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What happens now with Temple Mount?

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I have covered wars and had rockets explode behind me during live reports, and yet it wasn’t so long ago that I was uneasy just walking down a street in Jerusalem. There was a feeling of anxiety; not knowing who to trust and where to feel safe.
by PAULA SLIER | Jul 20, 2017

A wave of Palestinian-on-Israeli stabbings had been sweeping the city and others in Israel and the West Bank since October 2015 and social media was talking of a “Third Intifada” - or Palestinian Uprising. Back in September 2000, the previous Intifada had broken out after, most experts agree, then opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount complex. It is this area again that is now back in the news.

Sacred to both Muslims and Jews, the Waqf, or Jordanian Islamic Trust, manages it, but Palestinians fear the Israeli government wants to impose changes. Muslim worshippers under the age of 40 are already prohibited from accessing the Al Aqsa Mosque while groups of Jewish settlers are allowed to go there. Palestinians fear this could become a permanent situation.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly promised the contrary; that he has no desire to change anything, but it remains a real concern for Palestinians.

I have interviewed the Palestinian minister of the Waqf for different stories, but his underlying concern is always the same - a conviction that Israel is trying to undermine the Palestinian hold on the place.

Any disturbance therefore on, or near the mosque, has the power to ignite a religious war. Netanyahu understands this - as does Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. And while there hasn’t been one phone call between the two in a year, it took last Friday’s terror attack in which two Israeli policemen guarding the complex were killed, for contact to be renewed.

It was the second time in just a few weeks that deadly attacks were carried out inside Jerusalem’s Old City. Two police officers, who happened to be Druze, were killed and another was wounded.

In a highly unusual move, Israeli police subsequently closed the Temple Mount to Muslim worshippers, citing security concerns. But Palestinians viewed it as a breach of religious rights and collective punishment, saying that the last time Friday prayers were banned in Al-Aqsa mosque was in June 1967, during the Six Day War.

As can be expected, the closure prompted the precise reactions Israel was trying to avoid. Some imams called on worshippers to break into the compound and right-wing Israeli parliamentarians stated it was high time that the status quo be changed and Israeli sovereignty over the area be established for good.

Keenly aware of this, in his phone call to Abbas, Netanyahu asked the Palestinian president to calm the situation. Abbas obliged, condemning the attack and saying that he opposed any, and all, kinds of violence, especially in places of worship. He asked Netanyahu to reopen the Mount to worshippers.

They were encouraging words from both sides, showing that while it may still be premature for the two leaders to reach a final status agreement on matters of mutual interest, they can act decisively and together. If anything good comes out of this horrendous incident, it could perhaps be the hope that another year doesn’t need to pass, or another deadly attack happen, before they talk to one another again. 

But there are a lot of alarm bells ringing.

The perpetrators were Israeli Arabs from the northern Arab city of Umm el-Fahm. It is not clear where they trained and even more importantly how they smuggled weapons into the complex. Were there collaborators and if yes, are they waiting to strike again? No doubt these are real security breaches that need to be investigated.

Tensions between Israel and Jordan have also spiked. Amman accused Jerusalem of violating the status quo by barring Muslim worshippers from praying; Jerusalem responded by calling on Jordan to stop inflaming the situation.

These tensions reverberated throughout the Arab world, with condemnation coming from even those Sunni Arab countries with whom Israel is supposedly developing warmer ties - a rude wakeup call that when it comes to the Palestinian issue, there are divides that remain as big as ever to cross.

Tensions are also running high between Israel’s Muslim and Druze communities. The fact that the attackers were three young Israeli Muslims who killed two young Israeli Druze, has left both communities reeling, particularly in areas with mixed Muslim-Druze populations. Since Friday’s shooting, some Druze have condemned the perpetrators while some Arab Israelis have expressed understanding of their motives against an ”occupation army”.

What is important to remember is that this attack on the Al-Aqsa compound was not a spur-of-the-moment incident. It was the result of a decades-long violent conflict. And while Israel introduced metal detectors and turnstiles to try to deal with the security risks, this has only intensified Arab condemnation.

We might not be heading for another Intifada just yet; but ironically, Israeli efforts to prevent further religious incitement might just provoke the situation even more. 

Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and CEO of NewshoundMedia and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Woman in Leadership Award of the South African Absa Jewish Achievers.

 

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