Changing the status quo in Jerusalem?
This article first appeared on The Media Line.
After more than a month of violent Palestinian attacks that have killed 11 Israelis, and the deaths of at least 75 Palestinians in both attacks and clashes with Israeli troops, Palestinians insist that Israel wants to change the “status quo” at the Jerusalem holy site that Jews call the Temple Mount, and Palestinians the Noble Sanctuary. Israeli officials insist there has been no change in the “status-quo.”
That status quo allows non-Muslims to visit the site, but not to pray there. However, many Palestinians believe that the recent increase in the number Jewish visitors to the site is meant to pave the way to allow Jewish prayer there. The site is run by the Jordanian Waqf, or Muslim religious trust, but Israel is responsible for the overall security at the site.
Speaking at a PLO Executive Committee meeting this week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said that Israel must preserve the status quo that prevailed before the year 2000, when few Israelis visited the site. September of that year is when then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited the site, accompanied by hundreds of Israeli policemen. His visit set off rioting that became known as second Palestinian intifada.
After that visit, Israel closed the site to visits by non-Muslims for almost three years, but then reopened it after public pressure. Recently, the number of visitors has grown to 12,000 Jews annually, many of them activists with right-wing organizations that seek to rebuild the Jewish Temple at the site that is holy to both Judaism and Islam. To Judaism, it is the site of the First and Second Temples; to Muslims it is the site where the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven.
The increase in the number of Jewish visitors came after more mainstream Orthodox rabbis ruled that it is permissible for Jews to visit the site, and there is no fear of entering the “holy of holies”, a part of the original Temple off-limits to anyone except the High Priest, and only on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.
Israeli security officials say that the increase in Jewish visitors, along with claims from prominent Israeli Arabs such as the head of the northern branch of the Islamic movement Raed Salah that “al-Aqsa is in danger” sparked the current wave of violence. Israeli officials insist there has been no change, and the original agreement worked out between Israel and Jordan in 1967 when Israel acquired the area, remains in force.
“This claim is not true and it is dangerous,” Knesset member Mickey Levy, who was also a former Jerusalem police chief told a conference at Hebrew University. “This man endangers the security of Israel, and even the Middle East. A war that begins over water or borders will eventually end. But a war over religion may never end.”
Salah is due to start an 11-month prison term for remarks made in 2007 that an Israeli court has called “incitement.”
Levy said that Israel must make work hard to end the current wave of violence and must make sure that there are no Palestinian deaths at the holy site itself.
“When I took over in 2000 I took away the police officer’s guns and left them only with riot gear,” Levy said. “Since then not one Palestinian has died at the site, and that is in our interest.”
Levy, who left the job in 2004, and is today a Knesset member for the centrist Yesh Atid said that he sometimes felt like “the boy in Holland with his finger in the dam trying to stop the violence from exploding.”
In September, Israeli cabinet minister Uri Ariel visited the site and called for the building of a “third Temple” there, sparking angry Palestinian reactions. Netanyahu soon prohibited both Jewish and Arab Knesset members from visiting the site.
“The main cause (of the current violence) is the provocative visits by settlers and right-wing activists to the al-Aqsa mosque with a clear plan to control this area and declare that it belongs to the Jewish people,” Youssef Jabarin, an Israeli Knesset member from the Arab Joint List told The Media Line. “These visits have been supported by Israeli government ministers and the plan is basically to divide al-Aqsa so that for some of the time only Jews can enter while keeping Muslims outside the gates.”
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has repeatedly insisted that Israel has no intention of changing the status quo at the site. But police say they have occasionally kept Muslim worshippers from entering the area, if a large group of Jews were visiting and they feared violence.
Last month, Secretary of State John Kerry held separate talks with Israeli and Jordanian officials on how to tamp down the violence. He announced that 24-hour surveillance cameras would be set up. Palestinian opposed the idea saying that Israel would use the cameras to “arrest Palestinians on the pretext of incitement.”
This current wave of violence, which some are calling “the third intifada” or Palestinian uprising is characterized by stabbing attacks, often by teenage perpetrators. A few of the attackers have been as young as 13, with a significant proportion falling between 15 and 18, at least a third of them from east Jerusalem.
“They are little boys, not even young men,” Amir Cheshin, a former advisor on Arab affairs to the Jerusalem municipality told The Media Line. “They are responding to Israel’s long-time neglect of Palestinian neighborhoods in east Jerusalem. The youth there feel a deep sense of despair and that they have no future.”