Troubling Developments on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif

In our reporting in recent months, we have pointed to a reduction in the level of tensions in and in relation to the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif. This improvement in the situation was in large part attributable to the discreet understandings between Israel and Jordan that were hammered out, primarily, in the Abdallah-Kerry-Netanyahu summit that took place in Amman in November 2014.

While this reduction of tensions has always been fragile and tentative, the new arrangements are now being increasingly challenged, and possibly eroded.

Before examining specific events and policies, it is important to examine the largely intangible trends and the atmosphere surrounding them. We have long argued that even in the face of policies of self-restraint being put in place by Netanyahu, the overall trends are those of increasing radicalization. This has been starkly evident in recent weeks. The following examples are illustrative but far from exhaustive:

The Temple Mount movement has been increasingly challenging the arrangements on the Mount, with visits being more numerous and more provocative. These include the recent visit made by Cabinet Minister Uri Ariel, contrary to Netanyahu’s instructions in recent months.

  • Cries of “Muhammed is a pig” and the like by Jewish extremists visiting the Temple Mount are being met with increasing violence from Palestinian youth and woman.
  • The skirmishing is being internationalized. A Christian tourist sparked violent confrontations by waving an Israeli flag on the Temple Mount. A visit by a Congressional delegation which encountered opposition from Muslim worshipers is alternatively described as grave violation of the Congressmen’s freedom of worship and a provocation by fundamentalist Islamaphobes acting in collusion with the Jewish Temple Mount movement.

Against the backdrop of these incendiary developments, certain actions taken by Israel may indicate that the understandings achieved last November are being eroded, and concessions are being made to the Temple Mount activists in order to “let off steam”:

  • The number of visitors allowed on the Mount on the Jewish fast day of Tisha b’Av is not clear, and the numbers cited range between 300 and 1200. In any event, it appears that those numbers go well beyond the previously agreed levels.
  • While the majority of the senior police command are in favor of denying access to Temple Mount activists/supporters on particularly tense days, the political echelons have given instructions “not to give in to violence” – by driving the Palestinian youth into the Al Aqsa Mosque and containing them in a way that will allow the visits by Jews to proceed. These partially choreographed clashes, that at times take place in the Mosque, are in and of themselves a disaster waiting to happen.
  • Contrary to previous policies, in recent days at least ten Islamic Waq’f officials, some senior, have been detained by the Israeli police.
  • During Ramadan, Netanyahu’s decision to suspend the already limited visits by Gazans to Haram al Sharif, in retaliation for a terror attack in the West Bank, sent a clear message to the Palestinians: your access to the Haram al Sharif is only by our sufferance and out of our magnanimity – not by right.

If these events indicate that Netanyahu is being challenged by the Temple Mount movement, a similar trend is emerging on the Palestinian side. A new manifesto (“the Al Aqsa Document”), calling for resolute protection of Haram al Sharif, was signed by the full range of Palestinian political actors – from Hamas and Israel’s Northern Front Islamic Movement to Fatah. The signing ceremony at the Commodore Hotel in East Jerusalem turned into a unified Palestinian protest against the increasing cooperation between Israel and Jordan.

In short, it appears that both the Israeli and Jordanian leaderships are being tested.

A major questions being bandied about (yet again) by pundits and analysts in recent weeks, coming on the heels of the settler arson/murder in the West Bank and a spate of other violence, has been: are we witnessing, or are we on the brink of, the third Intifada. While a broad consensus concludes that the answer is “no” or “not yet”, this conclusion is almost invariably accompanied by the caveat: “assuming nothing disastrous takes place on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.”

With the Jewish holidays approaching (always a time when pressures in and around the Mount increase), with the escalating radicalization by the extremes, with the increasing vulnerability of the forces of moderation, and in the absence of any political horizon, it would be wise not to take the relative stability at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in any way for granted.