The last thing the Middle East needs is a major conflagration in Israel-Palestine – but a summer crisis in Jerusalem made it clear that in the right circumstances, it really could happen.
The crisis began in the early hours of July 14. Three young Arab Israelis broke into the Haram al-Sharif, which Jews call the Temple Mount, and killed two Israeli-Druze police officers; they were pursued inside the holy place and shot dead nearby. In a highly unusual and controversial move, the Israeli government responded by shutting down the holy compound to Muslim worshippers gathering for Friday prayers. The shrine was reopened to Muslims the following Sunday, but with new metal detectors and additional “smart cameras” installed.
The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, vowed that the status quo at the site would be preserved, but his reassurances weren’t enough.
Many Palestinians saw Israel’s unilateral decision to set up metal detectors as part of an attempt to “Judaise” the site, and soon a popular uprising was underway. Muslim worshippers gathered outside the site’s entrances to defend what they called “al-Aqsa under threat”. In keeping with the orders of the city’s Islamic leaders, the Muslim Waqf and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, they refused to enter the compound through the metal detectors, and organised collective prayers in defiance of what they saw as an Israeli encroachment on Islam’s third holiest site.
When Israel finally removed the security apparatus from the holy site and everything supposedly returned to normal, the Waqf and the Mufti lifted their boycott, encouraging Muslims to worship at al-Aqsa again. Thousands of Palestinians hailed the announcement as “a victory from God” over the “Israeli occupier”.
This might sound like a disaster averted. But while the crisis might have been temporarily resolved, it proved that the risk of serious violence and instability is still very much there.
Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount has been called “the single most explosive piece of real estate on the planet”. It sits in the heart of a holy city that’s claimed as a capital city by both sides in one of the world’s most intractable conflicts.
Tensions at the site have ignited hostilities before most notoriously in 2000 at the outset of the Second Intifada, also known as the al-Aqsa Intifada. In October 2015, the idea that al-Aqsa was falling into Zionist hands was one of the given justifications for a wave of stabbings, shootings and vehicular attacks on Israeli police and civilians.
Given this history, there’s nothing truly unprecedented about the most recent crisis. But the sheer impact of the protests it sparked took everyone by surprise, including political leaders on all sides.
Caught in the middle
As far as the Israeli authorities are concerned, the situation has now returned to normal, but the state’s behaviour during the crisis should worry everyone concerned.
Netanyahu’s government framed the July 14 attacks as a security issue, and put the sacred compound under strict surveillance. Despite the risks of escalation attached to more or less anything Palestinian leaders perceive as a change to the status quo, Israel still installed its metal detectors and cameras unilaterally, surely reinforcing Palestinian anxieties about a supposed Zionist takeover of the holy site.
Netanyahu knows all too well how dangerous sudden change can be, and only a minority of national-religious politicians in his ruling coalition really want to see unrestrained Jewish control over the sacred site. But he’s in a bind: only with the support of these powerful national-religious figures can he hold his government together, and it’s those same allies’ growing activism that usually triggers dangerous clashes at the sacred site.
Sure enough, Netanyahu’s decision to withdraw Israel’s security measures at the holy site enraged his hard-right coalition partners, not least his minister of education, Naftali Bennett, who’s expected to challenge him at the next election.
As for Palestinian leaders, the events of July showed how much the dynamics on their side have changed in recent years.
The president of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, initially condemned the assailants’ actions. But once Israel installed its metal detectors, he had to change tack, offering words of support to the Muslim worshippers refusing to enter the compound: “We support you and are proud of you … This is the appropriate reaction to anybody hurting our holy sites.”
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri took a similar tone, calling the attack in Jerusalem “a natural reaction to Israeli terror and the desecration of al-Aqsa Mosque” by the Jewish settlers. As Zuhri, that reaction would have also proved that all Palestinians are “united” in resistance.
Yet for all their grandiose rhetoric, Fatah and Hamas probably had little if any influence over what was happening in the Old City and East Jerusalem. Since at least the Second Intifada, Palestinians living in these areas have steadily become isolated from leaders in Ramallah and Gaza. Given the success of their recent protests, they may well start gearing up for a protracted struggle to “defend” al-Aqsa, and they can do it without direction from either Fatah or Hamas.
If they do, the ramifications could be seismic. Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount is more than a touchstone of the Palestinian struggle for national self-determination; it’s a concern for millions of faithful Muslims in the Middle East and beyond, and anything that happens there is almost guaranteed to have repercussions well beyond Israel and Palestine.
Sure enough, when the recent crisis took hold, local and international news outlets reported that several Arab leaders were variously working to defuse it and to mute reports on it in their own countries. They did so out of fear that the Palestinian uprising could spread to other Muslim countries and spark something like an another “Arab Spring”.
A new intifada centred on such a powerful symbol of Muslim identity would be more than a local struggle; it could start a wave of Islamic solidarity and protest across the Middle East, and force repressive, unjust Arab regimes into violent confrontation with their own citizens.
For now, Israel and the Palestinian Authorities are at a diplomatic impasse, and the international community still isn’t seriously engaged with the conflict’s central symbolic problems. As the Israeli settlement project continues, Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount is still a dangerous flashpoint – and a wave of unrest and violence across both Palestine and Israel proper is still on the cards.