The epicenter of the Arab-Israeli crisis will always be the Temple Mount, where both sides struggle over ancient history and modern-day politics.
- By Yardena Schwartz<p> Yardena Schwartz is a Tel Aviv-based freelance journalist and Emmy-nominated producer whose reporting has been featured in The New York Times, The Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, The Miami Herald, NBC News, and CBS News, among other news outlets. </p>
TEL AVIV, Israel — If what’s happening in Jerusalem looks like déjà vu, then welcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which often resembles the theater of the absurd.
After nearly two weeks of rapidly escalating bloodshed, Israel finally heeded the calls of the Muslim world and removed newly installed security measures at the holy site known as the Temple Mount to Jews and al-Haram al-Sharif to Muslims. The measures, which included metal detectors and security cameras, were put in place in the wake of a terrorist attack last month in which three Israeli Arabs smuggled machine guns into the compound and killed two Israeli policemen who were guarding the site.
Yet even now, with the new security measures gone, this latest crisis between Israel and the Palestinians continues. Though Jerusalem’s grand mufti announced Thursday that Palestinians could return to pray at al-Aqsa Mosque, which sits on the site, Palestinian leaders from both Hamas and Fatah called for another “day of rage” last Friday. While Friday prayers at al-Aqsa ended peacefully, clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces erupted throughout the weekend along the Gaza border and in various parts of the West Bank, where a Palestinian tried to stab an Israeli soldier and was shot dead. The previous “day of rage,” on July 21, left three Palestinian protestors dead and saw a Palestinian stab to death three Israelis in their home during their Sabbath dinner.
If anything can be learned from these gory two weeks, it’s that this crisis was never really about the metal detectors. In the end, it boils down to an issue that has remained unresolved for much of the last century: Who controls this one slice of Jerusalem, which is the holiest site in the world to Jews and the third-holiest to Muslims? The crisis serves as a testament to the starkly different narratives surrounding this site and, in turn, the Arab-Israeli conflict itself.
For Palestinians, Israel’s latest security measures represented a violation of the status quo and an abuse of religious freedom. For most Israelis, the terrorist attack at the compound provided ample justification for additional security measures, and the words and actions of Muslim leaders, who have called for mass protests and suggested that Israel was trying to destroy al-Aqsa, have proved irresponsible and incendiary.
Metal detectors already exist at the Temple Mount entrance reserved for non-Muslims, and Jordan and Israel have previously agreed to install security cameras on the Temple Mount itself. Then, too, the Palestinians refused to allow their installation, which had been agreed upon following the last Palestinian uprising in October 2015.
The so-called “status quo” — in which the Islamic Waqf, a Jordanian authority, manages the compound and non-Muslims are allowed to visit but not pray — has been in place since Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War. The site had previously been under Jordanian rule since 1948, and during that time, Jews were not permitted to even enter the Temple Mount. When the Israeli army seized the holy site, it was thus one of the most emotional climaxes of the war.
Yet Israel refrained from exerting full control over the religious site. When Israeli soldiers triumphantly raised an Israeli flag over al-Aqsa, Israel’s then defense minister, Moshe Dayan, responded, “Do you want to set the Middle East on fire?”
It was Dayan’s decision to keep the holy site under Jordanian control, albeit within Israeli sovereignty. Israel would control security at the gates to the Temple Mount, and the Waqf would decide who prayed at the site. Since then, non-Muslims have been forbidden from praying on the Temple Mount, and al-Aqsa Mosque is the only holy site in Jerusalem that is off-limits to people of other religions.
“The great irony of [the current crisis] is that when the Jews had the opportunity to take over al-Aqsa on June 7, 1967, when an Israeli flag flew over the Dome of the Rock, when the rabbi of the [Israel Defense Forces] was advocating blowing up the mosque … along came the great warrior Moshe Dayan,” said Michael Oren, a historian and former Israeli ambassador to the United States who is now a member of Knesset. “He said, ‘Not only are we not going to blow up the mosque — we’re going to take down the Israeli flag and give the mosque back to the Jordanians, who just tried to wage a war of annihilation against us.’ Understand the magnanimity of that gesture. We’ve been paying for it ever since.”
For most Palestinians, Israeli actions at the site have been anything but magnanimous. Rather, they see them as part of a long-term plan to undermine Muslim access to the site.
“Palestinians do not buy the fact that one single incident leads to all these Israeli measures that infringe on the freedom of religion for Muslims,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza. Furthermore, he said, Palestinians fear that these measures could be the first step in an Israeli plan to prevent Muslims from praying at al-Aqsa and allowing Jews to pray on the Temple Mount.
To many Israelis, the idea that Israel’s new security measures are an effort to change the status quo is patently absurd.
“The status quo was changed by terrorists who smuggled weapons onto the Temple Mount and used these weapons to kill two Israeli policemen,” said retired Israeli Brig. Gen. Michael Herzog, an Israel-based fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The question is: Why weren’t there additional security measures to begin with?”
The Islamic Waqf, Herzog argued, is incapable of ensuring security at the compound. He raised as evidence its statement after the attack, in which it criticized the security measures without even mentioning the terrorist attack that precipitated them.
Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military intelligence chief and director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, made the case that the additional security measures had nothing to do with changing the status quo. “If there were cameras inside the mosque itself, no doubt the Waqf has a war,” he said. “But on the Temple Mount and at the gate, this is under Israeli control.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also consistently insisted that Israel has no intention of changing the status quo. But Palestinians aren’t buying it. Abusada of Al-Azhar University points to attempts by Messianic Jews to ascend the Temple Mount and pray there as evidence their fear is justified.
“When they pray, they are asked by Israeli policemen and Waqf bodyguards to stop, but we have seen attempts,” he said. “Maybe that doesn’t represent what the Israeli government or mainstream wants, but there are some Israeli extremists who would like to do so. And that’s what makes Palestinians very suspicious that Israel is trying to change the status quo.”
The crisis is further evidence that not only is the political agreement meant to keep the peace on the Temple Mount eroding. Increasingly, the two sides’ understanding of the history of the site is diverging.
The prohibition of worship by non-Muslims, whether Christian or Jew, “is obviously, from a human rights perspective, a violation of human rights,” said Ofer Zalzberg, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.
Yet Zalzberg pointed out that this was the case even before the modern state of Israel existed. “This was the tradition within this site under the Mamluk and Ottoman empires,” he said. “There hasn’t been non-Muslim worship on the site since the Crusader period. This is not a modern Palestinian invention.”
And yet, he said, the site has become far more volatile in the last century. Today, Palestinians and much of the Muslim world deny any Jewish connection to the Temple Mount, rejecting the notion that a Jewish temple once stood there. Yet in 1925, Zalzberg noted, the official Waqf booklet given to tourists visiting the Temple Mount clearly stated that it was once the site of the Temple of Solomon.
“This was less than a century ago, and this has changed,” Zalzberg said. “Today, the vast majority of Palestinians would vehemently reject it … though it’s an established archeological fact.”
The change occurred, Zalzberg said, because until the 1930s and 1940s, the Jewish history of the Temple Mount was not perceived as a threat to Muslim preeminence there. Today, however, the perceived threat of Israeli control has meant that the presence of Jews is characterized as a storming of the compound.
Abusada also sees any admission of the Jewish temple’s existence as opening the door to Israeli control over the compound. “To allow Israelis to believe that al-Aqsa Mosque was built on the ruins of the Temple Mount, it’s a dangerous thing to even accept, because that means that one day the Jews will basically destroy al-Aqsa to rebuild the temple on the ruins of al-Aqsa Mosque,” he said. “That’s what’s scary to Muslims and Palestinians.”
To be sure, there are elements within Israeli society that would like to see a third temple built on the Temple Mount, and some of these once fringe voices have recently made their way into the Israeli government. Several leaders of the so-called Temple Mount movement now serve in the Knesset, the most provocative of whom is Bezalel Smotrich from the right-wing Jewish Home party, who called for the construction of a synagogue on the Temple Mount in the midst of this latest crisis. On the more moderate end is Yehuda Glick, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, who advocates for Jewish prayer alongside Muslim worshippers in an idealistic vision of the Temple Mount as a haven of religious freedom. But despite their political gains, their goal is widely perceived as a fantasy: Netanyahu, along with Israel’s security establishment, has consistently rejected any calls to change the status quo.
As this two-week standoff comes to an apparent end, extremists on both sides have emerged stronger. On the Palestinian side, there is the perception of a rare triumph.
“The sense among Palestinians, as they see the metal detectors being removed, is one of victory,” Zalzberg said. “They are thinking about how to capitalize [on] it, and they are thinking what yielded this victory. Is it these mass prayers? Should we do more? Is it because of the violence? Was it the attacks? This is an isolated victory in a sea of defeat.”
It will have definite repercussions in Israeli politics as well, as surveys show that Netanyahu is widely perceived by Israelis as having surrendered to violence and terrorism. A poll released last week found that 77 percent of Israelis felt that the government had capitulated over Temple Mount security, and Netanyahu was even heckled by the typically supportive daily Israel Hayom, which is owned by American billionaire and Donald Trump backer Sheldon Adelson, for his “display of feebleness” in removing the metal detectors.
“What this has done is strengthened the hands of those who want to change the status quo,” Oren said. “The Israeli right is already benefiting from this.… People will say, ‘Hey, [the right-wing legislators] stood up, and Bibi capitulated.’ I’m already hearing it in the Knesset.”
AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images