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STRATEGIC ASSESSMENT-What: After a group of extremist Israelis stormed Al-Aqsa Mosque, waves of violence broke out across Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.
When: 14 September 2015
On 13 September 2015, the eve of Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), a number of Jewish Israelis visited the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. The Israeli Minister of Agriculture, Uri Ariel, entered Al-Haram Al-Sharif escorted by heavily armed Israeli soldiers. Palestinians gathered in the compound to protest the visits, since Israelis are prohibited from praying on the site under the status quo agreement. Israeli forces dispersed the protesters with violence, using tear gas and rubber bullets.
That evening an Israeli man was killed in East Talpiot, a neighbourhood in southern Jerusalem, after he lost control of his car when stones were reportedly thrown by Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu subsequently announced that he would meet with key ministers to “discuss deterrent measures against Palestinian rock-throwers,” the Times of Israelreported.
The following day, on 14 September, more extremist Israelis broke into the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound via the Mughrabi gate. Jordan’s King Abdullah issued a warning to Israel in a rare move, warning that continued fighting could weaken relations between the two states. On 15 September a day of rage was declared in Gaza and the occupied West Bank. Palestinian citizens of Israel also took to the streets in a general strike, closing businesses and schools while tens of thousands gathered for a peaceful rally in Sakhnin, north of Nazareth, chanting slogans against the Israeli government.
Tensions were compounded by the events of the summer which saw the murder of the Dawabsheh family in Duma, in the occupied West Bank. The family, including their 18-month-old son Ali, were the victims of an arson attack by extremist Jewish settler Amiram Ben-Uliel. Only Ahmed, then five years old, survived the attack. A student at Palestine’s Birzeit university, Ehab Iwidat, who took part in protests that spread across the occupied West Bank in the autumn, told Al Jazeera that the violence resulted “from the actions of settlers, who represent Israeli government policy. From burning people alive, humiliating people on a daily basis and restricting Palestinians’ freedom movement, to the disrespectful actions at Al-Aqsa Mosque”.
International media quickly began to label the upsurge in violence “a third intifada,” or uprising. The Guardian reported that “there is concern among diplomats and analysts in the region that the escalating violence could turn into a new intifada”. Foreign Policy added that: “Once again, politicians and pundits debate what to call it. On this matter, there is rare agreement between Ismail Haniyeh, the Gaza-based leader of Hamas, and Isaac Herzog, the Israeli opposition leader: Both say that we are witnessing the beginning of the Third Intifada.”
The unrest escalated further after an Israeli settler couple were killed on 1 October while driving on highway 60 near Nablus. The couple lived in the illegal settlement of Neria, west of Ramallah, and one was a US citizen. The Israeli military launched a manhunt for the perpetrators, undertaking incursions into West Bank towns and villages, night raids and widespread arrests which sparked anger among Palestinians.
International observers condemned Israel’s heavy-handed response to the events of Autumn 2015. In October, Amnesty International issued a report stating there were “at least four incidents in which Palestinians were deliberately shot dead by Israeli forces when they posed no imminent threat to life, in what appear to have been extrajudicial executions”. One such incident was the shooting of 19-year-old Sa’ad Muhammad Youssef Al-Atrash in the Old City of Hebron by Israeli forces as he attempted to retrieve an ID card at an Israeli soldier’s request.
What happened next?
According to the UN’s OCHAoPt, “2015 recorded the highest number of casualties among West Bank Palestinians since 2005, when OCHA began documenting incidents”. Hundreds of Palestinians died from tear gas inhalation, rubber bullets and from live ammunition shot by Israeli forces. Thirty children were killed by Israeli forces and settlers, the highest number recorded since 2006.
Some commentators believe that this “third intifada” never really ended. In March 2016, Israeli solider Elor Azaria was caught on camera shooting 21-year-old Palestinian Abdel Fattah Al-Sharif in the head while he lay wounded on the ground in Hebron, in the south of the occupied West Bank. Azaria was convicted of manslaughter but only served a fraction of his sentence. In 2018 Azaria boasted that he “had no remorse whatsoever” for killing Al-Sharif and would do the same again if the situation were repeated.
By mid-June 2016, incidents were still ongoing, including the killing of four Israelis in Tel Aviv’s Sarona market and the killing of a 13-year-old girl as she slept in the illegal settlement of Kiryat Arba near Hebron. In response, Israel demolished a Palestinian home in Bani Naim, east of the city. It is estimated that since the wave of violence began on 14 September 2015, 260 Palestinians were killed, 191 of which were men and 12 of which were women. Of these 260, 57 were minors.
Tensions have continued to flare sporadically since then, with July 2017 seeing widespread protests in response to Israel’s installation of metal detectors at the entrance to Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque. Israel closed the mosque and stopped Friday prayers from being held there for the first time in 17 years after three Palestinians and two Israelis were killed. More than 450 Palestinians were injured in the following days, while tensions spilled over into Jordan when a 16-year-old Jordanian was killed by an Israeli embassy security guard on 23 July.
In December 2017, US President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem and unilaterally recognise the city as Israel’s capital once again sparked unrest. The Great March of Return which followed in spring 2018 has seen around 170 Palestinians killed.