Most of the media coverage of the recent outbreak of fighting between Hamas and Israel links it to the recent Court action ordering the eviction of Arab tenants from a building in East Jerusalem allegedly as part of an Israeli scheme to cleanse that area of the city of Arabs. We'll discuss the real reasons at the end of this post, but first let's talk about what is really happening with the evictions.
Like most things regarding Jerusalem you need to start way back in time.
In the 630s, Arab tribesmen coming out of the desert conquered what is now Israel and Palestine. Based on the limited sources we have it appears they were supported by the local Jewish population who resented the oppressive measures of the Byzantine Christians who ruled those lands. There is also some controversy over precisely how "Muslim" those original Arab invaders were.
However, by the late 7th century, "Islam" as we know it today had taken form and a decision was made to build Islamic religious structures (later known as the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque) on the Temple Mount, the site of the great Jewish Temple destroyed by the Romans in the first century AD (1). These structures were designed to demonstrate the power of the colonialist cult which conquered the city and their dominance over Jews and Christians and, placing it on the holiest of Jewish sites, was a particularly symbolic gesture.(2) To further enhance their dominance, Islam invented a mythical connection between Muhammed and Jerusalem, so that it could justify its claim to the city. Today, Jerusalem is commonly called the home of three great religions while in reality the true historical connection is limited to Judaism and Christianity.
East Jerusalem, also known as the Old City, is adjacent to the Temple Mount. While the number of Jews living in East Jerusalem has waxed and waned over the centuries (both Muslims and Jews were slaughtered by the Christian Crusaders who conquered the city in 1099) there has always been a Jewish presence.(3) Under Ottoman rule (1517-1918) and the British Mandate (1918-48), Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived in their respective quarters of the Old City.
Under the UN Partition plan of 1947, Jerusalem was to be an international city, part of the Corpus Separandum. After the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab states rejected the partition, Israel (which had accepted it) declared independence in May 1948 and was immediately attacked by five Arab states. Jordan overran most of the Corpus Separandum, including East Jerusalem and annexed it (for more on the Corpus read here). The Jews of the Old City, including families that had lived there for centuries, were expelled, demolishing all 58 synagogues and cemeteries in the Jewish Quarter. For the next 19 years, Jews were denied access to the Temple Mount and Western Wall.
During the Six Days War in 1967, Jordan attacked Israel. The Israeli counterattack threw the Jordanians out of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Immediately after the war the Israelis decided to leave Muslim authorities in control of the Temple Mount, a decision disappointing to many Jews, and have strictly limited Jewish visits to the site.
The Israeli government also faced a decision about what to do with the properties owned by the Jews expelled in 1948. In a controversial decision, Israel decided that if a property had been transferred in accordance with Jordanian law to an Arab owner between 1948 and 1967 it would be considered a legal transfer, and the Jewish owners could not reclaim ownership. However, if the property had not been legally transferred to a new owner, the Jewish owners could seek to reclaim their property. The property that is subject to the dispute in East Jerusalem falls in this latter category, having never been legally transferred under Jordanian law.
For a half-century the owners, whose family purchased the buildings in 1875, have sought to reclaim them through the Israeli courts. Although they have won repeatedly in court, until recently no court ordered eviction of the Arab tenants, who have refused to pay rent for the past half-century (the courts have ruled that if the tenants pay rent they can remain). The eviction has finally been ordered and this is allegedly what has set off the current phase of the conflict and been characterized as ethnic cleansing.
The real reasons for the outburst of fighting at this time are elsewhere. There are several:
Fatah has been forced into promising new elections in the West Bank (there have been none since 2004) but is worried it will lose to Hamas. Because the status of Jerusalem is so controversial, stirring up a conflict over its status, may help Fatah to once again postpone the elections.
After the recent Israeli elections once again revealed a closely divided electorate, it became very likely an Israeli Arab party would become part of the next governing coalition, which has never happened before. For an Arab party to become part of the Israeli government would undercut the apartheid narrative the Palestinians sell to the rest of the world and needs to be prevented at all costs, a view shared by Fatah and Hamas. Triggering violence, including disruption by Israeli Arabs, is their attempt to make it difficult for any Israeli Arab party to become part of Israel's government.
More broadly the Abraham Accords, creating peace and commercial relations between Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco (and backed by Saudi Arabia) showed many Arab states to be sick of dealing with Palestinian intransigence and their rejection of decades of opportunity to make peace with Israel. Creating a new high-profile conflict with Israel is the Palestinian attempt to regain relevance, deter any other Arab countries from joining the Accords, and perhaps disrupt the newly established bilateral relations between Israel and the current Abraham Accord Arab states.
The overall goal of Fatah and Hamas is to make any final settlement with Israel impossible.
(1) It should be noted that the Palestinians and their supporters around the world (recently abetted by the New York Times), have promoted a myth denying there ever was a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.
(2) Though justice would seem to demand the demolition of these symbols of colonial oppression, I believe peace is the more valued goal and if remaining on the Temple Mount would help achieve a permanent peace between Jews and Moslems I am fully in favor of it.
(3) Jews were expelled from the city and Judea by Emperor Hadrian after the failure of the great revolt of 132-35 AD, though they slowly migrated back over the centuries. That revolt was triggered by Hadrian's plans to build a Roman temple on the site of the Temple Mount. After the revolt, Hadrian changed the name of the province from Judea to Syria Palestina in a further attempt to sever the connection of the Jews to those lands.