The Temple Mount Is a Powder Keg, and Arsonists Have the Upper Hand

This is no accidental fire. This was (and still is) an arson job. But who are the suspects?

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The Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem's Old City, November 5, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

Jerusalem is up in arms again. As violence spreads from the capital to other parts of Israel, it seems the question isn’t so much whether the country is teetering on the brink of an intifada, but how the upsurge should be characterized.

Some are calling it “the Firecracker Intifada,” in honor of the firecrackers that Palestinian protesters are hurling at the police. Others are going simply with “the third intifada,” though many disagree with that moniker. In any case, the term “Silent Intifada,” previously used to describe the violence in Jerusalem, hardly seems appropriate now.

At the center of this craziness stands the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif, as it is known to Muslims. The Temple Mount is the holiest site for Judaism and the third holiest for Islam. It’s one of the most sensitive religious sites in the world — a massive powder keg, if you will.

Now that this powder keg looks to be on the verge of exploding, note that this was no accidental fire. This was (and still is) an arson job.

The immediate suspects, as many observers have pointed out, are the Israeli right-wing politicians challenging the decades-old status quo on the Temple Mount, over which the Muslim Waqf trust has retained religious control since Israel took over East Jerusalem in 1967. The right-wingers are insisting that Jews be allowed to pray there; they include Knesset members like Likud’s Miri Regev and Moshe Feiglin.

These two, Housing Minister Uri Ariel and others have been key to the incredible resurgence of the Jewish Temple Mount movement in recent years, a resurgence that led to rumors that Israel sought to change the delicate status quo.

Last week Feiglin visited the site yet again, despite warnings by the police. Others like another Likud MK, Tzipi Hotovely, expressed wishes to follow suit despite charges they were fanning the flames.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon admonished them; in an interview with Channel 10, Ya’alon admitted that the current violence had at least been partly stoked by ministers and MKs who defiantly visited the Temple Mount.

If Lieberman and Ya’alon have to tell you you’ve gone too far, you can be pretty sure you’ve gone too far.

It’s not for nothing that Lieberman and Ya’alon, not to mention Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin and much of Israel’s security apparatus, appear so agitated over the mount these days.

Over the years, maintaining the status quo there by prohibiting Jewish prayer was critical to preventing an all-out religious war. The status quo wasn’t perfect by any means, but it allowed a delicate balance between the national and the religious.

That balance is now eroding fast.

Tension since 1929

The history of the Temple Mount is, of course, fraught with conflict. For many years, extremists — both Jews and Arabs — have battled over, or against the backdrop of, this tempestuous holy site.

In 1929, 133 Jews were killed by Arabs partly motivated by rumors of a planned Jewish takeover of the mount. In 1996, riots broke out there following Netanyahu’s decision to open the Western Wall tunnels — a decision that again led to rumors of an imminent threat to Islamic control of the site. Seventeen Israeli soldiers and more than 100 Palestinians died, and scores were wounded.

In the 1980s, the Jewish underground, a terrorist organization formed by members of the right-wing movement Gush Emunim, almost blew up the mosques on the mount, including the Dome of the Rock. The idea was to further a messianic redemption that would culminate with the construction of a Third Temple.

In September 2000, Ariel Sharon (then opposition leader) made a high-profile visit to the mount. The day after, riots broke out there following Friday prayers, launching the second intifada.

But now, at the outset of what may or may not be a third intifada, something is different. It’s not the violence as much as the way the events are being framed.

For the most part, the movement to regain Jewish control of the Temple Mount has been limited to extremists. Sharon’s 2000 visit, for example, was seen as a dangerous provocation. Until a few years ago, any talk of change at the Temple Mount was a surefire sign of religious madness, the stuff of eccentrics and the certifiably insane.

Not anymore. These days there appears to be a wider acceptance for a Jewish Temple Mount, tracking Israel’s right-wing shift and the erosion of its resistance to messianic rhetoric.

The movement, still a minority movement, has gained mainstream recognition in recent years and won influential supporters in the Knesset. Regev, chairwoman of the Knesset Interior Committee, has chaired no fewer than 15 debates on the subject in the past year alone, hounding police officials for their “cowardly” response to the harassment of Jewish visitors to the mount.

Outlandish no more

Two weeks ago, hours before right-wing activist Yehuda Glick was shot by East Jerusalemite Mutaz Hijazi, Regev reminisced how she initially thought the Temple Mount movement was “outlandish” — before she was ultimately convinced.

Glick, now in recovery, was, as my colleague Anshel Pfeffer has pointed out, key to the mainstreaming of the Temple Mount movement. An affable, red-bearded oddity, Glick — who went on a 53-day hunger strike last year after being barred from the mount — often befriended ideological rivals and depicted his struggle as a pure freedom-of-religion issue. By portraying the issue as a civil-rights debate, he played a key role in the massive PR resurgence of the Temple Mount movement.

Glick’s affability aside, the proliferation of Israeli visits to the mount and the growing conversation about the site — much aided by opportunistic Hamas propaganda — helped increase tensions and led to the formation of local groups like al-Murabitun, self-proclaimed guardians of the site against the rumored “Jewish takeover.” The clashes that followed led to the violence we’re seeing now.

The vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians, of course, don’t want a religious war. Israel’s foremost religious authorities, among them Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, have reiterated their stance against Jewish visits to the mount. The vast majority of Israelis have never visited the place and probably have no intention of doing so. Most Palestinians, meanwhile, have more pressing material concerns.

Unfortunately for those people, it seems there are plenty of arsonists among us. And right now they seem to be enjoying the upper hand.

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