Recent clashes in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, which saw verbal confrontations between Jews and Palestinians devolve into throwing chairs and stones prompting police intervention, feel all too reminiscent of what preceded Operation Guardian of the Walls in May 2021. At the center of it is MK Itamar Ben Gvir of the Religious Zionist party, whose efforts to assert Jewish sovereignty in the area simultaneously aim to weaken the authority of the Jewish state and its government by inflaming tensions.

Ben Gvir is the leader of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) faction, the ideological successor to Kach, the party of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, which was banned from the Knesset due to racist anti-Arab views and support for Jewish terrorism. He arrived in the neighborhood on Sunday to establish a “parliamentary office”—a tent with a table and a sign—in response to a recent arson attack targeting the Sheikh Jarrah home of the Yoshvayevs, a Jewish family living in an otherwise fully Palestinian section of the area. This is not the first time Ben Gvir set up shop in the neighborhood; he previously did so when the Sheikh Jarrah crisis was at its apex in May 2021. This time, Ben Gvir has vowed to remain in the area until Israel stations permanent security forces at the Yoshvayev residence to prevent further terrorist attacks.

This is not the first time the Yoshvayev family has been the target of Palestinian terrorism; Tal Yoshvayev has had to replace his car nine times in the past few months in the wake of anonymous firebombing attacks. But ensuring the security and well-being of Jewish residents is not Ben Gvir’s sole interest in Sheikh Jarrah. On Sunday, Ben Gvir and his cadre of far-right activists gathered in front of the house belonging to the Palestinian Salem family, who are facing eviction next month. This was likely a major factor in motivating Palestinian counter-rioters and exacerbating already heightened interethnic tensions in the neighborhood.

The legal owner of the Salems’ property, where they have lived since the 1948 war, is now Jerusalem city councilmember Yonatan Yosef, who purchased the rights to the property from its previous Jewish occupants. Prior to the Jordanian conquest of East Jerusalem and subsequent expulsion of Jews in 1948, Sheikh Jarrah had two Jewish communities known as Shimon HaTzadik and Nahalat Shimon. As Evan Gottesman explained amid last May’s crisis surrounding potential Sheikh Jarrah evictions, a 1968 Israeli law allows Jews to reclaim property in East Jerusalem that they lost in 1948. 

Given Ben Gvir’s open support for stripping Arabs throughout Israel of political rights, his outpost in Sheikh Jarrah in the face of a soon-to-be-evicted family is far more nefarious than a statement of solidarity with Jewish residents in the face of terrorism. It is an overt provocation to galvanize the extremist fringes of Israeli and Palestinian society.

This is evident in the roster of notable figures drawn to Sheikh Jarrah in Ben Gvir’s wake. Joint List MKs Ahmed Tibi and Ofer Cassif, the latter of whom is the only Jewish member of the predominantly Arab bloc and both of whom represent the opposite fringe of the political spectrum from Ben Gvir, arrived at the scene to support Palestinian rioters. They were seen scuffling with right-wing Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Arieh King and the Jewish rioters, prompting police intervention. Several other MKs also came to Sheikh Jarrah, including Shlomo Karhi, Amir Ohana, and Yoav Galant of Likud, who had come to pay a visit to Ben Gvir’s “office” in support of his activity.

Israeli police attempted to dismantle Ben Gvir’s tent and clashed with his right-wing supporters into Sunday night. Ben Gvir tweeted a video of himself fainting while pushing through a group of police, though a report from a police officer suggested that Ben Gvir was responsible for escalating the violence. After receiving care at Hadassah Ein Kerem Medical Center, he returned to Sheikh Jarrah the next day, accusing Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev of ordering police officers to attack him. 

Ben Gvir’s previous stint in Sheikh Jarrah also played a major role in stoking tensions at the time, to the point where then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked him to dismantle his office outpost at the behest of the Biden administration. The Otzma Yehudit leader, whose Knesset seat he has Bibi to thank for, complied.

The difference this time is that Ben Gvir is no longer allied with those in power. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid have both condemned his actions and openly chastised him as a provocateur. As tensions in the holy city rise ahead of Pesach, Ramadan, and Easter this spring, the Biden administration has also urged Israel to take steps to prevent the situation from further deteriorating, far earlier than it did in 2021, in order to avoid a repeat of the violence last May.

But Ben Gvir has no incentive to comply with requests to leave and to de-escalate the situation. It is in his interest to stoke extremism between Jews and Palestinians while presenting himself as the defender of Jewish claims in the neighborhood, all while flouting the authority of the Bennett-Lapid government and creating a mess that they will inevitably have to clean up. 

While it is yet unclear how the current crisis in Sheikh Jarrah will develop, a senior Israeli diplomatic official warned that it could once again spark a larger-scale confrontation with Hamas in Gaza. Hamas spokesperson Muhammad Hamadeh already warned of retaliation if Ben Gvir’s provocations continue. While Sheikh Jarrah may already be a tinderbox ready to ignite in another round of Israeli-Palestinian violence, Ben Gvir’s actions suggest that he will willingly lend a hand to light the match.