very, very different. And so, there has to be the commensurate increase in security and intelligence to see if there are any groups planning any attacks.”

And while there has yet to be instability at levels witnessed during the First and Second Intifadas, mass uprisings that rocked the country from 1987-1993 and 2000-2005, respectively, threats continue to emerge in Jerusalem. Hassan-Nahoum said Israeli authorities managed to thwart 150 attacks last month alone.

Other attacks have been successful. Hamas praised a shooting last Friday at a checkpoint near the Maale Adumin settlement in East Jerusalem that killed one person and injured eight others. The group has also claimed direct involvement in some operations, including a bus stop shooting in November that killed three people in Jabel Mukaber. A fourth man was killed during that attack when responders mistook him for an attacker.

Jabel Mukaber was among the “problematic spots” identified by Hassan-Nahoum, where she believed Israeli security personnel would need to be particularly vigilant as Ramadan approaches.

“For the most part, I have to say things have remained calm,” she said. “But it’s a tense calm and we pray that all of the good work that we’ve been doing over the last 10 years, especially with the last five years in bridge-building, in developing infrastructure, in developing social services, education, etc., that there is that goodwill that will get us through.”

Israelis, demand, hostage, release, in, Jerusalem
Protesters on February 19 set a fire on a road in Jerusalem during a demonstration demanding the release of hostages held in the Gaza Strip. Anger has escalated among Israelis calling on Prime Minister Benjamin…

Amir Levy/Getty Images

Pressure Building on All Sides

Also under pressure, however, are the PA and other components of Palestinian leadership, including the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), that have sought to resist Hamas’ attempts to dominate the Palestinian narrative while at the same time taking a harder line against Israel. The PLO is considered to be the international representative of the Palestinian people, and, like the PA, it is largely led by Abbas’ left-wing, secular Fatah party.

In comments shared with Newsweek, the PLO Jerusalem Affairs Department denounced what it called an “extreme right-wing trinity” of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Yoel Smotrich, said to be the driving force behind restrictions on access to worship at the Temple Mount.

Through their policies, according to the PLO Jerusalem Affairs Department, the Israeli government is “trying to demonize this holy month, and aims to push towards an escalation that will serve to keep it in the political scene after its failure to emerge from the Gaza predicament in which it fell and its inability to confront the pressures of the Israeli street, which demands the exclusion of this government due to its failure to liberate prisoners held by resistance elements in the Gaza Strip.”

The PLO Jerusalem Affairs Department asserted that it held Netanyahu and his government “alone responsible for the cycle of violence that may result from its systematic policies against the rights of the Palestinian people and calls on the international community to take urgent action to stop these measures.”

It was also alleged that the Israeli security response being mobilized at the Temple Mount was part of a broader plan to militarize the site, stoke tensions and suppress both Muslim and Christian communities that, like the Jewish community, view the site as a key symbol of their faith.

“The occupation authorities have continued to transform Al-Aqsa Mosque and all its facilities and courtyards extending over an area of 140 dunums [nearly 35 acres] into military barracks in an attempt to provoke the feelings of Muslims coming to worship in the third holiest Islamic site,” the PLO Jerusalem Affairs Department asserted.

“And the Palestinians, for their part, have long responded with their bare chests to the Israeli targeting of their places of worship, whether Islamic or Christian, as the brutal attacks targeted Christian clergy and their Christian parishioners in Jerusalem,” the department added, “in a scene that confirms the criminal nature of this occupation before the eyes of the world and its hostility to human rights.”

The matter is further complicated by the city’s disputed status, claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians as their capital. The Temple Mount is located in East Jerusalem, recognized by much of the international community as part of the West Bank and, as such, part of Palestinian territory, but Israel has asserted control over the entire city since driving out Jordanian forces in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

When Israel and Jordan signed a peace deal in 1994, Israel agreed to recognize a special custodial role of the neighboring kingdom’s ruling Hashemite family over holy sites at the Temple Mount, an arrangement that the PLO Jerusalem Affairs Department argued that Israel was “circumventing” through its policies.

‘Everyone Is on Edge’

Also raising tempers has been the expansion of Israeli settlements and attacks perpetrated by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank.

Richard Makepeace, a former U.K. diplomat who served in Jerusalem, told Newsweek that, “most of the restrictive measures imposed on Palestinian daily life are there as a direct consequence of the illegal settlement policy Israel has pursued for decades.”

“Under the current Israeli government, settlers have been encouraged to mount unprovoked attacks on Palestinians and their property in the West Bank, under the watchful eye of the IDF, who stand ready to step in to protect the violent, frequently armed, settlers from any retaliation,” he said.

The contentious matter prompted condemnation by the U.S. State Department last week, along with U.S. sanctions issued earlier this month against four settlers accused of promoting violence.

Jessica Kuntz, a former State Department diplomat in Jerusalem and now at the University of Pittsburgh, also pointed to the influence of right-wing political forces in Israel such as Ben-Gvir and Smotrich as an obstacle to de-escalation in light of settlement policies. Both she and Makepeace argued they have also put the PA in a tougher position.

“What’s going on the West Bank isn’t getting enough attention (although understandably so, given the scale of human suffering in Gaza),” Kuntz told Newsweek.

“The PA is, of course, tied up in how Israel handles the West Bank—they’ve historically been integral in security cooperation with Israel (although that relationship has become antagonistic, which increases the risks of violence spreading in the West Bank),” she added, “but settlers’ carte blanche in the West Bank is undermining the PA’s already limited credibility with the population they supposedly represent.”

The casualties of the current conflict are already unprecedented in comparison to prior Israeli-Palestinian wars and uprisings.

In Israel, the death toll of the initial October 7 attack is estimated to be 1,200, predominantly civilians, with over 200 Israeli soldiers killed since the IDF launched its ground offensive into Gaza. Deaths counted in Gaza by the Hamas-led government there have reached nearly 30,000, mostly women and children, since October 7, and the figure in the West Bank has risen to around 400, according to both Palestinian and United Nations officials.

Given the complex combination of elements, Kuntz argued that it may already be too late to reverse events being set into motion as the holy month arrives in less than two weeks.

“The scale of civilian death in Gaza has not served Israel’s interests and at no point has the Netanyahu government articulated a plan for ‘the day after’ that doesn’t leave the IDF as an indefinite occupying force in Gaza,” Kuntz said. “Even were Israel to take a moderate approach to Al-Aqsa access during Ramadan, there’s this wider confluence of events that are setting the scene.”

Now, she warned, “Everyone is on edge going into Ramadan, and the holiday certainly isn’t going to defuse tensions.”

Update 2/27/24, 12:10 p.m. ET: This article was updated to include comments by former U.K. diplomat Richard Makepeace.