A lot of people are wondering what’s going on in Jerusalem, or on and around the Temple Mount (where the Al-Aqsa Mosque is located) more specifically. I’ve written about the background to the recurring unrest previously, and just as it did back then this time too it is likely to die down after a while.
The short story is this: three Israeli Arabs from Umm al-Fahm in northern Israel emerged from the Temple Mount to attack Israeli border guard police officers killing two before they returned to the Temple Mount where they were later killed themselves. In a response to this Israel temporarily closed the Temple Mount and when it reopened a couple of days later Israel had installed metal detectors, causing widespread protests outside and a refusal by the Muslims to ascend to pray there unless the metal detectors are removed. They claim that this is a change of the status quo at the site, where today only Muslims are allowed to pray while Jews and Christians would be forcibly evicted if they as much as murmured a silent prayer.
The context is a bit more complicated:
Israel is responsible for the security of the holy places in Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount, while the holy place itself is under the authority of the Islamic Wakf (custodians). If you want to visit the Kotel/Western Wall you have to pass through metal detectors, which have been in place for as long as I can remember, i.e. at least for the past 15 years. Such security measures at holy sites are hardly unusual, nor particularly unusual in our small part of the world either. I pass through metal detectors every time I enter the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, so we’re used to it here.
As the American Interest writes: “It’s that provocation, the installation of metal detectors, not the heinous use of a holy site as a launchpad for murder and terrorism, that has the Palestinians enraged.It would be difficult to imagine a less sympathetic grievance to attract Western support to the Palestinian cause. In fact, the Palestinian response will appear contemptible to anyone who bothers to read even the basic facts of the matter.”
However, I believe they miss the basic point that it is the death toll itself that will evoke sympathy for the Palestinians and the original cause for the unrest will fade into the background. As always the debate in the West will be about the occupation itself, not who’s got the right to access the Temple Mount and under what conditions.
The question is if this changes the status quo, where Muslims have full rights while non-Muslims have severely limited rights. Israel has been accused numerous times of trying to change the status quo at the Temple Mount and each time this accusation has proven to be unfounded, but not before causing outbreaks of violence of various intensity. If we recall, Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in 2000 was made the pretext for launching the 2nd intifada, which was already planned.
There are indeed small groups within Israeli society who want to change the status quo, but their influence is very limited. The vast majority of the ultra-Orthodox Jews hold that it’s even forbidden to visit the Temple Mount due to the risk of walking in the holy of holies, while a few rabbis associated with the national religious movement permit visits of certain areas deemed safe. Then there’s another fringe group who believes that Jewish prayer must be allowed (and how can anyone deny Jews and Christians this basic religious freedom as long as it doesn’t harm the Muslim rights to pray there?) and that Israel should rebuild the Temple as soon as possible. But this view has failed to win traction even in the party associated with the national religious movement, much less any other party.
Most Israelis have no desire nor need to build a synagogue, much less a Temple, on the Temple Mount and the vast majority is not interested in escalating the situation to the point where a 3rd intifada breaks out or even a religious war that drags the surrounding countries in. Of course, the Palestinian leadership understands this. All the Arab rulers understand this as well. Anyone with a basic knowledge of Israeli society and politics understands this.
The status quo has held for 50 years and no one of importance wants to change it, but the exaggerated threat to “Al-Aqsa” easily captures the imagination of the ignorant masses and has become a useful tool for various actors who want to stir the pot a little bit. Want to distract the masses from the government’s failures? Check. Feel that the world isn’t paying sufficient attention to your plight or that donations are running dry? Check. Want to challenge your political rivals and jockey for influence with the Palestinian street? Check.
At the heart of the unrest, between metal detectors and the Israeli security control of the Temple Mount, is the feeling of humiliation. That Israel can simply close the Temple Mount and install metal detectors at will, in Islam’s third holiest site, is terribly humiliating. It’s bad enough that Israel controls Al-Quds (Jerusalem) and the Old City. It’s bad enough that Jews are allowed to pray at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Back in the good old days of the Ottoman Empire, Jews weren’t allowed access, but now they can limit Muslim access at will. This is the real problem. That terrorists desecrated this holy site by using it to launch an attack pales in comparison to the humiliation felt at seeing Israel exercise its sovereignty.
On the one hand, Israel can’t really do anything to avoid the inherent humiliation of its very existence despite all the efforts to dislodge it, but if possible it should try to avoid rubbing it in. On the other hand, Israel can’t afford to back down now or else riots will be seen as a much more useful political tool, and not just a deterrent. It also can’t just stand aside and do nothing while its police officers are being shot. Whoever sent these terrorists on their mission got exactly what they hoped for – an Israeli response that could be used to create unrest. Since Hamas hasn’t claimed responsibility, which they normally don’t fail to do, it is possible that Hizbullah (the so-called “Party of God”) is to blame for these recent events. While this is speculation, it wouldn’t surprise me if they instigated this to divert Israel’s attention from what’s happening on its northern border. There have been lots of talk about a possible third Lebanon war, where some reports claim that the Hizbullah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, thinks that Israel might seek to strike – while Hizbullah is preoccupied in Syria – in order to remove the looming missile threat. It can also be in retaliation for the many strikes Israel has carried out against Hizbullah’s efforts to smuggle weapons from Iran.
Regardless of which, my best guess is that this dies down in a while. Israel may try to offer some kind of concession or compromise that will allow both sides to walk away with some dignity, but the situation is unlikely to return to what it was before.
Anders Aviel Fahl is an immigrant to Israel from Sweden who lives in Jerusalem. He holds a BA in Political Science and has served in the 202nd Battalion of the Paratroopers Brigade of the Israel Defense Forces.