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The Battle for Jerusalem

16 minute read

Once a week, Asaf Fried spends a morning leading a group of Jews on a tour of the Temple Mount—in the full knowledge that he’ll be surrounded by people who are enraged by his presence at the holy site. On this recent morning, Fried, a broad-chested father of eight who lives in a Jewish settlement south of Hebron in the West Bank, is explaining to a group of 10 people the significance of the broad plateau that forms the southeast corner of the Old City of Jerusalem. Jewish tradition holds that somewhere nearby is the Holy of Holies, which many believe once housed the Ark of the Covenant and which Jews consider their most sacred place. It is somewhere inside what is now a raised stone platform above the site Jews believe was the location of the First and Second Jewish Temples.

As Fried leads his group through the compound, which houses two Muslim places of worship—the gray al-Aqsa Mosque and the golden Dome of the Rock—they’re accompanied by Israeli police as well as guards working for al-Waqf, the Islamic authority in charge of this, the third holiest site in Islam and the place to which the Quran says the Prophet Muhammad made a journey at night before visiting heaven. The guards are necessary: Fried and his companions are not welcome here—at all. Crowds of Muslim activists begin to follow Fried’s group, shouting “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great.” Women dressed in black from head to toe approach the Jewish visitors and scream the religious refrain in their faces. The outcry hits a fever pitch, shoving ensues, and the crowd swells. Fried pushes forward through the people gathered around him, running up the last few steps leading to the upper part of the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), as it’s known in Arabic. Police grab him and escort him through the growing scrum of protesters.

“There’s no freedom of religion here,” Fried says minutes after being escorted out of the Temple Mount complex. “This is supposed to be open to everyone, but we’re not even allowed to move our lips and say a silent prayer here, or we can be arrested.”

Fried’s desire to pray on the Temple Mount may seem simple enough, but the growing demand by some religious Jews to pray here, and the equally passionate determination of some Muslims to ­prevent them, is at the heart of a spiritual turf war that many experts and observers fear could re­ignite full-scale conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The past two Palestinian uprisings—­the first started in 1987, the second in 2000—took place in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and Israel proper. Since then, Israel has withdrawn its ­forces from Gaza and built a barrier around much of the West Bank, making it easier to control—­and keeping most Palestinians more physically separated from Israelis. But in Jerusalem, Palestinians and Israelis live in close proximity. That has made the ancient city a focal point for extremists on both sides of the conflict. In the past year, many of the outbreaks of violence between the two peoples have taken place in Jerusalem, the much contested holy city that both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital but which Israel controls. In March, the Guardian and other publications obtained an early copy of an E.U. analysis of the growing violence in Jerusalem. The report found that violence soared in 2014, with 2,069 Palestinians and 168 Israelis injured in clashes, five times more than in the two previous years. Compared with just one fatality in 2012 and 2013, 19 people died in these incidents last year in Jerusalem.

The chances of Israel and the Palestinians edging closer to war than to peace seemed to grow last month following the re-election on March 17 of the rightist Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu is in the process of forming a coalition that will probably be even less inclined to compromise with the Palestinians than his previous government was. The Prime Minister, now starting his fourth term, told Israeli media on the eve of the elections that there would be no Palestinian state as long as he is in power. He has since tried to walk back that statement, which went against long-standing American policy in the region, but U.S. and Palestinian officials have expressed grave concern that Netanyahu was not just appealing to his right-wing base but was also revealing his true feelings on the ­question of ­Palestinian statehood. “Netanyahu has done everything possible to bury the two-state solution,” Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said on March 16 in a statement to reporters. Palestinian leaders have said they will focus on seeking statehood at the U.N. and on waging a legal battle against Israel at the Inter­national Criminal Court in the Hague.

With neither side appearing likely to make the compromises necessary to even restart negotiations, many fear that a new conflict may be looming—with Jerusalem as the probable flash point. The leaked E.U. report, which an E.U. official confirms is genuine, noted that “the tensions, mistrust and violence which have accompanied developments in the city in the course of the year have reached extremely high levels.” One of the key reasons for the higher tensions: the intensifying dispute over the status of the Haram al-Sharif complex.

The holy site played a pivotal role in the last Palestinian uprising. In fall 2000, then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon made a point of ascending to the Temple Mount early one morning. That enraged Palestinians, who saw the visit by the controversial Israeli politician to the platform housing al-Aqsa Mosque as deliberately provocative. Almost immediately, what would become known as the second intifadeh had begun. The conflict lasted several years, cost more than 4,000 lives and made it hard for many Israelis and Palestinians to imagine ever living alongside each other in peace. The name the Palestinians gave the uprising was a reminder of where the conflict was reignited: they called it the al-Aqsa intifadeh.

Uneasy Neighbors

The city cherished by Christians, Jews and Muslims is the only place in the Middle East where so many deeply committed adherents of the three faiths live within such proximity of each other. Notions of justice and peace may sit at the heart of all three religions, but the city where the faiths most intimately intersect has become a place of hostility, especially between Muslims and Jews. The ongoing construction of Israeli homes in settlements on the outskirts of East Jerusalem­—essentially hemming in the Palestinian population of the city—is a key source of friction between the two peoples. But the deepest wellspring of mistrust and anger is the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif.

The tension at the site is becoming the new normal. That’s partly because far more Israelis have been visiting the Temple Mount than ever before. Police logged 5,658 Jewish visitors to the site in 2009. In 2014, that number nearly doubled, to 10,906. Some members of the Israeli parliament who were part of the last governing coalition—­and will be part of the new government—have in the past year been lobbying for a change in the long-­standing arrangements governing the Temple Mount, arguing that Jews should be allowed to hold group prayer there and visit freely. Meanwhile, Palestinian activists are focusing more than ever on the ­Haram al-Sharif. An Islamist group known as the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel began a campaign almost two decades ago with the slogan “al-Aqsa is in danger”; Palestinian politicians and the Palestinian public have increasingly embraced the slogan as a rallying cry.

If the status quo at Jerusalem’s most contested holy site feels like an injustice to Asaf Fried, it is just as enraging to Hijazi Abu Sbeih. Abu Sbeih, 32, lives and works in the nearby Muslim Quarter of the Old City. (There is also a Jewish Quarter, an Armenian Quarter and a Christian Quarter.) On the wall of his family-owned clothing shop is a large framed photograph of his older brother Marwan, who was killed by Israeli police along with at least 20 others (the numbers are disputed) in riots on the Temple Mount in October 1990.

Relations between Jews and Muslims in the Old City have been fraught for as long as Abu Sbeih can remember. But he can’t recall a time when the situation felt as oppressive as it does now. It’s not just that Israelis like Fried are visiting with greater frequency­—Palestinians consider each such visit an incursion, insisting that Jews have no business there—but also that Israeli police and soldiers are limiting Muslim access.

“I received several police warnings not to enter,” says Abu Sbeih, who holds prayer beads in his hands and, like Fried, wears a full beard signifying his piousness. “To me, al-Aqsa is one of the most important places in the world. We live for it. I put it before my family. It’s the home of Muslim dignity. If it was ever going to be taken from us, we will defend it with our lives.”

For some Palestinians, the Haram al-Sharif is already worth killing and dying for. In the aftermath of most terrorist attacks committed by Palestinians in recent months, evidence indicates that the perpetrator was motivated by his desire to defend al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. In the cases in which the attacker has survived, that evidence has come in the form of statements made to police. In the cases in which the militant died, it has come from statements made to family members before the attack or in the form of a video or Facebook post.

One attacker made clear what his motive was. On Oct. 29 a prominent American-­born rabbi named Yehuda Glick was getting into his car in Jerusalem when a Palestinian man walked up to him. “He said, ‘I’m terribly sorry,’” recalls Glick, who has been lobbying for Jewish prayer rights on the Temple Mount for more than 20 years. “I was naive, and so I just moved closer to him so I could hear him better. He said, ‘You are an enemy of al-Aqsa.’” Glick looked down and saw that his hand was full of blood. It is the last thing he remembers until the moment he woke up in the hospital days later. The apologetic assassin had pumped four bullets into him before taking off on a motorcycle. During a standoff the following day, the police shot dead a Palestinian from Jerusalem named Muataz Hijazi, who they say committed the attack on Glick. Hijazi’s father Ibrahim says he doesn’t believe his son was responsible for the murder attempt. But if he was, his motivation must have been his exasperation with Israeli policy in Jerusalem­—­including at the Haram al-Sharif.

Leaders of Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza and has a strong presence in the West Bank, tell Time that attacks are likely to continue. “The al-Aqsa Mosque is in danger, and it is up to the Palestinians and Muslims here in Palestine and all over the world to use all means of resistance to protect the al-Aqsa Mosque,” says senior Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. “The international community has not been trying to stop the Israeli acts of aggression against the Palestinian people and the al-Aqsa Mosque. Armed resistance is the only solution to end the Israeli occupation.”

Mixed Blessing

Israel gained dominion over the temple Mount during the Six-Day War of 1967, which Israel fought against several Arab states. Israeli forces seized several pivotal pieces of territory in quick succession: the Golan Heights from Syria, the Sinai peninsula and the Gaza Strip from Egypt and the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan. Included in the latter were the Old City and its holy sites.

“The Temple Mount is in our hands,” Lieut. General Mordechai “Motta” Gur, the commander of the Israeli paratrooper brigade that wrested control of Jerusalem from the Jordanians, famously exclaimed over his military radio when he led Israeli forces onto the mount. Israelis were almost delirious with joy; since the founding of the state in 1948, they had not been able to reach the Temple Mount or make pilgrimages to the Western Wall below, the closest Jews permitted themselves to go to the holy site. But some Israelis were concerned that the conquest would spark more conflict. Among those worried about the consequences was Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, who hesitated over letting his forces capture the Temple Mount. Sensing the explosiveness of the situation, he came up with a compromise for both faiths: Jews could now pray freely at the wall below, while the plateau housing the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque would stay under Muslim custodianship, to be managed by al-Waqf, which works under the auspices of Jordan.

Some Israelis never accepted that decision. In 1984, Israel’s internal security service foiled a plot by a terrorist group called the Jewish Underground to blow up the Muslim buildings on the Temple Mount. In the wake of that plot, other Jewish movements focusing on the Temple Mount came under increased scrutiny, as police feared a repeat attempt. In 1996, a council of rabbis representing Israelis who built homes in the conquered West Bank and Gaza published a ruling that visiting the Temple Mount was now deemed permissible, and even called on rabbis to start guiding their congregations there. The rabbis’ instruction increased the fervor for visiting the Temple Mount among the mainstream religious right.

The letter was a turning point, says Tomer Persico, a lecturer in comparative religion at Tel Aviv University, that was matched in importance only by the 2005 implementation of the Disengagement Plan, in which Sharon—then Prime Minister—withdrew Israeli soldiers and residents from communities known as settlements in the predominantly Palestinian Gaza Strip. Many Israeli settlers saw this as a betrayal of their compact with the state; they had always believed that the state would continue to support their push to live in Gaza and the West Bank as part of a broader mission to reclaim what they ­considered to be biblical lands. Disillusioned and concerned that the government could attempt further forced relocations, many in the settler movement searched for a new focus for their national and religious ardor. They found it in the struggle to control the Temple Mount. Their immediate goal? To change the status quo, in which the Temple Mount is open to non-Muslims for 31⁄2 to 41⁄2 hours every weekday, during which they are allowed to tour the perimeter of the premises but not pray. Jewish activists like Fried and Glick are demanding the right to pray there also.

On the Edge

To Sheik Omar Awadallah Kiswani, director of the mosque complex, Israel is courting disaster by letting more Jews visit the Temple Mount. “Since 1967 the Israeli occupation and its forces have been in control of al-Aqsa and its compound, and they’ve been putting tight regulations on us, restricting visitors according to age, ­including women,” says Kiswani, sitting in his office next to the complex. “They’re trying to eliminate the presence of any Muslim worshippers at al-Aqsa. This is causing many people to avoid coming to pray here at all.” Kiswani points to a decree issued by Israel on Jan. 12 banning three Islamic groups in northern Israel that Israeli officials suspected of sending paid activists to cause disturbances at the Temple Mount. Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon had earlier announced that these groups were deliberately fomenting tensions and would be outlawed on the recommendation of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service.

Kiswani says Israel is using false security concerns as a way of keeping well-­intentioned Muslims from visiting the site. “It’s known in the Islamic belief that one must be ever present at al-Aqsa,” he says. “We believe that our presence here brings us closer to God.” Kiswani says tourists and people of other faiths are welcome to come on weekdays to visit but insists that prayer here by anyone other than Muslims is and must remain forbidden.

Palestinians have increasingly formed organized resistance to what they see as encroachment on the site. One of the groups most engaged in this conflict on a day-to-day basis is the Morabiteen, founded in 2006. With a network of eight branches across Jerusalem, it calls on volunteers to defend al-Aqsa, explains its director, Yousef Mkheimer. One form of defense are the women shouting “Allahu akbar” in the faces of visitors like Fried and Glick. “It’s a kind of message of ‘We’re not happy you’re here,’” says Mkheimer, a real estate developer, in an interview at his office in the Shuafat neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

Mkheimer’s Israeli antagonists disregard that message, and some believe that their time is coming. One of Netanyahu’s most powerful political allies, a settler leader named Naftali Bennett whose Jewish Home party will once again be part of the governing coalition, promised supporters on the eve of the election that the situation on the Temple Mount would change. “Jews will be allowed to pray there,” he told them. Bennett’s promise is born of deep religious conviction and spiritual yearning that, if fulfilled, would bring great joy to many Jews. It could also help turn this city of faith once more into a battleground. —with reporting by Rami Nazzal/­Ramallahn

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