One of Jerusalem's most revered holy sites is once against at the center of an escalating dispute between Palestinians and Israeli forces, with neither side intent on backing down, and fears rising of serious and sustained unrest on the city's streets.
Palestinians clashed with Israeli forces around the Old City of Jerusalem and at West Bank checkpoints on Friday over access to the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, a plateau that is home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. The contested site has periodically been at the center of heightened tensions in Jerusalem, but this episode has now spilled into bloody confrontation. Israel Radio reported Friday that almost 200 Palestinians had been injured in clashes with Israeli forces, and according to Ha'aretz three Palestinians have been killed.
The current situation came about after three Arab citizens of Israel orchestrated a deadly shooting attack on Israeli police stationed at the holy site on July 14, killing two of them. The three attackers were swiftly killed, but Israeli district police proposed putting in metal detectors to boost security. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his public security minister gave it their OK.
What might be viewed as a local policing decision elsewhere in the world was in this tinderbox of a city treated as an unacceptable infringement on the rights of Muslims to visit the compound. Violent protests followed; on Friday, Israeli forces turned back countless busloads of people who tried to reach the Old City to enter the site, whether as worshippers, protestors or both. Israel also instituted a policy in which all men under 50 were barred from entering the compound.
What Israel apparently underestimated is that for many Palestinians—who feel as much religious attachment to Al-Aqsa as Israelis do to the Western Wall which lies just below—installing electronic metal detectors would be treated as a severe violation of the “status quo.” That was put in place 50 years ago this summer, when Israel wrested control of East Jerusalem from the Jordanians and declared the city reunified, but decided to leave all control of religious affairs on the holy plateau to the Waqf, an Islamic religious body that serves as the official custodian of the mosque and shrine.
“We’ve have this arrangement since 1967 and that should continue. What we see now is an intention to change the status quo by putting these electronic gates and by preventing the freedom of movement of worshippers when going inside to pray,” said Sheikh Azzam Khatib, the director of Islamic Waqf department, speaking to a cluster of reporters on Wednesday outside the mosque compound in the Old City. Next to him stood the Imam of the Al Aqsa mosque, Sheikh Yousef Abu Snaineh. “All the Muslims eyes of the world are now directed towards al-Aqsa Mosque," he said. "We ask the Israelis to remove these electronic gates, because it is never going to be acceptable to us and we are not going to change our decision.”
Throughout the week, scores of Palestinians have been praying in the streets surrounding the entrances to the mosque compound in an act of protest, laying carpets down on sidewalks or in the middle of the road. With packs of Israel border policemen nearby, it usually ends with confrontation: Palestinians throwing rocks and bottles, Israelis shooting stun grenades or tear gas into the crowd, sometimes making arrests.
Muslim women, who have not been subjected to the age restrictions, have also been coming out in force to protest the measures. Manar, a woman in her '30s who was reluctant to give her full name, said she had come to pray, not to protest. But when she saw the force being used by Israel’s border police and their dispersal methods, it made her angrier than she expected. “Going through a metal detector – that’s not the way to go to prayer,” said Manar, during one of the confrontations with the police on Wednesday. “I think what we’re seeing here is all about control. It’s our mosque but they’re making it look like a checkpoint.”
A spokesman for the Israeli police said that the status quo had been not been violated. "These security measures will continue as long as necessary,” said Micky Rosenfeld, foreign press spokesman for the Israel Police. “We are assuring that the status quo on the Temple Mount is being kept.”
There are few sites in the region considered holier than the Temple Mount; Jews believe it was where the patriarch Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son Isaac, while Muslims hold that it is the place from which the Prophet Mohammed made his mystical night journey to heaven.
Accordingly, it has served as a kind of nerve center of the disputed city before. In September 2000, Israel’s Ariel Sharon — then a Likud lawmaker — went up to visit the site despite warnings from Israel’s intelligence establishment against doing so. Palestinians viewed the move as a major provocation, and the Second Intifada broke out soon afterwards. Sharon subsequently became prime minister. (He was incapacitated in a stroke in 2006 and died in 2014.)
Since that period, the Islamic Movement in Israel has been using a slogan that “al Aqsa is in danger,” trying to stir up emotions around the holy site and warning its flock that Israel will take over the site for its own religious purposes, or perhaps destroy the building altogether to make way for a new (or third) temple.
At the same time, there has been increased fervor for visiting the Temple Mount among some Israelis, particularly those who live in West Bank settlements. The most prominent of the Israeli activists who have been lobbying for the right for Jews to pray on the Temple Mount – currently only Muslims may do so by order of the Waqf – is American-born Yehuda Glick. The red-bearded rabbi became the best-known face of Temple Mount activism in recent years, so much so that a Palestinian attempted to assassinate him in October 2014. Shot four times, he recovered and is now a Member of the Knesset in Netanyahu’s own Likud party.
Glick said earlier this week that while he still is calling for Jewish prayer rights on the Temple Mount, he doesn’t think this is the right moment to implement that change. “There is no compromise when it comes to endangering the lives of Jews, Muslims, Christians," Glick told reporters on Wednesday. But he spoke disparagingly of the status quo that many observers of the conflict consider to be an important arrangement that manages to keep the peace – almost.
“Temple Mount is holy for Islam, Christianity…and the status quo,” Glick said. “That’s the third religion in the area. I don't believe in that religion. I don’t believe that the status quo is the most important thing. We live in a world that changes all the time. I think Israel should allow prayer of Jews on Temple Mount… but I don’t think we should take advantage of what happened last week, because I think this is a time to calm things down.”
It remains to be seen whether a sufficient number of people on both sides of this divide really want to cool things down, and are willing to back away from the brink of a dangerous new chapter of conflict. The U.S., Turkey and Jordan, which still officially holds guardianship over the third-holiest site in Islam but has increasingly ceded control to the Palestinians, have all tried to help broker a compromise that could take tensions down a notch.
If they fail, particularly with scant optimism for a resumption of peace talks, it isn’t difficult to fathom the return of much darker days in the Middle East.