Tensions Growing [again] Focused on Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif

The tragic stabbing attack at the Lion’s Gate in Jerusalem on March 13, in which two Israeli policemen were injured and the young Palestinian assailant was shot dead, comes in the context of rising tensions prompted by a series of measures that reinforce the perception among Palestinians living in East Jerusalem that Israel is determined to deny their religious ties to the Temple Mount/Haram El Sharif. These steps includes the passage of the Muezzin Law (which we wrote about here) and the inauguration of a new archaeological trail celebrating Jewish heritage that passes  just below the Al Aqsa  Mosque.

Against this backdrop, Jordan reportedly announced its decision to increase the number of the Waqf employees present on the Temple Mount/Haram El Sharif from 800 to 1000. This decision was reportedly in reaction to Jordan’s objection to the Muezzin Law, and in order to protect “sites sacred to Islam and Christianity” in Jerusalem. The increased number of Waqf employees is not necessarily a worrying sign, especially if it indicates a determination to prevent tensions and, in that vein, a readiness, of the Waqf to more proactively take on its responsibilities vis-à-vis Palestinian provocateurs. But it can also be a more symbolic measure, motivated by the need to reassert the role of Jordan towards the Temple Mount/Haram El Sharif.

The current already volatile situation is going to be further challenged in the coming period, which will be marked by a series of holidays and events that raise the risk of provocations and violence in the Temple Mount/Haram el Sharif. This includes

  • the celebration of the Passover between April 10 and 18, a holiday perennially exploited by Jewish provocateurs seeking to challenge/change the status quoat the site, in favor of Jewish worship on the Temple Mount.
  • Passover will be followed by the month of Ramadan, which will start on May 26 – always an occasion for rising tensions on the Mount.
  • And Ramadan will overlap with the 50thanniversary of Israeli occupation of the East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip and, in particular, with June 7, which will be celebrated by Israel as the anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem.
  • In addition, Ramadan will also overlap with June 1, the date of the expiration of the current six-month waiver applied to the transfer of the American embassyto Jerusalem.

Any of these events raises the risks of incendiary statements and actions that would further raise the frustration and anger among East Jerusalem Palestinians who feel that their narrative, rights and ties are denied. The fact that Israeli police refused to grant permission for the annual Nakba commemoration march, held on Israel’s Independence Day, will only fuel this frustration.

And speaking of provocations: At the same time as Israel claims that UNESCO has been denying Jewish ties to the Temple Mount/Haram El Sharif, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat organized a tour for six ambassadors to UNESCO, all of whom voted against UNESCO’s resolution on Jerusalem holy sites. The ambassadors were accompanied by Israeli settler activist David Be’eri, director and founder of the City of David Foundation, commonly known as Elad, who is actively promotes Jewish settlements in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods and an exclusionary Jewish narrative with respect to the city’s past, present, and future (see more on Elad here).

Be’eri’s efforts have long enjoyed strong governmental support, but perhaps never more openly than is the case today. The mainstreaming of his hardline settlement agenda was evidenced by the fact that in mid-March he was granted Israel’s most prestigious national honor: the Israel Prize for life achievement. The decision to award him this accolade sent a clear message to Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem: there is no value to the conclusions of the State Comptroller criticizing the relations between governmental authorities and Elad; and the State is fully backing and encouraging the actions of the settlers in the heart of the Palestinian neighborhoods. More than anything, this prize is another confirmation of Israeli government authorities’ collusion with settlers in East Jerusalem.

These provocations, and the succession of events that are expected in the coming two months, carry a significant risk of escalation that will require vigilant monitoring and engagement. It is vital to stress the responsibility of the Israeli government to both contain and condemn provocations that seek to disrupt the status quo on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif or that threaten security and stability in Jerusalem.

Since the Israeli-Jordanian understanding of October 2015, Prime Minister Netanyahu has appeared to take this responsibility seriously, including generally rejecting calls to allow MKs to once again visit the Temple Mount. He held firm in this rejection even after a Knesset Committee decided to lift the ban on visits at the beginning of February, based on police recommendations. However, just as tensions are once again heating up at the site – and with a particularly difficult period on the horizon – this week, Netanyahu decided to give in to pressure and announced that the ban on MK visits to the site would be removed at the end of June – after Passover and Ramadan. This will be for a trial period, with future decisions based on the security situation.

This decision apparently reflects Netanyahu’s concern that he is politically vulnerable and needs to placate the core of his base. The decision appears to be based on the highly problematic and potentially dangerous assumption that calm can be sustained regardless of the changes that will be implemented on the ground, ignoring the fact that the tensions that led to the last wave of violence (in Fall 2015) have not disappeared. Rather, they have merely abated and are ready to rise again at almost any time, fed by the same frustration, anger and feeling of denial that led to the last round of sustained violence. In addition, while framing this decision tentatively – as one to enter into effect in three months time, provided calm is maintained, and even then for a trial period – may well incentivize the Temple Mount movement to exhibit restrain in the coming weeks, it may have precisely the opposite effect on extreme Islamic groups active in and around the Mount: increased tensions will help them achieve their goal of preventing the resumption of visits by Israeli members of Knesset.