The growing tension surrounding the Temple Mount threatens to undermine the calm Israel has enjoyed for the past few months. Some of the incidents of the past few days have been routine, such as Jews and Muslims worshipping and the annual Jerusalem March; others not, such as the visit by French tourists to the mosque area and the rumor of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu having dinner in Silwan. Either way, they underlay the recriminations and mutual threats, the diplomatic intervention by Jordan and the United States, and the street protests by masked Palestinians in East Jerusalem. The confrontation escalated yesterday with the arrest of the leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, Sheikh Ra'ad Salah.
The Israeli government and "the security infrastructure" accused the Palestinian Authority and Salah's organization of attempts to incite their constituencies during the Sukkot holiday, when large numbers of Jews make pilgrimages to Jerusalem. The PA, Salah and Muslim clerics in Arab states, for their part, tried to rally the international community and public opinion against the "Judaization of Jerusalem" and what they described as an attempt to do injury to the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
For the parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Jerusalem and its sacred sites are a guaranteed means of inflaming national passions and creating tension and confrontation in times of political duress. Both the violence around the opening of the Western Wall tunnels in the summer of 1996 and the second intifada, which began in 2000, started in the Temple Mount area.
Netanyahu's government played up its efforts to populate East Jerusalem with Jews while standing up against the U.S. demand for a freeze on construction in the settlements. The PA, under President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, calls for "saving Al-Aqsa" while facing stiff criticism from within its own ranks for not pressing discussion of the Goldstone report in the United Nations.
Both sides must show restraint and focus on renewing negotiations toward a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict instead of igniting a fire at this sensitive site and risking another violent confrontation. Israel has a unique responsibility due to its control over Jerusalem, and it must use utmost caution and avoid provocations and insensitive remarks such as that by Jerusalem District police commander Aharon Franco, who accused the city's Muslims of being "ungrateful."
The capital's police force has thus far succeeded in preventing an escalation of the conflict. This attitude must guide the cabinet as well in the days to come.
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