Occupied East Jerusalem – After three consecutive nights of Israeli security forces raiding the Al Aqsa Mosque during prayers and weeks of police trying to stop Palestinians from accessing the Old City during the holy month of Ramadan, occupied East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank are on a knife’s edge.
The past few days have seen sit-ins and protests by Palestinians angry at the impending forced expulsion of a number of Palestinian families from their homes in the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, one of many neighbourhoods whose residents are finding themselves expelled.
Hundreds of Palestinians have been wounded after being shot at, beaten and arrested. Scores of Israeli police have also been injured.
On Monday, observers were tense as they awaited an annual march of hardline right-wing Israelis through the Old City of Jerusalem to mark what they call “Jerusalem Day”, the commemoration of the day Israel occupied East Jerusalem in the 1967 war – an illegal act under international law.
Officials from both sides had called for the march to be cancelled, something the police did only at the last minute late Monday afternoon.
By the time the march was called off, a tense atmosphere had already settled on the area as the security crackdown on protesters resumed.
Groups of Israeli settlers walked to the Western Wall earlier in the day, watched by Israeli security forces positioned on the partition between West Jerusalem and the occupied east.
In occupied East Jerusalem, tyres from the previous evening’s violence continued to smoulder as rocks, horse dung and blood littered the streets while the foul smell of skunk water permeated the air. Small groups of settler youths could be seen walking around occupied East Jerusalem suburbs.
Palestinians are not able to build new homes in occupied East Jerusalem; the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimates only 13 percent of the area is allocated to Palestinians for construction.
After struggling – sometimes for years – to get the required building permits, many have been forced to build without permits, which results in the homes consequently being demolished. Years of demolitions and forced expulsions have contributed to the Palestinian anger.
Israel pounds Gaza
In Gaza, dozens of Palestinians were killed as Israel continues to bomb the besieged enclave in retaliation for rockets fired at Israel after Palestinian factions in Gaza warned that continued Israeli violations in Al-Aqsa would lead to a harsh response.
In addition to fears that Israel is trying to Judaise occupied East Jerusalem in favour of a Jewish majority, there are fears of hardline Israelis destroying Al-Aqsa Mosque.
A group called The Temple Mount Faithful Movement are actively advocating for the destruction of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the rebuilding of the Third Jewish Temple in its place.
‘Like a war zone’
Jerusalem activist and historical researcher Ehab Jallad has been attending prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque on a daily basis during the last few weeks of upheaval and witnessed all the invasions by security forces.
“The level of violence used by the Israeli security forces inside the holy mosque was unprecedented. Hundreds of soldiers entered and shot an enormous amount of tear gas and rubber bullets directly at worshippers, with a number hit in the face and losing their eyes. Many people, including women, were also beaten,” Jallad told Al Jazeera.
“It was like a war zone as people dived for cover and I nearly got hit. Some of the confrontations started when police began manhandling and provoking youths outside the mosque who then ran into the mosque, pursued by the police who were then targeted by some of the worshippers.”
Munther Zahran from the Ta’awon for Conflict Resolution, an NGO in Ramallah, was also present when Israeli forces entered the mosque.
“I was praying when I heard explosions and saw the soldiers run in. There were a lot of small children choking on the tear gas. In the confusion, some of the frightened children were separated from their families with the panicking parents pleading on Facebook for help to find their children,” Zahran told Al Jazeera.
“The clashes began when worshippers tried to stop the soldiers entering the mosque and hurled shoes and plastic bottles at them. It is forbidden for soldiers to enter such a holy place as Al-Aqsa, especially with weapons and boots.
“Afterwards, the security forces prevented ambulances from evacuating the wounded and some ambulance members were assaulted.”
Israeli spokesmen told the media violence erupted after Palestinians started rioting and attacking security forces and settlers, forcing them to take strong action to maintain peace and protect property and lives in East Jerusalem.
While an outbreak of violence was expected, a new, unexpected element that has taken some analysts by surprise is the level of Palestinian determination to stand up to the occupation and their lack of fear in confronting Israeli forces.
“There is a strong feeling of empowerment among the youth. There is a lack of fear and a collective feeling that defending Sheikh Jarrah and Al-Aqsa falls on their shoulders,” said Jallad.
“They have lost faith in their politicians or the international community to help them gain their rights.”
Palestinian lawyer and activist Noura Zakarneh said losing East Jerusalem was the first step to losing Palestine.
“When we protest in Ramallah in support of our brothers and sisters in East Jerusalem we are not asking for something but demanding what was taken from us by force,” Zakarneh told Al Jazeera.
“It is our duty as Palestinians to stand by our people. This time we can’t keep silent as the issue goes beyond Jerusalem and involves the whole of Palestine.”
Israeli analyst, Ohad Hemo, from Israel’s Channel 12 TV, said Jerusalem proved that Palestinian youths had broken the barrier of fear they had and that Israeli deterrence had been eroded.
Despite Israel’s economic and military strength, in addition to strong international political support, it appears that military force can only go so far.