Jerusalem & the Temple Mount: A New Dangerous Escalation
Last November, we wrote about the escalating crisis in East Jerusalem going on at that time: “What possesses hundreds, sometimes thousands of Palestinian youths to clash nightly with Israeli police? That is a question that official Israel, and most particularly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has neither asked nor answered. Why? Because doing so would challenge his axiomatic faith in ‘united Jerusalem’ – a Jerusalem that doesn’t exist.”
We concluded that analysis as follows: “…the day things quiet down is the day the countdown toward the next round of violence begins – unless Israel is prepared to address the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in the framework of a permanent status agreement that takes seriously the realities of Jerusalem and the need for a resolution that takes the interests of both sides into account.”
A couple of months later, at the beginning of 2015, we laid out things to watch in East Jerusalem in the New Year, observing (among other things): “If a month ago East Jerusalem was in flames, today it is smoldering – and could erupt again at any moment.” Specifically with respect to the Temple Mount, we observed: “Tensions have notably declined…As with the Jerusalem violence, this relative calm is deceptive and can be short-lived.”
And in August 2015, we reported on the increasing tensions surrounding the Temple Mount, concluding: “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.”
Current events underscore the validity of those warnings. What follows below is a discussion of the key developments/trends at the heart of the escalating conflict and violence in East Jerusalem today and suggestions of what to watch for going forward.
(a) Key developments/trends at the heart of the escalating conflict and violence
The Amman Understandings are eroding.
The crisis on the Temple Mount last fall was brought under control, in large part, by understandings between Netanyahu and King Abdullah, hammered out in Amman by U.S. Secretary of State Kerry. The details of the Amman understandings have never been made public, but they appear to have included commitments to permit greater Muslim access to the Temple Mount; to clamp down on access by Jewish provocateurs, including from inside the Israeli government; and to back off from the range of increasingly harsh and punitive security tactics that the Israeli government was implementing in and around the Old City.
These understandings clearly worked, serving to dampen the flames of conflict last fall and keeping them in check – until recently. Starting earlier this summer with clashes on the Temple Mount connected to Tisha B’av (the day in the Jewish calendar when Jews commemorate the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples, which this year ran from sundown July 25 until sundown July 26), it appears that Netanyahu’s commitment to those understandings began to wane.
Some sources have indicated that the Amman understandings were never put in writing, and this appears to be a reasonable assumption: in the past, given the sensitivity of the issues and the necessity of flexibility, arrangements of this nature have not been formally codified. If this is indeed the case with the Amman understandings regarding the Temple Mount, the current situation may be akin to what happened with the settlement “understandings” brokered by Secretary Kerry between Netanyahu and Abbas at the beginning of the 2013 negotiation cycle. Then, as now, firm commitments were few and far between, and the heart of the understandings was a commitment to act with restraint and in good faith. It appears likely that today, as in the summer of 2013, Netanyahu has not violated any of his formal undertakings to Secretary Kerry or King Abdullah, but has gone well beyond any reasonable interpretation of restraint and good faith.
With recent events and trends/tactics in and around the Temple Mount (discussed below), it appears that Netanyahu believes he can erode the largely successful arrangements put in place after the November 2014 summit, based on the apparent assumption that Jordan is so dependent and vulnerable that it can do little to protest, and that U.S. energies have been so depleted by the battle over the Iran nuclear agreement that Secretary Kerry will not engage.
The Status Quo on the Temple Mount is changing.
One of the major achievements of the November 2014 Amman summit was a mechanism limiting the number of Jewish visitors to the Mount at any one time. That number was initially 5-10 at a time, later going up to 15. In recent days, that number has grown to exceed 30. The numbers reported by the police regarding daily visits by Jews during Rosh Hashana (500-600 daily) may be exaggerated, but it is clear that much larger numbers were permitted than at any time in memory (with the Temple Mount movement reporting numbers of 120-140 daily), indicating a major change in the Temple Mount ecosystem.
Last November, we wrote about the underlying causes for the then-ongoing escalation at the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif, noting:
“Since the Crusades, throughout the Mandatory Period and in the years following the 1967 War, the Temple Mount has always been a sensitive site, but it was never an actively contested site. This is simply no longer the case. Muslims understand that even if the visitation hours and the prohibition of non-Muslim prayer remain in effect, their control of the site is now actively being challenged – in the context of a political reality in which Israel holds virtually all the cards and in which the Israeli government is the most right-wing, pro-settlement, pro-Greater Israel government in the country’s history. The latter two points explain why the Palestinians sense, not without reason, that the status quo is under serious threat – and that in a very real sense it is already changing, and not in their favor.”
Today, in very real, concrete terms, the Temple Mount is being transformed from a Muslim place of worship (which may be visited by non-Muslims but not for the purposes of worship) into a highly contested site. This is happening in a context where Israeli politics are shifting dramatically in favor of the far-right, and in which Israeli security authorities who control access to the site are acting in ways that are demonstrably favorable to shifting the status quo in favor of greater Jewish access, including for the purposes of worship.
To be clear: It is not the 400-500 non-activist visitors who respectfully visit the site daily that pose the problem. Their visits are uneventful, and they are not targeted by the Muslim “defenders” of the site (known as the Murabitun and Murabitat, discussed below). The real problem is the hundred-plus members of the Temple Mount Movement whose goal in visiting the site is to stake a claim, and to demonstratively put the Muslim worshipers on notice that it is their intention to change the status quo, and that they have the support needed to render that threat credible. In contrast, former Jerusalem Police Commander Nisso Shaham recently noted that under his watch, he didn’t “…let people who are trying to change the status quo up to the mount.”
Netanyahu has re-opened the door to major provocations.
If under the Amman understandings Netanyahu committed to clamp down on provocative visits to the Temple Mount by members of his own government, recent events demonstrate that this commitment is no longer active. This shift was on display – defiantly and provocatively – with the visit to the Temple Mount by Israeli Minister of Agriculture Uri Ariel, who chose to visit the site on 9/13 (Rosh Hashana eve), which turned out to be the most violent day in Jerusalem in recent memory.
Ariel – a well-known advocate of changing the status quo on the Temple Mount (and rebuilding the Jewish temple there) carried out this visit contrary to police orders and long-standing government policies. A visit by Ariel is particularly provocative: in the past, he has gone on camera at the site expressing his wishes that the Third Temple be built during his tenure in the Cabinet.
If Netanyahu were serious about maintaining the status quo, he would have denounced Ariel’s actions and fired him from his Cabinet. Instead, Netanyahu said nothing about the provocation, weighing in only against Palestinian actions in East Jerusalem and doubling down on his commitment to use all means necessary to cow the city’s Palestinian residents into quiet submission.
Israel has re-introduced the “dilution” policy on the Temple Mount.
Under the Amman understandings, one of the major changes was the suspension of the (appropriately Orwellian-sounding) policy called “dilution.” This is the policy of keeping Muslim worshippers off the Temple Mount during periods when Israeli activists/provocateurs are present. After Amman, the policy of “dilution” disappeared, and this had a major impact on reducing tensions. In recent days, however, “dilution” has come back into use, ostensibly as a response to increased Palestinian harassment of Jews who ascend the Mount (harassment that has increased in response to ever-larger numbers of Jews being permitted to access the Mount).
Nothing scares Palestinian public opinion more than this “dilution” policy, and for good reason: it is basically an incremental implementation of a “temporal division” of the Mount – i.e., trying to establish a de facto new status quo under which during certain times the area is reserved for Muslims, and at other times it is reserved for Jews. Jewish Temple Mount activists have long suggested that this is exactly the new status quo they seek, pointing to the Tomb of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron as an example where such arrangements have been implemented already (arrangements implemented in the wake of the mass murder of Palestinians in prayer by a Jewish Israeli-American settler). Muslims have long feared that a temporal division at the Temple Mount is Israel’s unstated but very real goal.
Keeping the Mount open for Jewish access has been made a priority above all else.
It has been a fairly consistent Israeli policy since 1967 that when tensions soar, Israel closes the Mount to Jewish visitors, and in extremis closes the site to everyone. That policy has radically changed under this Government, which today is implementing a policy of keeping the Mount open to Jewish visitors at all costs, even if doing so leads directly to violence. Notably, until recent weeks, senior echelons of the Israeli police have challenged Cabinet-level guidelines instructing them to keep the Mount open, saying that the Mount should be closed to visitors.
Today, with an acting Police Chief angling for a permanent appointment and the Jerusalem police commander under the pall of the recent murder committed at the city’s Gay Pride parade, the Israeli Police are fulfilling government guidelines energetically, without question or challenge, despite the fact that these guidelines contradict the judgment of anyone engaged in actual policing (at least insofar as policing is viewed as a means of achieving law and order, rather than carrying out political agendas).
Israel has dispensed with the pretense that the Waq’f has any real authority.
For the first time in memory (and possibly ever), on 9/20 Israeli police removed the Waq’f guards from the Mount before carrying out a “pre-emptive” raid against Palestinians at the site. The implications of this act were not missed by Palestinians, who understand that Israeli is essentially asserting that the Waq’f’s authority and autonomy on the Mount is, in Israel’s eyes, a fiction that can be dispensed with at will. The more is particularly problematic vis-à-vis Jordan (which has authority over the Waq’f), with Jordan increasing being portrayed as a shill for Netanyahu.
Both sides are allowing Al Aqsa to be turned into an Armageddon stage-prop.
In recent weeks, Israeli Police have found it advantageous to drive Palestinian protestors/rioters into the Al Aqsa mosque. By corralling Palestinians inside the Mosque, Israeli police have been able to allow Jewish visits to proceed unabated and unmolested by Palestinian protests (or even any visible presence of Palestinians at all).
This tactic, ironically, appeals to the Palestinian youth (the shabab) at the core of the protests/riots as much as it does to Israeli police: fighting back against police who are firing of teargas and stun grenades into the Mosque – images that are broadcast on satellite TV across the Muslim world – cements their status as the guardians of Al Aqsa (against the Jewish aggressors). The danger in this mutually-agreeable drama cannot be understated: If a spark from an Israeli grenade ignites a carpet in Al Aqsa, we could see a repeat of the torching of the Mosque in 1969 – and the crisis that resulted.
Netanyahu has returned to his policy of trying to “break” the Palestinians.
Netanyahu’s policy across the board vis-à-vis the Palestinians in East Jerusalem has returned to what we saw clearly in November 2014. As we wrote back then,
“at no point during this crisis has any Israeli official addressed the Palestinian public. Official Israel’s message, directed at the Israeli-Jewish public, but received loud and clear by the Palestinians, has been uniform: for the sake of Israel, the Palestinians in East Jerusalem must and will be broken.”
Israeli tactics for dealing with the violence reflected this framing:
“Willfully refusing to acknowledge legitimate Palestinian grievances in East Jerusalem, Israel’s responses have been limited to tactics aimed at cowing the city’s Palestinian residents into quiet submission: massively increased police presence and activity; increased intelligence activities; more aggressive enforcement of parking and building code violations; punishing parents for their children’s actions; and more severe sentences for Palestinians arrested in the clashes.”
Today it is the same story, with Netanyahu’s again focusing his message on the Israeli-Jewish public – and that message being limited to expressing his determination to take all necessary actions to break the Palestinians and cow them into submission once again – whether with snipers against rock throwers (a policy that is guaranteed to backfire), beefed up police enforcement, and even declaring Muslim organizations (even informal ones) illegal. Outlawing the “Murabitun” (Palestinian civilian “guards” of al Aqsa) would have been problematic under any circumstances (when was the last time that any extreme Jewish organizations was declared illegal?); in the absence of any engagement with the Palestinians, this is tantamount to corking a volcano.
Faith is being weaponized, as the political center collapses.
When Israeli Governments lurch to the right, government policies across the board become more extreme – and with respect to Jerusalem, the Temple Mount extremists become more aggressive (and often more extreme) in their demands. Today, in a government of hardliners and extremists, Netanyahu is effectively the “moderate” flank of his own Cabinet. As such, not one member of his government is acting to moderate policies vis-à-vis Jerusalem, and many members of Netanyahu’s Cabinet actively support more extreme policies. This trend was evidenced by the response of Israel’s Minister of Public Security, Gilad Erdan, who suggested that Israeli judges be denied promotion if they are perceived as being lenient on Palestinians who throw stones – a call to politicize the judiciary which in completely incompatible with democracy.
A similar trend is evident on the Palestinians side – indeed, among Palestinians and Israelis alike, it has become politically and socially unacceptable to challenge the exclusionary claims of one’s own side.
(b) What to Watch for Going Forward
Tensions are soaring and still rising – and the worst is probably still to come. The Jewish high holiday of Yom Kippur (starting at sundown this evening) will fall, in a quirk of the lunar calendar, back-to-back with the Muslim holiday of Eid al Adha. Days later, there will be the Jewish high holiday of Sukkot, when Israeli-Jewish provocateurs annually seek to ascend the Temple Mount.
When this particularly tense period ends, tensions may subside a bit on their own, However, the overall trends of escalation and radicalization will continue, and interested parties must prepare now for a sustained engagement on this issue in ways that were not necessary in the past. Some specific things to watch are the following:
Al Aqsa: Even barring catastrophe, any real or perceived violation of the integrity of the Al Aqsa Mosque is particularly incendiary. Not only has driving the Palestinian protestors into the Mosque become “standard operating procedure,” but heavily armed Israeli police have been spotted on the roof of Al Aqsa.
Spillover: To date (this year, at least), the violence on the Mount has principally spilled over into the Old City but not far beyond. In recent days, this has shifted, with increasingly protests and violent incidents in the surrounding areas of East Jerusalem (Issawiyeh, A Tur, etc.). Based on the experiences of fall 2014, the possibility of broader conflict across much of East Jerusalem cannot be dismissed, including a return of the kind of deadly attacks we saw last year focusing on the light rail and vehicular terrorism along Route 1.
Netanyahu and the King, Round 2?: To date, Netanyahu has been far more attentive to the concerns of the Jordanians than he has been to those of President Obama or Secretary Kerry. That attentiveness appears to have weakened, to say the least. And initially, there were reports recently that Netanyahu was trying to reassure King Abdullah – reassurance that may be athte root of the September 20th statement by Netanyahu in which he explicitly, emphatically, and in unequivocal language makes clear that he is not trying to change the status quo on the Temple Mount (a statement that was welcome, given that his previous comments on the subject, which focused on “freedom of worship,” suggested exactly the opposite). While this is encouraging, subsequent events suggest a shift in policy, with Israel openly accusing Jordan of bearing responsibility, at least in part, for the deteriorating situation. Whether U.S. Secretary of State Kerry, President Abdullah or others can play the important role they have played in the past in pulling Netanyahu back from the brink remains to be seen.
Is this the post-Iran Netanyahu? Over the past year (and even longer), Netanyahu has become increasingly defiant – but only on the issue of Iran. He has repeatedly indicated that he wanted to conduct a “one-front war” against the Iran deal, with no distractions. With Iran settled (for now), it is indeed likely that Netanyahu will act – and already may be acting – with less self-restraint. Netanyahu may be testing the waters with his current reckless approach to the Temple Mount, in what may be the first manifestation of a post-Iran-deal approach that, in the coming period, will almost certainly include further provocative, anti-two-state actions, particularly on the settlement front.