Jerusalem: Recent Israeli-Palestinian Tensions and Violence
Jim Zanotti, Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs (firstname.lastname@example.org, 7-1441)
November 20, 2014 (IN10183)
The status of Jerusalem and its holy sites has been a long-standing issue of political and religious
contention between Jews and Muslims. Recently, tensions have intensified owing to various factors,
Efforts by some Israelis, including an anticipated Knesset bill, to emphasize Israel's claim to the
Temple Mount (known by Muslims as the Haram al Sharif or Noble Sanctuary) and to gain greater
Jewish access to and worship permissions on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif
("Mount/Haram"), which have elicited negative reactions from Palestinians and other Arabs.
Various indications of direct or tacit Israeli official backing for greater Jewish settlement in East
Jerusalem, including via announcements relating to construction of Jewish residential housing
that is widely opposed internationally.
A spiraling pattern of unrest and violence, including attacks and security responses that have
killed or injured Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and some Arab
communities in Israel.
On November 18, two Palestinians from East Jerusalem armed with a gun, knives, and axes attacked
Jews at a West Jerusalem synagogue, killing four Israeli worshipers, three of whom also had U.S.
citizenship. The attackers were shot and killed by Israeli policemen; one policeman later died from
wounds he received in the exchange of fire. President Obama condemned the attacks, as did
Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has
announced that it will join the investigation.
While existing Israeli security measures largely prevent Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip
from threatening Jewish population centers, Palestinians who live in Jerusalem and/or have Israeli
citizenship can access these areas. Unlike during the two Palestinian intifadas (1987-1993 and 20002005), those committing violent acts appear to be acting mainly under their own initiative rather than
via direct political coordination. Israel's police chief has said that a lack of apparent organization makes
preventing violence more difficult.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has blamed Abbas, Israel's Islamic Movement, and terrorist
group Hamas for incitement, and has ordered the homes of Palestinians who attack Israelis to be
demolished. Yoram Cohen, who heads the Israel Security Agency (also known as Shabak or Shin Bet),
has been quoted as saying that Abbas "is not interested in terror and is not leading towards terror,"
while adding that Abbas's criticisms of Israeli actions could be interpreted by some Palestinians as
legitimizing more active resistance. Some Palestinian and Arab observers have blamed Israeli official
statements and actions for the violence and the tense atmosphere from which it stems. Jordan, which
has a formal custodial role over the Mount/Haram, has also criticized Israel, even recalling its
ambassador in early November.
For more on Jerusalem and Israeli-Palestinian issues, see CRS Report RL33476, Israel: Background and
U.S. Relations , by Jim Zanotti.
Figure 1. Greater Jerusalem
Note: All locations and lines are approximate.
Figure 2. Jerusalem: Old City, U.S.-Relevant Sites, and Some Other Sites
Note: All locations and lines are approximate.
The Mount/Haram "Status Quo" and Recent Developments
Notwithstanding Israel's takeover and unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem as a result of the June
1967 Arab-Israeli War, it allowed the Jordanian waqf (or Islamic custodial trust) that had been
administering the Mount/Haram and its holy sites before the war to continue doing so, and established
a "status quo" arrangement that has been Israel's proclaimed policy since then. Under the
arrangement, Muslims can access the Mount/Haram and worship there, while Jews and other nonMuslims are permitted limited access but not permitted to worship. Jewish worship is permitted at the
Western Wall at the base of the Mount/Haram. The status quo is criticized and challenged by some
individuals and groups who assert that Israel should advance Jewish historical and religious claims to
the Mount/Haram, despite Chief Rabbinate rulings proscribing Jewish visits there. Various past events
apparently triggering concerns among Palestinians about possible Israeli attempts to change the status
quo have arguably fueled tensions, including a September 2000 Mount/Haram visit by Likud Party
leader (and future prime minister) Ariel Sharon just prior to the outbreak of the second Palestinian
Recently, some right-wing Knesset members and Jerusalem's mayor have visited the Mount/Haram.
Although Netanyahu and other ministers from his government have criticized such visits as potentially
provocative, these and other such visits have taken place within a larger context in which Israeli
politicians apparently vie with one another through statements and policy proposals to insist that
Israel's proclaimed sovereignty over Jerusalem is not subject to Palestinian or international challenges.
Such political actions may be more pronounced in light of widespread speculation that Knesset
elections could take place sometime in 2015. Jewish Israeli public opinion overwhelmingly opposes any
division of the city in a potential agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Tensions in Jerusalem have lately increased. In July 2014, after the June killing of three Israeli
teenagers in the West Bank by Hamas-connected Palestinian militants, a group of Israeli extremists
burned a Palestinian teenager to death in Jerusalem, contributing to subsequent unrest. During
protests in July, an Israeli policeman was filmed beating a U.S. citizen of Palestinian origin who
happens to be a teenage cousin of the burning victim.
Tensions re-escalated in late October after a rabbi known for supporting Jewish worship on the
Mount/Haram was wounded in a drive-by shooting. In response, Israeli authorities killed the Palestinian
shooter and on October 30 completely shut off access to the Mount/Haram, claiming the need to calm
tensions. Abbas called the closure a "declaration of war." Access resumed the following day, and
Netanyahu insists that the status quo will continue. At least one member of his cabinet has openly
supported Jewish worship on the Mount/Haram.
U.S. Policy Implications
These developments raise a number of questions for U.S. policy makers, including:
What can and should the United States do to protect U.S. citizens in and around Jerusalem?
What are U.S. interests regarding Jerusalem, and what executive or legislative action, if any,
would best promote them?
What are the likely ramifications of various actual or potential Israeli or Palestinian actions—i.e.,
statements from leaders, security measures, proposed Knesset legislation, announcements related
to Jewish residential construction, initiatives in international fora—for Jerusalem, Israel, and the
West Bank, and what should the United States do in anticipation of or response to such actions?
Related Issues Before Congress:
Middle East and North Africa