The Coming Storm in Israel

A confluence of major events, within the country and beyond, threatens serious violence in the days ahead.

Clouds gathering over the Dome of the Rock
Clouds gather over the Dome of the Rock, located on the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City. (Ammar Awad / Reuters)

TEL AVIV—While predictions of doom in Israeli-Palestinian relations tend to come easy, the worst doesn’t always come to pass. But thanks to a pair of major upcoming anniversaries, the vagaries of the Jewish and Muslim calendars, and the whimsy of President Donald Trump, the coming week could be different. The confluence of numerous events set to take place over a few days in May has felt, as it approaches, like a perfect storm gathering.

In truth it has already begun, encouraged by a decision made far away in Washington, when President Trump on Tuesday withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear agreement. That night Israeli jets struck inside Syria against what Israel said were Iranian militiamen preparing to launch rockets against Israel. The following evening, Iranian proxies under the command of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fired a barrage of rockets against Israeli positions on the Golan Heights, an Israeli-controlled sliver of land on the Syrian frontier, drawing a massive Israeli retaliation strike against over 50 Iranian targets.

It was a new spike in the steadily increasing direct clashes that have taken place in recent months between Israel and Iran in Syria. In an effort to stop Tehran from establishing a permanent military foothold in the country, Israel had already struck at least three Iranian bases inside Syria since February, reportedly killing over 20 Iranian military officers. Given, too, the public reveal last week of a daring Mossad operation deep in the heart of Tehran, it seemed that an Iranian response was just a matter of time—although, according to Israeli security officials, not before Trump’s deadline to withdraw from or keep the Iran deal (originally set for May 12). The thinking was that the Iranians wouldn’t want to provide a pretext for a U.S. withdrawal from the deal. Developments over the last few days have vindicated this assessment. Still, neither Israel nor Iran seem all that inclined to back down, and further confrontations are likely.

Beginning May 13, though, the action centers on Jerusalem, with “Jerusalem Day,” a semi-official Israeli holiday commemorating the reunification of the ancient city during the 1967 war, after the Israelis seized the eastern part then occupied by Jordan. On the occasion, tens of thousands of marchers, many of them extreme nationalists and many from the West Bank settlements, parade through the city waving Israeli flags. In the past, the march has even wound through the Arab Quarter of the Old City, with some revelers chanting anti-Arab slogans and vandalizing local property. Seen live, the march through East Jerusalem, and with it the heavy police presence and shuttering of Arab businesses, underscores the day’s use for some as a show of force and Israeli ownership over the entire contested city. (Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem is not recognized internationally.) One former Israeli intelligence chief has already called this month “the most dangerous May since 1967,” alluding to the anxious eve of the June 1967 war.

According to the Israeli police, this year’s event is expected to draw, at minimum, 50,000 people. There is much to celebrate—in particular, what’s set to transpire the following day: the relocation of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. A large dedication ceremony is planned, with dozens of U.S. lawmakers, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, and Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and adviser, set to attend. The chosen date was no coincidence: It falls on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s declaration of independence, with Washington now recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. It is a move most Israelis across the political spectrum see as both wholly positive and long overdue. (Since Israel’s founding in 1948, no U.S. president had recognized the contested city as Israel’s capital—the city’s ultimate status was to be determined by negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, both of whom claim it as their capital.)

The Palestinians view the establishment of the state of Israel very differently. For them, the following day, May 15, is known as Nakba Day; in Arabic, nakba means “catastrophe.” Historically, the date has seen violent clashes between Palestinian protestors and Israeli security forces. Given the general sentiment among Palestinians that Trump has ceded Jerusalem to Israel, coupled with the preceding two days’ events in the city, the likelihood of mass demonstrations in both Jerusalem and the West Bank is high.

While no one can predict the scale of the unrest, East Jerusalemites did lead a groundswell of popular resistance last summer against new security measures introduced at the site in the city considered most holy to both Muslims and Jews, the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount compound. The Palestinian Authority has reportedly planned demonstrations on both May 14 and 15 near Ramallah. Some violence is almost inevitable, and the Israeli military is preparing accordingly. As Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman put it, “The opening of the U.S. embassy … will come at a price—and it is worth paying it.”

Israeli intelligence assessments still maintain that the PA in general, and President Mahmoud Abbas in particular, don’t want things to spiral out of control. There will be demonstrations, the thinking goes, but they will be contained. Indeed, since Trump’s embassy announcement in December, the West Bank has remained remarkably calm. But as one senior Israeli defense official told me, “I can’t commit on whether it’ll stay this way.”

Neither, it turns out, can the Palestinians. “It’s not something you can anticipate or expect. On the day nothing may happen,” a Palestinian official close to Abbas told me. “But all the components are there for people’s rejection of what they see around them, when you suffocate hope in their hearts.” In this official’s mind, the loss of hope was tied directly to the Trump administration’s conduct. Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the embassy, he said, served as a declaration of America’s “withdrawal from the peace process and a two-state solution, and [entailed] completely siding with one side.”

Where violence is almost certain to occur, however, is on the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip. May 14 and 15 will be the culmination of six weeks of protests by Gazans marching on the border fence. As of this writing, over 40 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli sniper fire since March 30, and hundreds injured. Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, has encouraged protestors to rush the fence in an effort to break through into Israel. The Israeli military, for its part, has said it cannot allow this, especially given the close proximity of Israeli communities to the border area.

At its height, the demonstrations drew 40,000 people on a single day, split between five different locations up and down the coastal territory. Ahead of next week, Hamas leaders are vowing to unleash “the mother of all marches”; some Israeli officials now worry about 100,000 protestors, and perhaps more, coming out. There is, in reality, no effective Israeli military response to such a development. “Imagine if 13,000 [protestors] break through [at one location], with a total loss of control,” a senior Israeli officer responsible for Gaza recently told me. “There would be a major loss of life. … We would be on the verge of war.”

Compounding matters, sunset on May 15 will mark the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan—often a period of heightened religious sentiment and, with that, political tensions. Previous years have seen an uptick in terrorist attacks and, in 2014, full-scale war between Hamas and Israel in Gaza.

Iran and its allies “must remember,” Lieberman threatened on Thursday, “that if it rains here [in Israel], it will pour there.” The freak confluence of events this week, beginning with Trump’s Iran nuclear decision, the escalation of hostilities over Syria, and consolidating around the days ahead in Jerusalem and the Palestinian Territories, hold the potential at least for a major tempest.