Jerusalem Day passed relatively quietly in the city, despite the March of Flags in the Muslim Quarter, and most of the month of Ramadan was likewise largely unmarred by serious violence or tensions on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif. The situation changed, however, in the past few days, during which clashes have erupted on the Temple Mount.
What happened prior to this week?
The relative calm during the holidays (until this point) reflected discreet understandings between Jordan and Israel relating to, among other things: controlling the numbers of visitors permitted to access the site, agreement to not allow Palestinian youth to sleep at the site, preventing visits by MKs and other provocateurs, etc. This calm was likewise grounded in the exhibiting of self-restraint by all sides, most notably Israeli authorities and the Waqf.
Consistent with this approach, on June 14 the Knesset Ethics committee upheld its decision to prohibit Members of Knesset from ascending the Temple Mount, despite calls made by the MKs from the Joint List party for the Committee to reverse its decision. This followed Netanyahu’s May 23rd reprimand and warning to new Likud MK Yehuda Glick, following Glick’s visit to the Temple Mount that day, two days before being sworn into the Knesset (Ironically, as a Knesset member Glick is in some ways less dangerous to security and stability at the site, since he is now constrained by the discipline imposed by the Knesset on Knesset members. On the other hand, his new position will give him a much larger platform and a much more powerful microphone, and will give his provocative statements about the Temple Mount far greater weight.)
However, Netanyahu also could not resist using the occasion of Jerusalem Day to re-assert his uncompromising position on the “indivisibility” of Jerusalem – language which underscores the dubiousness of his commitment to a two-state outcome. Likewise, Israel’s chief rabbi, Rabbi David Lau, chose Jerusalem Day to make a particularly provocative statement, suggesting that he would like to see the Third Temple built on the Temple Mount. This statement is another sign of a worrying trend, in which Israel orthodox rabbinic authorities adopt views that contradict the status quo on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif. While Rabbi Lau’s statement did not address the issue of the prohibition (accepted until now by most Orthodox authorities) on Jews ascending the Temple Mount, it does shift from the traditional orthodox position. The fact that this statement comes from the top of Israel rabbinical authority is significant and further contributes to the perception among Muslim worshippers that Israel seeks to change the status quo and that sacred equities on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif are under threat.
What happened this week?
The understandings that were the foundation for calm at the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif began to unravel with events and statements around Jerusalem Day, with the situation becoming acute with the outbreaks of disturbances June 25th-June 27th. The immediate catalyst for these this outbreak of disturbances was the decision of the Minister of Public Security, Gilad Erdan, to allow non-Muslims to visit the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif during this last 10 days of Ramadan. This decision was in contrast to the practice in recent years of closing the site to non-Muslim visitors during this sensitive period.
The rationale for Erdan’s decision appears to have been, at least in part, a faulty assessment of the durability of the relative calm that reigned during the holidays (up to that point). The broader motivation behind the decision appears to have been the Erdan’s determination to make clear that closure of the site to non-Muslims during the last 10 days of Ramadan is not – and will not be permitted to become – part of the informal status quo.
Palestinian youth who are active around the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif, however, passionately disagreed with Erdan, and saw the opening of the site to non-Muslims during this period as a breach of the status quo and a causus belli (or at least a cause for demonstrations/protests/resistance). The Waqf, caught between Israeli authorities and Palestinian protesters, reacted in a manner that failed to calm the situation and probably made things worse: allowing Palestinian youth to sleep on the Temple Mount (arguing that the status quo had now been violated), and issuing contradictory statements (publicly calling, through Sheikh Hussein, to protect Al Aqsa; more quietly calling for calm in the Old City). The ensuing two days of violence was the result.
Subsequently, on the morning of June 28th, Israeli police announced the Mount would be closed to non-Muslims until after Ramadan. This decision which appears to have been made at the highest level, was now doubt based in part on the intelligence analysis of the police. It is likely, too, that the Jordanians weighed in with Israeli authorities at the highest echelons (the Jordanians weighed in with at least one public statement as well). The decision was obliquely criticized by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who said that Israel “must not make decisions under pressure from violent disturbances…”
A Recurring Pattern
The outbreak of violence on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif – and the decisions that led to it – highlight a recurring pattern:
· Violence and disturbances at the site lead to “understandings” and undertakings from both sides to act with restraint and responsibility.
· Over time these “understandings” begin to unravel, due to pressures coming from the respective Israeli and Palestinian streets, and certain political players - and these pressures are ever-present.
· At some point, the authorities decide to "push the envelope" as Erdan did, and the Palestinians push back - leading to violence and disturbances, and the cycle starts all over again.