Lowering Israeli-Palestinian Tensions
Lowering Israeli-Palestinian Tensions

Lowering Israeli-Palestinian Tensions

A tense standoff in Jerusalem and simmering tensions between Israel and Hamas in Gaza have heightened the risk of violence and unrest. In this excerpt from the first update of our Watch List 2019 for European policymakers, Crisis Group outlines steps for the EU to help alleviate Gaza’s economic crisis and support the status quo in Jerusalem.

In the wake of Israel’s legislative elections, which appeared to hand another victory to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing partners (coalition negotiations are ongoing), the mood in the occupied Palestinian territories is tense. In Gaza, as in 2014, Hamas and Israel appear close to a conflagration that neither party desires. After an escalation on 26 March, the UN and Egypt have worked to guide the parties back to the ceasefire concluded indirectly in November. On 30 March, the one-year anniversary of the Great March of Return, Israeli soldiers killed four Palestinians and wounded 300 others near the line separating Israel from Gaza. Since then, calm seems to have returned. Even if the truce holds, however, another forthcoming anniversary looms. On 15 May, Palestinians commemorate al-Nakba, the catastrophe that befell them with the establishment of the State of Israel, which could be a flashpoint of disruption.

So, too, could tensions elsewhere. At Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade (Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount), Israeli authorities and Palestinian worshippers are struggling over control of a building next to the Gate of Mercy. Shuttered by Israel in 2003, it was forcibly reopened in February by Palestinians who turned it into a prayer hall. Israel seeks to reverse the change, risking a major escalation with Jordan, which manages the area through the Islamic waqf. Along with the release of the Trump administration’s peace plan, which was slated to happen sometime after the Israeli elections, these factors have converged to heighten the sense of volatility throughout the territories, with direct implications for EU programs and EU policy in support of a negotiated two-state outcome.

To help lower tensions, the EU and its member states should:

  • Encourage Israel to move toward the second and third phases of the November ceasefire agreement.
  • Discourage the Palestinian Authority from imposing sanctions on the Gaza Strip with the intent of undermining Hamas.
  • Announce support for both legislative and presidential elections in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as a first step toward reunification of the Palestinian political establishment.
  • Publicly call upon Israel and Jordan to reaffirm their commitment to the Status Quo – in place since Ottoman times and accepted by both states – regulating worshippers’ access to the Holy Esplanade. Continue to affirm the waqf’s right to use the building as it sees fit, while also affirming the historical and religious connections of both sides to the site.

Gaza

On 25 March, a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip landed in Mishmeret, north of Tel Aviv, destroying a family house and wounding seven Israelis, including a twelve-year-old girl and two infants. Hamas said it had launched the 25 March rocket in error, but few in Israel believed this claim. Many Israelis interpreted the rocket’s firing as an attempt by Hamas to deflect growing domestic criticism of its rule.

The latest escalation was likely an attempt by Hamas to force Netanyahu to fulfil Israel’s obligations under the November ceasefire. In that agreement, Hamas committed to end rocket fire into Israel and promised to restrain the intensity of the ongoing protests. Israel in turn said it would extend the nautical limit for Gaza fishermen and allow Qatar to pay Gaza government salaries and supply fuel to Gaza’s power plant for a period of six months, to end in April. This was to be followed by secondary and tertiary phases once the risk of war had passed. The latter phases were to include measures to restore Gaza’s electricity, increase the number of Palestinians allowed in and out of the strip, expand the entry of merchandise, further extend the range off the coast in which Gazans can fish, and generally ease the blockade.

Unless there is progress in more expansive efforts to address Gaza’s economic plight, it is likely that other escalations will ensue.

While Israel has allowed the passage of Qatari fuel and funds, and Hamas has demonstrated its capacity to restrain protests undertaken as part of the Great March of Return, Israel has shown little willingness to take further steps beyond the initial ceasefire agreement. Since November, the talks have stalled without progress toward fulfilling Hamas’s central demand – that Israel loosen the economic stranglehold on the strip. Recommitment to the indirect ceasefire agreement that followed the last escalation at the end of March succeeded in calming the situation in Gaza ahead of the Israeli elections. Yet unless there is progress in more expansive efforts to address Gaza’s economic plight, it is likely that other escalations will ensue.

Jerusalem

In Jerusalem, Israeli authorities and Palestinian worshippers continue to struggle over control of a building at Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade (Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount), next to the Gate of Mercy. In February, Palestinians forcibly regained access to the site, which Israel closed in 2003, turning it into a prayer hall. Israel seeks to close the building once more. It is important to rapidly resolve this crisis because minor incidents at the esplanade have previously triggered major escalations, especially at times of relative volatility in Gaza and the West Bank. Moreover, if the incoming Israeli government formulates its strategy while a crisis is festering at the site, it might decide to further erode the historical Status Quo at the site, which is necessary for stability because it is a framework for managing the site that all parties have stated they are committed to upholding.

Israel and Jordan have negotiated an agreement over the building: to close it for repairs and then reopen it for daily use. Israel also committed not to carry out an Israeli court order to forcibly close the site until the 9 April elections. The parties continue to negotiate, hoping to reach a mutually acceptable solution. But the parties’ positions remain apart regarding the duration of the closure before repairs commence; Israeli archaeological supervision of waqf-executed works; and the building’s ultimate function. Worse, the recently expanded Islamic waqf, which runs the esplanade under Jordanian auspices and became more representative of Palestinian Jerusalemite views following a reshuffle in February, has been effectively excluded from the negotiations. Its exclusion bodes ill for Palestinian Jerusalemite support of any agreement reached.

Policy Recommendations for the EU and its Member States

The EU and members of the international community should take immediate steps to alleviate the economic strain on Gaza. European aid to the Gaza Strip must take the form of long-term support, for instance through infrastructure funds, as well as immediate measures that could meet short-term demands. Key for the latter is the need to address the shortage of medical supplies that are allowed into the Gaza Strip. Gaza’s sagging health care sector is facing unprecedented pressure as a result of the widespread injuries caused by Israel’s response to the return marches.

The EU and member states should try to persuade the Palestinian Authority (PA) to drop its policies of sanctioning the Gaza Strip with the intent of undermining Hamas.

The EU’s economic intervention in the Gaza Strip must be coupled with a political response aimed at long-term resolution to issues of access. Israel and Hamas drew up the blueprint for the required measures in the November ceasefire agreement, but have yet to put them into practice. The EU and its member states should encourage Israel to move toward the second and third phases of the agreement by loosening restrictions on freedom of movement of people in and out of Gaza, encouraging the greater passage of exports from the Gaza Strip to Israel and the West Bank, expanding access to the Mediterranean for Gaza fishermen, and advancing infrastructure for electricity supply to Gaza’s power plant. Israel should take these steps assuming that Hamas holds up its end of the bargain: no rocket attacks into Israel, and a reduction in intensity of protests near the fence that marks the boundary between the Gaza Strip and Israel.

Alongside these measures, the EU and member states should try to persuade the Palestinian Authority (PA) to drop its policies of sanctioning the Gaza Strip with the intent of undermining Hamas. These policies have included steps to cut the salaries of civil servants and pensioners (most of those affected are not affiliated with Hamas, but the salaries of Fatah and other PA employees are critical to keeping the Gaza economy afloat). The EU could, for example, threaten to withdraw funding from various EU-funded initiatives in the West Bank if such measures by the PA are not reversed.

The EU should also publicly announce that it is encouraged by the PA’s call for elections, and signal that it would expect such elections to be administered in the near future in Gaza and the West Bank, while calling on Israel to allow these elections to also take place in East Jerusalem. Hamas has indicated willingness to allow legislative elections in Gaza at the same time as in the West Bank as long as the PA agrees to stage a presidential election in both territories as well. The EU should encourage the PA to announce its willingness to also carry out presidential elections, as well as call on both parties to allow for free campaigning in their respective territories.

It would also be important for the EU to signal its willingness to revisit the principles of the Quartet, first applied in 2006, in a manner that incorporates lessons learned from 2006 and makes room for Hamas’s engagement in the Palestinian political process (these principles do not apply to Hamas as a party but to the PA). Perhaps the most significant contribution that the EU could make toward opening up the possibility of stabilising Gaza and averting a new war would be to signal its willingness to fund any PA government that meets one of the Quartet principles – “acceptance of previous agreements and obligations”, recognising that the other two conditions (recognition of Israel and commitment to non-violence) are subsumed within these past agreements – and that a PA government would be deemed to be in compliance with the Quartet principles if it committed to “respect past agreements”. In 2007, a PA unity government that included Hamas pledged to “respect” past agreements, and the Quartet deemed the promise insufficient. It is long past time for the EU and the Quartet to signal that a PA commitment to “respect past agreements” is sufficient to secure EU funding.

In terms of the tense standoff in Jerusalem, Jordan should include the recently expanded Islamic waqf in its negotiations with Israel over the building. According to the Status Quo, the Islamic waqf is to decide on the building’s function. Following overdue repairs, Israel should remove all obstacles to the waqf in designating the building as it sees fit, including as a waqf-operated Islamic educational institute or as a prayer space. Doing so would lower the risk of future violence. The waqf has already rejected Western offers of technical and expert support, fearing that it would lead to the esplanade’s internationalisation, which Israel also opposes. The EU should therefore limit its role to publicly calling upon the parties to respect the Status Quo at the Holy Esplanade and to reaffirming the historical and religious connections of both sides to the site.

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