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Jerusalem sees unrest during convergence of Passover, Ramadan and Easter

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

There was more unrest over the weekend in Jerusalem. Dozens were hurt Friday in and around the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound when Israeli police used tear gas and stun grenades against Palestinians throwing stones. In the middle of Ramadan, police stormed at the mosque, considered the third-holiest site in Islam. Medical officials said 150 Palestinians and three police officers were injured. Hundreds of Palestinians were arrested. On Sunday, Israeli police were back, saying they wanted to clear a path for Jews visiting the hilltop compound revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism. Police blocked Muslims from parts of the site, and more arrests were made.

Palestinians accuse Israel of a dangerous escalation during a rare convergence of Passover, Ramadan and Easter, when even larger crowds of worshippers were visiting Jerusalem. Similar violence a year ago was one of the events that contributed to the eruption of an 11-day-long war in Gaza. We've reached out to the Mairav Zonszein. She is a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, and she joins us from Tel Aviv. Good morning.

MAIRAV ZONSZEIN: Good morning.

FADEL: So if you could just break down what led to what we saw Friday and over the weekend.

ZONSZEIN: Yeah, well, the situation of the convergence of Ramadan and the other holidays - the Christian holiday of Easter and the Jewish holiday of Passover - sounded alarm bells for the Israeli government. And even the Biden administration had warned that tensions rise because many, many people flood into the old city on these days. And because of the precedent of last year, where Ramadan caused - it wasn't Ramadan itself, but it was the fact that the police - the Israeli police, were in full force and using many crowd dispersal means. So there was fear that the same thing would happen this year. And, in fact, it's been relatively calm compared to last year and compared to what could be the case.

FADEL: OK. So is this moment at all similar to what prompted the 11-day war last year? Could it escalate to that level?

ZONSZEIN: Yeah, it really is a very fragile and tense situation. And people need to remember that East Jerusalem is occupied and annexed. The people - the Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem don't have a police force. They're not citizens of the country. They are kind of at the will of the police force. So there's always tensions every day for Palestinians who live in that area. And it's also important to remember that Damascus Gate, the Old City and the Al-Aqsa Mosque where they pray during Ramadan is - are the main areas where East Jerusalem Palestinians can congregate and celebrate the holiday together.

So when you have a police force that comes in, even if it's just a minority of kids who are, you know, stirring up trouble, it can very easily escalate. And so we're seeing very similar pictures to last year, but there are differences in how the Israeli government is handling the situation. It has indicated and signaled in various ways that it's actually interested in keeping the peace. And, in some ways, it's doing its best to do so.

FADEL: A very different sentiment than what we saw last year.

ZONSZEIN: Yes, also because Israel has been in dialogue with Jordan. It has also lifted a curfew on the West Bank that normally is held for the entire Jewish holiday. So there are very specific actions that the Israeli government is taking to try to signal to the Palestinians that it's not interested in engaging in a certain amount of collective punishment for the few. At the same time, we've seen images of police brutality - using batons on worshippers entering the mosque - which for, you know, Palestinians, is a huge infringement of their rights.

FADEL: And it didn't just start this weekend, these tensions, right? I mean, there - over the past couple weeks, 14 people were killed in a wave of attacks in Israel. Israeli forces have stepped up raids in the Palestinian West Bank. So far, dozens of Palestinians reportedly injured. At least 25 have been killed by Israeli forces. I mean, if we could talk about the bigger picture here.

ZONSZEIN: Yeah, that's right. Well, in Israel and Palestine, there's kind of never a quiet moment, certainly not for Palestinians. But we've had a wave of terror attacks that we have not seen in Israel for many years - specifically shooting attacks in four different Israeli cities, something that Israelis have not seen in quite a while. So I think about 14 Israelis were killed. And, as well, the IDF has stepped up its raid in the West Bank. It's entered the city of Jenin in the northern West Bank several times and often killing people who are in - exchanged in gun battles.

So we've had a rise in tensions in the West Bank specifically. And also, there's been a few incidents of Israeli soldiers who are deployed in greater numbers now as a result, who have shot at unarmed - for example, an unarmed woman who's 47 years old. She didn't present any threat. She was shot and killed tragically. So all of these things have been happening on the backdrop of this current crisis.

FADEL: Mairav Zonszein, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, thank you for being on the program.

ZONSZEIN: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.