Analysis

Attack Outside Temple Mount May Herald New Round of Violence

Ibrahim Mattar, who stabbed two police officers before being shot, prayed in Al-Aqsa Mosque every morning ■ For Palestinians, there's a rising sense of threat to Al-Aqsa, the result of a series of event Israelis don't see as connected at all.

Israeli forces preventing Palestinians from entering a memorial tent erected for Ibrahim Mattar, March 13, 2017.
AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP

An increasing number of attacks have occurred in Jerusalem recently, raising fears of another round of violence based on what Muslims see as their defense of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The stabbing attack that took place in the Old City between Sunday and Monday could be a harbinger of a new wave of violence in the capital.

The assailant who entered the police post at Lions Gate and stabbed two Border Police officers was named as Ibrahim Mattar, 25. Like many other Palestinians in the lone-wolf intifada, he comes from the Jabal Mukkaber neighborhood of East Jerusalem. He was killed by the officers after stabbing them. Mattar’s home is about 1,300 feet (400 meters) from the home of Fadi al-Qanbar, who killed four soldiers in Armon Hanatziv after ramming them with his truck.

In pictures published after the stabbing attack, Mattar is seen with the Dome of the Rock in the background, his beard seemingly testifying to his religious devotion. His cousin, Taqfiq Mattar, said Ibrahim prayed at Al-Aqsa every morning. The Palestinian media began calling him “Al Fajr Shahid” (the Dawn Martyr) immediately after the attack (after the name of the dawn prayer).

The attack was no surprise for many in East Jerusalem. It occurred during a period in which there has been increased talk that Israel is attempting to oust Muslims from Haram al-Sharif (which is known as Temple Mount to Jews).

This unjustified sense of a threat is a culmination of many factors that, from an Israeli perspective, have no connection at all: The proposed law that bans muezzins from making the call for prayer late at night and in the early morning; further archaeological excavations in the Arab neighborhood of Silwan; the inauguration of a new tourist trail in the Ophel area below the Temple Mount; a court decision concerning a physical attack on MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (Habayit Hayehudi) last November; and the rising number of observant Jews visiting the Temple Mount.

It’s worth considering these fears in more detail. About a month ago, the “Mikveh Tourist Trail” was opened in Ophel, which is situated outside the Temple Mount and just below the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Many right-wing Israeli politicians participated in the opening event for the trail of Jewish ritual baths – and this raised suspicions. Both Palestinians and the Jordanian government condemned the initiative, saying the trail comes at the expense of Muslim tradition in the area.

Claims are also mounting that the true goal of the underground archaeological excavations in the City of David – which is in Silwan, only a short distance from the Temple Mount – is to harm the mosques. This comes on top of the approval of the muezzin law in its preliminary reading in the Knesset, which Palestinians in Jerusalem also see as a direct attack on the mosques.

Then there was a recent verdict by Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court, which convicted a Palestinian woman from Jerusalem of attacking Moalem-Refaeli on the Temple Mount. The decision might have passed relatively unnoticed if the judge hadn’t ruled that the Temple Mount is also a holy place for Jews and convicted the woman of preventing access to a holy site. The Palestinian Authority took time to condemn the verdict.

Israeli security forces clashing with Palestinians next to the memorial tent erected for Ibrahim Mattar, the assailant shot by Border Police officers he had stabbed, March 13, 2017.
AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP

And if all of this wasn’t enough, the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper reported Monday that Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev and Zeev Elkin, minister of Jerusalem affairs and heritage, are establishing a government fund for the Temple Mount Heritage Foundation. The fund aims to invest government money in fostering a Jewish connection to the Temple Mount.

It’s true, though, that there has been an increase in the number of Jewish visitors going to the Temple Mount. Last Thursday (the Fast of Esther, which precedes the Purim holiday), 96 Jews visited the Temple Mount – 60 percent more than on the same fast day last year. Temple Mount activists say the number of Jewish visitors has been rising steadily over the last six months.

As the number of visitors has risen, the strict rules instituted by the police after the previous rounds of violence in 2014 and 2015 have been slightly eased. Visitors are now allowed to enter the Temple Mount in larger groups of up to 40 people, and the tours have become longer.

Unofficially, the times the Temple Mount is open to Jewish visitors has been extended by 30 minutes daily. Occasionally, anyone caught violating the rules – including trying to pray at the site – is arrested. But Palestinian social media is full of videos of Jews visiting the Temple Mount, calling them “invaders,” along with calls to take action against them.

Like before, the Palestinians have connected the dots between all these events and decided that the picture shows a growing threat to the status quo on the Temple Mount – even if no one has any such intentions.

A few days ago, the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf issued a statement titled “A Call for Help.” The document said Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque have been under a racist and insane Jewish attack since 1967, due to “Zionist Judaization plans on a number of axes.”

The first axis is the “muezzin law,” “which strives for ethnic cleansing” and the driving out of Jerusalem’s Muslims, says the Waqf. The second is establishing centers for settlers in the city and choking the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The third is changing the status quo that has existed on the Temple Mount since 1967, says the Waqf.

At the same time, Israeli politicians are having a hard time understanding the context of their actions. Ofer Zalzberg, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, says tensions have grown concerning the Temple Mount, but Israel’s leaders are trapped in an internal debate and don’t notice the link between their actions and the Arab response. As far as Israel’s leaders are concerned, the Arab response is always tainted by anti-Semitism and a denial of any Jewish connection to the Temple Mount. These things exist, but the Israeli actions only intensify such talk, notes Zalzberg.

The issues surrounding the Temple Mount are always dangerous, and Jerusalem’s calendar is filled with tense flash points that ratchet up the tensions further. This time, it’s happening only a month before the Pesach holiday – which is the official holiday of Temple activists – and less than three months before the beginning of the 50th anniversary celebrations for the reunification of the city. In addition, a decision is expected soon on moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

All this is happening at a time when Israel no longer has a safety net in the form of former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who was called in twice in recent years to create unofficial understandings between Israel and Jordan, and to calm tensions over the Temple Mount.

Without a responsible adult in Washington, and with a lot of irresponsible politicians in Jerusalem, there is definitely cause for concern.