Where Things Stand
On July 14, a shooting attack took place on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. The ensuing reactions by the Israeli government (closing the site, erecting metal detectors at its entrances), and the resulting protests by Palestinians (including boycotting the site and holding prayers on its periphery), represent the biggest crisis at the site in years, with destabilizing impacts in East Jerusalem and beyond. We will examine this chain of events in detail below.
Today was the first Friday since the attack, yielding serious concerns that Friday prayers would be the occasion for major violence. Israeli Prime Minister elected not to give in on the issue of the metal detectors (overriding the views of most security officials); Palestinians elected to continue for the most part to boycott the site in protest. Throughout today and through the present moment, Israel has responded to Palestinian protests by imposing unprecedented limitations on access: roadblocks turning back buses on all the major highways to Jerusalem, denial of access by East Jerusalem Palestinians to the Old City, and barring access to the Temple Mount to men under the age of 50. Notably, offers by Israel security personnel to allow some of the people congregating near the gates of the Haram al Sharif to bypass the metal detectors were reportedly refused; so long as the metal detectors remain in place, it appears that the boycott continues, with rare and numerically insignificant exceptions.
As of this writing - 10am EST on July 21, tensions in East Jerusalem and the West Bank are running high but violence remains contained, at least relative to how bad things could be. Reports so far indicate nearly 200 Palestinians injured, with about a quarter of them in East Jerusalem. There have also reportedly been widespread arrests and detentions, as well as at least two Palestinian fatalities. This is an ongoing, evolving crisis - in this report we will examine what has happened so far, where things are likely headed, and what needs to happen to stabilize the situation.
The immediate challenge facing Netanyahu was to get through July 21 without the kind of clashes and violence that could ignite the street in Jerusalem and beyond (including into Jordan). It appears that he surmounted this challenge, although whether that was because of or despite his security decisions is an open question. Regardless, Israeli forces remain on high alert for ongoing violence/clashes. Skirmishing continues in and around the Old City and elsewhere in East Jerusalem, at times escalating and at times subsiding temporarily (Israeli police raided Waqf offices in Wadi Joz, outside the Old City, overnight on July 20). There are several areas in East Jerusalem and the Old City Gates where there were mass demonstrations, and sporadic clashes with the police. There have been incidents of rock throwing, stun grenades, tear gas (and possibly rubber bullets) - but even with the two fatalities over the past few hours, events appear to remain under control and most clashes appear to still be of low intensity. Similar reports are coming from the West Bank (Qalandia, Hebron, Bethlehem, and numerous other locations in the West Bank) where clashes have been reported. Whether the conflict remains at a relatively low level, or the two fatalities signal the beginning of a serious deterioration in an already tense situation, remains to be seen.
Regardless, this remains an acute, unfolding crisis - and it is far from over. The underlying cause of this crisis, the real and/or perceived threat experienced by Palestinian Muslim worshipers that their unimpeded access to Al Aqsa has been so curtailed that the sanctity and the integrity of the site are in jeopardy, has not been addressed, but instead has been exacerbated by today's events. Reportedly, Hamas, together with the Northern Islamic Branch, is exploiting the current anger and tensions to stir violence, similar to what happened during the wave of violence of Fall 2015.
Consequently, the overall trend of conflict and destabilization in Jerusalem remains acute and the prospect of an eruption of violence in the hours and days to come remains high. Even if we make it through the rest of the day with violence at relatively containable levels (which may or may not be the case) this is by no means a guarantee that we will make it through tomorrow or the days to come with similar results. Only a significant change in Israeli policies regarding access to the Mount in general, and the metal detectors in particular, will defuse this current crisis (at least until next time) - but there is no indication of any such changes being seriously contemplated by Netanyahu.
The July 14 Attack
The month of Ramadan (May 26-June 24) - preceded by a visit to Jerusalem by President Trump and Israel’s annual celebration of “Jerusalem Day,” and coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the occupation (including in East Jerusalem) - was marked by growing tensions and riots on the esplanade of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. These included a June 16th terrorist attack at the Damascus Gate, in which an Israeli policewoman was killed and four Israelis were injured in that attack; three Palestinian assailants - all under the age of 20 - were all killed. Two days later, on June 18th, there were intense confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli police, hundreds of whom were deployed in and around the esplanade, including on the roof of al Aqsa Mosque). As we reported previously, on May 28, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the “unification” of Jerusalem,
“Netanyahu took the seemingly deliberately provocative step of convening his cabinet in the tunnels underneath the Western Wall. Doing so sparked Palestinian anger, as the move is eerily and dangerously reminiscent of Netanyahu’s deliberately provocative decision in 1996 to open an exit to the tunnels, triggering deadly confrontations between Israel and the Palestinians.”
The post-Ramadan lull (relatively speaking) in tensions on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif was broken dramatically and violently on the morning of July 14, with the shooting attack that took place at the entrance gate of the Esplanade. Two Israeli policemen, both from Israel’s Druze community, were killed in the attack; the three assailants, all members of the same family and all Palestinian citizens of Israel from the the town of Umm Al Fahm in northern Israel, were also killed.
The attack and its immediate aftermath has raised tensions to an alarming level. Following the attack, Israeli police closed off all access to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount compound, ostensibly to search the site for weapons. Given that the attack took place on Friday morning, this meant closing the site to Friday prayers, an act that is unprecedented since 1969.
The Immediate Aftermath of the Attack
The attack on the Temple Mount/Haram-al Sharif highlighted the convergence of a number of volatile elements at the site. In particular, the fact that it was carried out by Palestinian citizens of Israel (rather than East Jerusalemites or West Bankers) is highly notable. So, too, is the fact that the targets of the attackers were not only armed Israeli security personnel (as opposed to, for example, Jewish civilian visitors), but Druze police officers -- leading to the ugly spectacle of a Druze member of Knesset calling for collective punishment (home demolitions & expulsions) targeting other Israeli citizens.
In addition, the fact that the shooting was carried out on the esplanade itself crosses a de facto red line that has long been respected by Palestinians, perhaps in part based on the understanding that undertaking such acts at the site could unleash an Israeli response that would be devastating to the interests of the Palestinians and the Waqf.
Following the attack, the US administration justified the decision of the government of Israel to close the compound for investigation. Both Jordan’s King Abdullah and Mahmoud Abbas condemned the attack but, together with the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, expressed anger over the closure of the site. The Waqf also condemned the closure, declaring, “We have no control at the blessed Al-Aqsa...Israel’s security forces are doing whatever they want there — defiling and destroying.” Israeli Prime Minister rejected the criticisms and insisted, starting shortly after the attack, that the Status Quo on the site would not be changed.
The site was reopened after two days, on Sunday July 17. However, Israeli forces erected a new layer of security around the site, in the form of metal detectors and cameras. The Waqf, the PA, and Jordan all rejected these new unilateral security measures, declaring them to be a change in the Status Quo. Netanyahu and a host of Israeli officials and commentators rejected the criticism, insisting that the new security measures were for the benefit of all and did not change the Status Quo. In addition, Israel arrested a number of Waqf officials and employees, leading to speculation that Israel believed - or wanted the public to believe - that the Waqf was complicit in the attack.
In the context of the closure and search of the site (and the arrest of some officials and guards), it comes as no surprise that the Waqf feels stripped of its power and that it rejected, together with the PA, the decision to install additional cameras and metal detectors at the entrance of the esplanade. In an act of protest the Waqf continued (as of this writing) to boycott the site and conduct prayers on the grounds immediately outside the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif (photos). Crowds gathered for evening prayers on July 18 clashed violently with Israeli police, with many Palestinians - including at least one senior religious leader - injured (video here). In the meantime, Jewish Temple Mount activists were more than happy to visit the site, where some of them - predictably - took advantage of the absence of the Waqf and Muslim worshippers to try to challenge the Status Quo (bringing prayer books with them and trying to pray). Israeli authorities subsequently closed the site to such visits, but re-opened it again shortly thereafter. July 19 and 20 saw further clashes, injuries, and arrests.
Is the Status Quo Under Threat
As we explained in our earlier, comprehensive report on the Status Quo, accusations and counter-accusations regarding alleged violations of the Status Quo find traction in part due to the lack of clarity and consensus over the definition of the Status Quo. This, in turn, is in part due to the fact that perceptions differ as to what the Status Quo is. It is also in part due to the fact that, in reality, the Status Quo is not static, having undergone significant changes over the past 48 years, at times with the stakeholders not conscious of the changes, and at other times willfully denying them.
In regard to security, Israel is, customarily, responsible for security on the perimeter of the site and the Waqf is in principle responsible for the routine security on the Esplanade itself, with a symbolic israeli presence. In practice, Israel generally respects the autonomy of the Waqf inside the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif, while reserving the right to intervene in extreme circumstances - that is, in cases of acute security needs or threats to public safety, or to preserve national interests such as the protection of archeology, as has happened numerous times.
All of that being said, differing perceptions regarding Israeli actions and security arrangements related to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount stem primarily from fundamentally different perceptions of the Status Quo. In perceiving the Status Quo, Israel focuses on the “letter of the law,” scrupulously respecting (or seeking to be seen as respecting) existing arrangements as it narrowly interprets them. In contrast, the Palestinians and Jordan perceive the Status Quo, and violations of it, in terms of the “spirit of the law;” that is, they focus on how the arrangements, and changes to them, impact access, autonomy, and authorities at the site. This difference in perception underscores the very different interests at play.
Did the Closure Violate the Status Quo?
There have been a small number of cases when the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif was closed for a day (or perhaps a bit more) in the past (e.g., the Rohan arson in 1969; the September 2000 outbreak of the Second Intifada; in October 2014, following the attempted murder of Yehuda Glick). Notably, to the best of our recollection, and after having scoured the most comprehensive sources, it appears that NONE of these closures including closing the site for Friday prayers.
In the context of the present crisis, a strong case can be made that Israel had legitimate grounds to close the site for a short period immediately after the attack, but for one reason alone: to make sure that no additional weapons were on the site. Such a closure would have been defensible on clear security grounds and - by its short duration and clear rationale - would have offered reassurance to Muslims and Palestinians that it was in no way a form of collective punishment nor a step toward changing the Status Quo.
As noted previously, immediately following the July 14 attack, Netanyahu vowed to preserve the Status Quo on the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif. However, the series of step undertaken by Israel after the attack came in a context of growing discontent in Jordan with what it sees as Israeli provocations at the site (we examined this phenomenon back in early June) - concerns bolstered by Netanyahu’s decision to lift the ban on visits of Israeli MKs to the Temple Mount/Al-Haram al-Sharif for a trial period of seven days, starting at the end of July (and directly contradicting the understandings with Jordan).
Beyond the harm caused by the closure itself, conducting an intrusive search within the compound has seriously undermined the status of the Waqf, which is supposed to be responsible for security on the Esplanade itself. Whether the search was carried out with an escort of Waqf representatives, as stated by the Israeli police commissioner, does little to reduce the sense of violation and does nothing to mitigate the anger of the Waqf and Muslim worshipers over the decision to close and take over the compound.
These measures - and even more importantly the fact that they were decided and implemented without prior coordination or consultation with Jordan or the Waqf, which was forced to step aside and watch powerlessly during Israel’s intrusive show of force on the compound - convey the message that Israel sees the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif as its property alone, and demonstrate a readiness to dispense with even the pretense of respect for even the limited authority of Jordan or the Waqf. This approach - which is without precedent, even compared to Israeli actions on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif during previous periods of violent conflict - is seen by Palestinians as a confirmation of the perception that 50 years after Israel occupied East Jerusalem, Israeli threats to Muslim and Palestinian claims to the site are greater and more immediate than any time in the past.
Do the Metal Detectors Violate the Status Quo?
The fact that there were no metal detectors outside entrances to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif prior to July 14 does not mean that their installation after July 14 is, by definition, a violation of the Status Quo. Also, at face value, installing metal detectors - manned by Israeli security forces - can be seen as a reasonable response to an acute security situation, and thus a step that is compatible with the Status Quo. These valid arguments are the ones being advanced by the Israeli authorities to defend the move.
Like in any conflict, however, how things look depends on where you stand. Requiring visitors to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif to go through Israel metal detectors, run by the Border Police, is perceived by Palestinians and Muslims as not merely a technical security step. Rather, it fits into a very compelling perception that, within the framework of technical arrangements, Israel is radically changing the Status Quo, and Muslim access to and equities on the site are under very real threat.
From the Palestinian and Jordanian point of view, there has been a substantive change in the Status Quo over the last decade, in the form of the ever-growing number of visits by Jewish activists from the Temple Mount movement - visitors who do not hide their intention to change Status Quo. The growing number of these visitors, and the frequency and nature of the provocations their visits involve, has created a high level of suspicion that is further fueled by statements coming from officials within the Israeli Cabinet.
In this context, the Israeli Border Police are perceived, not without reason, as being the allies and protectors of the Temple Mount movement. This perception has increased with various changes of practice imposed by the Border Police over time, including limitations on the times during which Muslim worshippers can access the esplanade, in order to accommodate needs of settlers, and closing the site to Muslim worshippers when violence occurs (it was customary in the past to close it only to Jewish visitors in such circumstances). The fact that Jerusalem’s Chief of Police has called for Israelis to come visit the Temple Mount is also particularly troublesome and contribute to the suspicions towards the Border Police.
This increasing suspicion and hostility is a central factor in the Palestinian/Muslim perceptions that (a) the sanctity of the site is being desecrated and the Status Quo is being violated, and (b) those responsible for this desecration and violation enjoy the support and protection of the Border Police. The fact that the metal detectors are being operated by the same people that have come to symbolize the desecration of the site and the violation of the Status Quo triggers, understandably, strong opposition from Palestinians. Haaretz summed up the situation well:
From the Palestinian perspective, it constitutes a violation of the status quo that undermines their access to the mosques. The Temple Mount is not like the Western Wall or a shopping mall, as Jerusalem Police Chief Yoram Halevy claimed. Tens of thousands of people come to the Temple Mount on Fridays within a short amount of time. The metal detectors will make the pressure at the entrances unmanageable.
But more importantly, in the eyes of the Palestinians, the metal detectors are meant to humiliate them, to restrict them and to allow freedom of worship for Jews on the Mount. Moreover, searches that the police conducted on the Temple Mount uncovered no weapons in the compound, even though no searches had been conducted previously and millions of people visit there every year.
Behind the Policy: Security or Politics?
Prime Minister Netanyahu met with security officials Thursday evening into Friday morning, and early morning on July 21 it was announced that the metal detectors would remain in place for the time being, and that police would have the power to make any decision needed to guarantee access and assure security. It was also announced that there would be a ban on men under the age of 50 accessing the site on July 21.
Netanyahu’s decision was criticized by oppositions members of the Knesset, most notably among them Zionist Union MK Omer Bar Lev, former commander of the IDF's Sayeret Matkal unit, who stated: "the State of Israel fell into the trap laid for them by the terrorists to change our conflict with the Palestinians to a religious conflict between Islam and us."
An important backdrop to Netanyahu’s decision is the widely-reported dispute between the Shin Bet and the IDF (both of which argued that maintaining security did not require the metal detectors), and the police (who wanted the metal detectors to stay in place). It should again be emphasized that all of this could likely been avoided had Israel announced that the closing of the Mount would be minimal (a matter of hours) in order to search for weapons, and that the new measures were tactical and temporary. It was only the fear of violence that caused the Shin Bet and IDF to amend its position and to cause Israel to review the efficacy of its actions.
Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Erdan sided with the police, highlighting the degree to which the decision was driven by concerns about face-saving, rather than about security. For 50 years Israel lived reasonably well without metal detectors outside the site - and today Israel’s political leaders want Israelis and the world to believe that removing the metal detectors threatens Israel with a new holocaust, despite the views of most security officials. Another indication of the face-saving dynamic is the decision to devolve far-reaching on-the-spot authority to police, conveying a clear subtext: "We're scared to decide, so well let the police do the dirty work."
The Responsible Way Forward
At the end of the day, Israel had to take operational steps after the attack last week, and the Palestinians would have seen any such step as a serious breach of the Status Quo. Both sides not only have good claims, but are likely un-budgeable. But this is not an isolated incident and it does not arise in a political vacuum. Fifty years into Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, relations vis-a-vis the Temple Mount are so poisoned that when things like last week’s attack happen, there is simply insufficient good faith and baseline trust/cooperation between the sides for reasonable, agreed solutions to be found (as might have been done in the past). If for 50 years it seemed possible to separate between crisis prevention/management/containment and permanent status conflict resolution, the situation today is so toxic that this is no longer the case.
Averting disaster on the Temple Mount, now and in the future, requires that a face-saving balance be found between implementing a legitimate security response to such a grave attack and respecting/addressing the legitimate concerns of the Palestinians (whose capacity for political activism appears to have been reawakened by the current crisis - see this excellent analysis from ICG’s Ofer Zalzberg as well as the piece from Haaretz’s Nir Hasson).
Based on past experience (most recently in 2014 and 2015), the road to reducing tensions and establishing such a balance passes through Amman, and is grounded in enhanced - rather than diminished - coordination with both the Waqf and Jordan. Finding such a balance will require Israel and Jordan to engage in a dialogue to discuss the security situation, the measures needed to prevent another attack, and concerns of each side regarding maintenance of the Status Quo and preservation of security for all. Already, the serious risk of violent escalation that the installation of the metal detectors is creating has led to a split between various Israeli security authorities, as both the IDF and the Shin Bet are now trying to push the government to adopt a compromise. These voices ease the way for a renewed Israeli-Jordanian dialogue.
Notably, the delicate diplomacy that yielded tension-reducing understandings in 2014 and 2015 was supported/led by the U.S. Secretary of State; as of now, there is zero indication that the new U.S. Secretary of State or any senior Trump Administration official has the interest or ability to play a similar role (however, the Trump Administration on 7/19 did tweet out a statement on the issue).
Absent some positive development, existing tensions are likely to only continue and get worse if Israel (a) proceeds with the decision to allow Israeli Knesset members to the site (latest reports indicate that the ban on Knesset members visiting the site may have been extended) and (b) continues to act unilaterally and aggressively with respect to access and security around the site. The massive ascent of Jewish visitors to the site during Tisha b’Av, which falls on August 1, is likely to add additional fuel to the fire, exacerbating an already very volatile situation.
The Netanyahu Factor
Netanyahu’s decision to leave the metal detectors in place demonstrates that he is in defiant mode. This is nothing new, but it is getting worse (e.g., Netanyahu's fight with Germany over Breaking the Silence; his effort to return focus to Iran; his bullying of UNESCO; this week’s hot mic incident). In recent years, Netanyahu's policies towards the Palestinians in East Jerusalem has consistently been to try to break their will (often by means of frequent collective punishment), while at no time reaching out to them or engaging them on the issues that concern them. In this current crisis, he has doubled down on these policies even in defiance of the advice of his own security establishment. In addition there are those who speculate that this phenomenon is related to Netanyahu’s increasing political vulnerability and legal difficulties. Whatever the case, all signs are that the world is facing an increasingly confrontational Netanyahu, including with respect to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.