The Battle for Jerusalem: Playing with Fire in the Holy Land

By: Tilde Rosmer, University of Oslo.

Last week the Israeli Knesset (parliament) held its first ever discussion about Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. Holy to both Jews and Muslims, this site in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem is widely acknowledged to be one of the most passionately contested pieces of real estate in the world. Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) is the third holiest site of Islam and the Dome of the Rock is believed by Muslims to be the site of the Prophet Muhammad’s Night Journey and his Ascension to Heaven. The Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism revered as the site of the First and Second Temple.

In addition to its religious import, the site also now has overtly political and nationalist connotations. The area came under Israeli rule following Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank in the 1967 War. Its status, like that of Jerusalem generally, has remained a sticking point in bilateral peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO).

Moreover, as Palestinians and Israelis recall only too well, when then-Israeli Defence Minister, Ariel Sharon made his highly publicised visit to the site in September 2000 in advance of a General Election, the ensuing protests from Palestinians and the lethal response to such protests by Israeli security forces unleashed a wave of violence that is now referred to as the Second Intifada or Intifadat Al-Aqsa.

The Knesset debate about the sovereignty of the holy site was initiated by Member of Knesset Moshe Feiglin (Likud). As reported in the Times of Israel, MK Feiglin is concerned that the Muslim Waqf (the Islamic trust that administers the holy site) ‘is exploiting the religious autonomy it received (in 1967) and turned it into – with the wilful blindness of all Israeli governments – near-total Muslim/Jordanian sovereignty’. The Jerusalem Post reported that in his address to the Knesset last Wednesday, MK Feiglin said that, ‘The State of Israel is pointless without the Temple Mount’ and complained that whereas ‘every terrorist organisation’ could fly its flag on the site, Israel’s flag was ‘unmentionable’ there. He continued to lament that the State of Israel is ‘meaningless’ without control over the Temple Mount and said that, ‘Without the Temple Mount, we have no home.’ ‘There is no Zionism without Zion’ Deputy Defence Minister Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) added.

MK Feiglin’s position represents that of a growing number of right-wing Israelis and messianic-nationalist settler groups who are the main agitators for Jews to be granted access to the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif, and who ultimately want to rebuild the ancient Temple or alternatively build a synagogue on the site. At present non-Muslims are barred from praying at the site by the Islamic Waqf authorities which administer the area. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel also prohibits Jews from entering the site due its sacredness. Prior to his election to the Knesset in February 2013, MK Feiglin was arrested for praying at Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in 2012 and 2013 by Israeli police who generally upholds the prohibition imposed by the Waqf. He is reported to have toured the holy site again earlier this month, this time protected by Israeli police and in his capacity as a member of parliament, thereby provoking Palestinian and Muslim criticism.

Indeed, the question of control and sovereignty over this area is one that not only concerns Israel and Palestine. It also involves Jordan (King Abdullah is recognised by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as the Custodian of Haram al-Sharif) and communities of practising Muslims and Jews worldwide.

For its part, Jordan’s parliament reacted to the Knesset debate by unanimously voting to expel the Israeli ambassador from Amman and recalling its own Ambassador. Jordanian spokespersons said that the debate jeopardises the 19-year-old peace agreement between the two countries. Meanwhile, on the (holy) ground, Palestinian East Jerusalemites rioted at the site in advance of the debate and Palestinian Members of Knesset walked out in protest during the discussion.

Indeed, in recent years, Palestinian citizens of Israel have been among the most visible and vocal opponents of the positions relating to the site advanced by right wing Jewish Israeli politicians such as MK Feiglin. At an organisational level, the Islamic Movement of Israel has been at the forefront of the local battle over Al-Quds/Jerusalem and the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. The leader of the Islamic Movement’s Northern branch, Shaykh Ra’ed Salah, is especially closely associated with a campaign to ‘protect’ Al-Aqsa. Indeed, Salah has been called the ‘Shaykh of Al-Aqsa’ and the ‘Palestinian Mayor of Jerusalem’.

Salah has long warned about what he considers to be threats to the holy site, such as the archaeological excavations that Israel began under the site following its occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967 and the rising prominence of right-wing groups’ and politicians’ claims to the site. Through its Al-Aqsa Association, the Islamic Movement says that it works to ‘document, preserve and protect’ Palestinian Muslim and Christian religious sites in Jerusalem and in Israel, with Al-Aqsa Mosque being its main priority. The Association has funded restoration work of the Mosque and its surroundings and has provided volunteer workers and equipment to the Jordanian-led Waqf to conduct such work.

In addition, the Islamic Movement arranges free busses to and from the city on a daily basis from Palestinian localities across Israel in order to encourage Palestinian citizens of Israel to visit Jerusalem. The aim of the trips is two-fold:  first, to encourage Palestinian Muslims to pray at Al-Aqsa, thus ensuring that the mosque continues to be an active place of worship, and secondly, to encourage Palestinian citizens if Israel to shop in East Jerusalem and thereby support the embattled local economy and the livelihoods of the Palestinians still living there. Today, many Palestinians from the outskirts of Jerusalem and surrounding villages and towns are unable to enter the city due to the wall, check points and permit regime which Israel has put in place, ostensibly to address security concerns arising during the Second Intifada. Deprived of its historical rural and urban commuting population, Palestinian East Jerusalem has been struggling economically, politically, religiously and socially.

In addition to being a constant presence on the ground in East Jerusalem and at the religious site, the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement arranges the annual ‘Al Aqsa is in Danger’ Festival in the its home town of Umm al-Fahm. The Festival is reported by Israeli media to attract up to 50,000 people a year and includes Christian Palestinians among its supporters and guest speakers. During the Festival, leaders of the Islamic Movement join other religious and secular leaders in making speeches in which calls are made for Al-Aqsa and Al-Quds to be liberated from Israeli occupation.

Such speeches are perhaps the polar opposite of those made by MK Feiglin and his allies in the Knesset last week. However, while the subject of sovereignty and control over the Haram Al-Sharif / Temple Mount was an unprecedented one to discuss in Israel’s Parliament, the status quo arrangement will not be altered – at least for the time being. Arguably, the Likud-Beteynu-led government has more pressing concerns to address at the moment, particularly in view of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s State visit to the US and while Secretary of State Kerry’s intensive diplomatic efforts to secure a ‘framework’ for a peace agreement between the Government of Israel and the PLO are reportedly nearing a critical moment.

Yet, by allowing his fellow party members to debate the issue of sovereignty over this contested holy site in parliament, Binyamin Netanyahu and his coalition government have turned the heat up in the battle over Jerusalem. The very fact the debate took place has served to intensify the religious dimension of the struggle for control over the city and of the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Several predictable consequences are readily discernible from the debate having occurred.

First, the debate will be seized on by some to justify the fears expressed by the leaders of the Islamic Movement in Israel and others about a plan for Israel to seize control of and ‘Judaize’ the holy site. Second, it will further complicate the already sufficiently complex peace negotiations between Israel and the PLO. Third, it has further strained Israel’s relations with Jordan – one of the few Arab countries with which Israel enjoys diplomatic relations and a formal (if relatively cold) peace. Fourth, it has further antagonised Muslim communities and Muslim-majority states worldwide.

Whether these consequences will contribute to a development as dramatic as a Third Intifada remains to be seen. At the time of publication, this does not seem likely, but if progress is not seen to be made in the US-led diplomatic efforts to secure a peace agreement, the situation on the ground may deteriorate very quickly. Predictions of what the future holds are always fraught with uncertainty. Two things are certain, however: few parts of the globe are more incendiary than the Haram Al-Sharif/Temple Mount. And those who play with fire often get burned.

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