Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir has reportedly instructed police in Jerusalem to carry out demolitions of homes during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins on March 22, and which could ignite more flare-ups between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
The Israeli public broadcaster KAN reported that Ben-Gvir, a far right ultranationalist figure in the Benjamin Netanyahu government, ordered the demolition of “illegally constructed homes” in East Jerusalem, an especially sensitive point in Palestinian neighborhoods, where restrictions mount and licenses to build homes are rarely granted by Israel.
Israel occupied East Jerusalem in1967 along with the West Bank and Gaza. Since then, “an estimated 58,000 settler homes have been built in East Jerusalem compared with just 600 Palestinian dwellings,” Daniel Seidman, an Israeli lawyer specializing in Jerusalem told the Washington Post last month.
Ben-Gvir’s order on East Jerusalem goes against a decision taken by Israel’s security agencies of suspending such moves during Ramadan, considered a sensitive time for Israeli-Palestinian relations. This year, the Jewish holiday of Passover falls during the month of Ramadan (April 5-12), further complicating the situation. Thousands of Israelis are set to visit Jerusalem during Passover, including an expected rise in visits to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Israeli media report that seniors within the Israeli security system and Israeli police have been warning the minister against what they consider provocative actions, likely to increase existing tensions even further.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held in recent weeks a series of consultations with heads of the security establishment, including Shabtai, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief Herzi Halevi, Shin Ben Chief Ronen Bar, the government’s Military Secretary Avi Gil and others. The security establishment, it seems, mostly agrees that the law enforcement campaign launched by Ben-Gvir must be stopped, so as not to ignite the region.
Ben-Gvir also ordered Police Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai and Jerusalem District Commander Doron Turgeman to continue the crackdown on militant-related activities in east Jerusalem, including the detention of dozens of individuals suspected by the Shin Bet of affiliation with militant groups. He also advanced a proposal for considering fireworks as weapons.
Tensions have been high between Israelis and Palestinians under the Netanyahu government, but especially since the escalation in the West Bank town of Huwara last week — following the murder of two Israeli brothers who traveled through the Palestinian West Bank village, and then the ensuing rampage of settlers there, burning to the ground at least 35 homes and damaging many more houses and cars. Far-right ministers and Knesset members have called to “wipe out” Huwara, in statements that generated international condemnation, including from the United States.
Israeli security chiefs have also voiced publicly their concerns over the upcoming month of Ramadan. IDF Operations Commander Maj. Gen. Oded Bassiuk warned last week that Palestinian terrorism could escalate in the days leading to Ramadan. Last month, Shabtai warned of a severe manpower shortage in the police, which could heavily affect its ability to face possible violence outbreak during Ramadan. Shabtai noted that Jerusalem police needs 500 more police officers in preparations for Ramadan.
The Palestinian foreign ministry condemned the Ben-Gvir decision, claiming he plans to incite for hate and violence in the region and are part of a plan to “Judaize Jerusalem”.
Senior Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, Egyptian and American officials convened in Aqaba, Jordan, last month, to discuss measures for calming the region ahead of Ramadan.