Are We Sliding Toward Religious War? A Brief Survey of Key Jerusalem Developments/Trends

Recent developments regarding inter-religious relations in Jerusalem are very troubling, and do not augur well for the city’s stability in the immediate future. A brief survey is in order.

The Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif

On the face of things, the Israeli Government has taken the necessary measures to guarantee stability in and around the TempleMount. Both Netanyahu and Internal Security Minister have given public assurances that there is no intention to change the status quo on the TempleMount. They should be taken at their word. But that is only on the face of things. Anyone who wishes t0 get an idea of what is really happening should take a moment to view this clip.

Visits to the site by groups from the extreme right are becoming more frequent, larger in size and more blatantly provocative. These, in turn, have raised tensions at the site, and there is violent skirmishing – stone throwing, Molotov cocktails – between Palestinians and the Israel Police and Border Patrol. The Mount is being shut down entirely, or to those under 50, with increasing frequency. This further raises the level of tension.

Netanyahu has not yet displayed a willingness to rein in the pyromaniacs within his own Cabinet and party. If current trends continue, there WILL be a violent eruption on the TempleMount, and we are speaking in terms of weeks and months, not years. Whether this eruption will be convulsive and contained, or have wider ramifications, remains to be seen. Anyone recalling the Sharon visit to the Mount knows that it is best we do not find out.

Recommended reading: The Temple Mount, capital of the Kingdom of Israel(Haaretz, 4/23); Temple Mount now central Israeli-Palestinian flashpoint (Al-Monitor, 4/22); and Temple Mount, a flash point ready to ignite (Haaretz, 4/20).

Price Tag in Jerusalem

The “price tag” campaign – racist attacks against Palestinians and their property, undertaken by right-wing extremists – has taken root in Jerusalem. In recent days and weeks there have been repeated attacks against Christian institutions – a phenomenon that appears to be intensifying as the date of the Pope’s visit to the Holy Land draws nearer (herehere and here). There was a recent case of the defacement of gravestones in a Muslim cemetery (here). There have been numerous incidents of attacks inside Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem, with tires slashed on cars and racist graffiti left behind. A timeline of major Price Tag attacks (updated regularly), including those discussed in this section, is available here.

The Western Wall Plaza

Developments regarding the WesternWallPlaza afford us the opportunity to present you some good, albeit inconclusive, news. A governmental corporation signed a contract which would have licensed a large part of the area in or adjacent to the WesternWallPlaza to the Elad settler organization (the settlers of Silwan). The Attorney General has ruled the transaction illegal, and court proceedings have been instituted to have the agreement nullified. Further reading: Housing Minister clashes with AG over plan to give Western Wall site settlement group (Haaretz 4/10)

David’s Tomb

David’s Tomb is one of the few spots where all three monotheistic faiths lay claim to the same holy site. These competing/overlapping claims may come to head during the upcoming Papal visit. The Pope will conduct mass on the second floor Hall of the Last Supper, and there are persistent reports that Israel is about to transfer custodianship of the site to the Franciscan Order. If this happens, both Israelis (religious and ultra-orthodox) and Palestinian Muslims will be incensed. Notably, the latest anti-Christian “price tag” incident in Jerusalem involved graffiti painted on a Roman Orthodox church reading, “Price tag. King David for the Jews. Jesus is garbage” – an apparent reference to the plans to hand over control of the site. This is one to watch. Further reading: ‘Price Tag’ Graffiti Found on Jerusalem Church – Graffiti reflects tensions over Papal visit, plans to hand King David’s Tomb over to the Vatican (Arutz Sheva, 5/9); Alarm over Reported Deal with Vatican for David’s Tomb (Arutz Sheva, 4/20) and Concern Over Jewish Access to King David’s Tomb (Arutz Sheva, 4/20).

Right-Wing Yeshiva at Damascus Gate

On Israel’s Independence Day, the extreme Ateret Cohanim settlement organization took possession of a public building opposite Herod’s Gate in the OldCity, in the most central location in East Jerusalem’s business district. The site will serve as a yeshiva. The is the second time in recent months where yeshivas are being implanted in Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem (the other being the Glassman campus in Sheikh Jarrah). Further reading: Jewish organisation opens religious school in Palestinian East Jerusalem (The Guardian, 4/17)

Where does all this lead

It is clear that these apparently unrelated events and developments are indeed very much related. The interactions between Israelis and Palestinians in the OldCity and its environs are morphing into a very dangerous conflict among Jews, Christians and Muslims. And those in each of these communities who seek to weaponize faith and use it against the others are on the ascendancy.

Dates to watch: On May 26 and 27, Pope Francis will visit Bethlehem and Jerusalem, against the backdrop of increasing hate crimes against Christians coming from the Israeli right. The Israeli security forces fear a major act of violence during his visit. The day after the Pope’s departure, the religious right will celebrate Jerusalem Day, with its customary Belfast-style marches and provocations.