Jerusalem Tensions Remain High

Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif: Since Secretary Kerry’s visit to Jerusalem on November 24, there has been some reduction in tensions, particularly with respect to the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif. However, there are players on both sides who are clearly interested in challenging efforts to restore calm and sustain the current understanding, including Israel’s commitment to maintain the Status Quo on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif.  Recent developments include:

  • The ruling of an Israeli judge that Jewish Temple Mount activists –who explicit agenda is to pray on the Temple Mount, contrary to the longstanding status quo at the site – may raise their up their palms (in what is a clear mark of Jewish prayer) while on the site. With this ruling, the court reversed a 15 days ban on access to the site by a hardline Temple Mount activist and former Jewish terrorist Yehuda Etzion who was recently allowed to enter the site after a 30-year ban (see below). The ruling was immediately picked up by Middle East media, which reported that the Court had ruled to permit Jewish prayer on the Haram al Sharif – a not entirely accurate, but also not entirely inaccurate, description of the ruling.
  • The submission of a new bill in the Knesset, submitted by MK Bezalel Smotrich from the  Jewish Home party (a member of Netanyahu’s coalition) that would make it Israeli law that Jews have a right to pray on the Temple Mount.
  • Calls by Temple Mount activists to Jews to ascend to the Mount during Hanukkahsubsequently, about 400 religious Jews ascended the Temple Mount during Hanukkah, according to the “Yaraeh” organization,  whose stated mission is to encourage Jewish ascension to the Mount).
  • A declaration by Israeli Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan that the number of Jewish visitors to the site will not be limited (in response and in contradiction to new directives of the Israeli police that were published).
  • The granting by Israeli authorities of authorization for convicted Jewish terrorist Yehuda Etzion, a former member of the Jewish Underground who in the 1980s was one of the leaders of a plot to blow up the Dome of the Rock (he was arrested and served time in jail), to enter the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif after 30 years of having been banned from the site (Etzion was subsequently arrested for trying to pray at the site and banned from the site for 15 days).
  • After the replacement in the Knesset of disgraced Likud member Silvan Shalom, well-known Temple Mount activist Yehuda Glick is now next in line on the Likud list if another Likud member leaves/step down from the Knesset for any reason. Should this happen, it will be yet another benchmark in the transformation of what not long ago was an extreme fringe group into a mainstream political force to be reckoned with.
  • Israel and Jordan have still failed to agree on the how to go forward with the installation of cameras at the site, and the Palestinians remain vocally opposed to the camera initiative.

Jerusalem as a whole: The decline in tensions around the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif has to some degree lowered the flame on tensions in the city as a whole, with attacks becoming more sporadic and normal movement restored to some degree in most of East Jerusalem (at the same time, the level of violence has increased precipitously in the West Bank). However, terror attacks continue, and as a backdrop to the continued violence, Israel continues to demolish the homes of the families of Palestinian attackers (also here and here), and “enhanced law enforcement” continues to be employed as a means of reminding East Jerusalem Palestinians under whose rule they live (e.g., removing an Islamic sign that has been up for 30 years, ramping up the issuance of fines for violations of no smoking rules). Overall, both Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem today are traumatized, fearful, and to no small degree angry, as Israelis try to live their normal lives while anticipating the next attack, and as Palestinians try to live under the continued heavy hand of Israeli security, as they anticipate the next round of collective punishment that will follow any attack.

While tensions on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif have declined, the overall trends of radicalization are still very much in play. On the streets of Jerusalem, violent attack is an ever present threat. The Israeli policies remain very much those geared to break the will of the Palestinian sector, not to engage it. There is no pretense of a political horizon that could mitigate the despair. East Jerusalem continues to smolder – and this round of violence is not behind us, and there is no end in sight.