Mar 16, 2022 - World

U.S. works to maintain calm in Jerusalem as holidays near

A general view of the Western Wall in Jerusalem and the al-Aqsa compound on Jan. 25. Photo: Ronaldo Schemidt//AFP via Getty Images

A general view of the Western Wall in Jerusalem and the al-Aqsa compound on Jan. 25. Photo: Ronaldo Schemidt//AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration is working to maintain calm in Jerusalem ahead of an unusual situation that happens once every 10 years (when important Jewish, Muslim and Christian holidays coincide), U.S. ambassador to Israel Tom Nides said yesterday.

Why it matters: The fact that Passover, Ramadan and Easter take place during the same time in mid-April heightens the potential for violence in Jerusalem. Israeli officials say there is no specific intelligence that an escalation will take place.

Flashback: During the month of Ramadan and ahead of Jerusalem Day last May, Israeli police banned Palestinians from gathering near the Damascus Gate, leading to violent confrontations between Israeli police and Palestinians in the Old City.

  • Tensions had already been high over the planned expulsions of several Palestinian families from East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.
  • As the situation intensified, Hamas fired missiles toward Jerusalem, and eventually at Tel Aviv and southern Israel. Israel began an 11-day military campaign against Gaza. Hundreds of Palestinians and more than a dozen people in Israel were killed.
  • It was the Biden administration’s first international crisis.
  • Tensions have remained high since, with the threat of further escalation at any point.

Behind the scenes: During a webinar organized by Americans for Peace Now — a left-wing NGO that works to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace — Nides said he sent a cable to the State Department five weeks ago alerting them of this sensitive week in mid-April.

  • "I wrote, 'Wake up everybody, this is really a problem.' Everyone [in Washington] is fixated now on what could be a really serious issue," Nides said.
  • "The more you talk about it, the more the chances are that the Israelis, Egyptians and Jordanians will calm things down — to make sure this holy week does not blow up," he added.

State of play: Nides and other Biden administration officials have discussed the matter with Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian and Egyptian officials and stressed the need to maintain calm, a source briefed on the issue said.

  • The State Department’s point person on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Hady Amr traveled to Jerusalem, Ramallah and Amman this week.
  • The sensitive situation in Jerusalem is one of the issues he is discussing. A State Department official said Amr is working to reduce tensions and to implement specific economic steps that will improve lives.
  • Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid met last Wednesday with Palestinian Minister for Civilian Affairs Hussein al-Sheikh and discussed the need to maintain calm in Jerusalem during Ramadan and Passover.
  • A day later, Lapid addressed the issue with Jordan's King Abdullah in Amman, Israeli officials said.

What’s next: On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met senior ministers and the heads of the military, the police and the Shin Bet security agency to discuss the preparations for Ramadan, which starts at the beginning of April, and the sensitive week in the middle of the month.

  • According to Israeli officials, all the security services chiefs said there is no concrete intelligence pointing to an escalation in Jerusalem, the West Bank or Gaza, but there is a dangerous risk and every small incident can turn into a violent eruption.
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