For Israeli and Palestinian Extremists, Jerusalem's Holiest Site Is Just an Excuse

The Al-Aqsa Mosque and Temple Mount are the most potent symbols of Palestinian nationalists and Israeli far-right activists. But is the holy site truly the reason for renewed violence, or are larger forces driving events?

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Israeli policemen standing guard in front of Muslim women praying in front of the Dome of the Rock mosque as a group of religious Jewish men and women visit the Temple Mount, on Wednesday.
Israeli policemen standing guard in front of Muslim women praying in front of the Dome of the Rock mosque as a group of religious Jewish men and women visit the Temple Mount, on Wednesday.Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA - AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

“Results are what matter,” said a tired-looking plainclothes police officer hovering around a group of 50 Jews as they walked on Temple Mount Wednesday morning.

As group after group entered from Mugrabi Gate, they were shepherded by uniformed police, anxious to usher them through as quickly and safely as possible. With five days of Passover nearly over, not one Jewish pilgrim had been harmed in their short half-circuit of the compound – and that was the result that mattered.

“I truly believe in ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples,’” said Eli Yorav, a teacher from the West Bank settlement of Shiloh, citing the words of the prophet Isaiah as a few women standing by the Dome of the Rock shouted “Allahu Akbar” at the pilgrims. “I appreciate that they see this place as holy as well, and my dream is that everyone will one day pray to God here together.”

Like many of the other Jewish visitors who walked through Temple Mount praying silently (holding prayer books is forbidden for non-Muslims on the site), he denied that there was a political aspect to his pilgrimage, or that the dream of rebuilding the Jewish Temple necessarily meant removing the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Whether or not they were sincere, the watching Muslims were having none of it. From the direction of the southern mosque in the compound – which goes by various names, including Al-Aqsa – where Palestinian youths were still holding out, despite a massive clash with the Israeli police last Friday morning, a stone came flying through the air. Someone had also scattered small metal tacks on the pathway, in the hope of snagging the feet of barefoot pilgrims.

For most Israeli observers, the Jews who go up to Temple Mount are dangerous troublemakers intent on setting the entire region ablaze. Every Israeli government in the past 50 years has limited the entrance of Jews at the site to a few hours a day, from Monday to Thursday. But even in that short window, the potential for trouble is great.

In just over three hours on Wednesday, 1,538 Jews visited Temple Mount – a record number on one day, unmatched in modern times, but still a minuscule number when compared to the tens of thousands of Jews who were praying below at the Western Wall with no plans to venture any further.

Palestinian social media is, as ever, awash with feverish speculation about Zionist plans to “defile” and “conquer” Al-Aqsa. But in reality, the Israeli government was about to close the Mount to Jews from Friday until the end of Ramadan. An attempt by the far right to hold a provocative “flag parade” in eastern Jerusalem was also banned by the police, though they still marched toward the Old City's Muslim Quarter in the afternoon.

An Israeli security guard escorting a group of religious Jewish men and women during their visit to the Temple Mount on Wednesday.Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA - AFP

Later in the morning, someone tried to throw a Molotov cocktail from the mosque but succeeded only in setting one of the carpets by the window alight. Israeli police are expecting another riot on Friday morning, but as of now there are no signs of it spreading beyond the compound. Meanwhile, senior officials in the Palestinian Authority are competing with Jordanian politicians to denounce Israel’s actions the strongest – but that is mainly because they don’t want to leave the headlines to Hamas.

Everyone wants their piece of Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa. Jewish nationalists, Netanyahu supporters, the PA, the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan and Hamas. If Hamas wanted to choose to make this a casus belli for firing rockets on Israel and starting another Gaza war, like it did last May, it could do. But it is unlikely to do so.

Hamas is still busy reconsolidating its control over Gaza, rebuilding the civilian infrastructure and replenishing its own military arsenal there. It doesn’t need another war now. It won’t serve it politically when the long-suffering people of Gaza are hoping that the very slow, gradual easing of the 15-year Israeli-Egyptian blockade will continue. For now, the youths rioting on Al-Aqsa on its behalf are doing their bit by keeping Hamas’ green flags in the limelight. That’s enough.

A Jewish man lying prostrate on the ground in prayer after a visit to the Temple Mount on Wednesday.Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA - AFP

The trigger, not the entire gun

Al-Aqsa is the most potent symbol of Palestinian nationalism. It has been for the past century – ever since Palestinian nationalism became a cause, in response to the Zionist project to establish Jewish sovereignty in the biblical homeland. But as with many symbols, it is often misconstrued as a root cause rather than a signifier. It’s a trigger, but it isn’t the entire gun.

The causation rule of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that disturbances on Temple Mount will always lead to a broader escalation is sometimes true, but not always. In the century-long conflict, plenty of violent rounds were sparked by events elsewhere, and not every violent event around Al-Aqsa caused a further escalation. As recently as 2015 and 2017, there were clashes on the Mount that were contained and didn’t spread.

More importantly, even those major conflagrations that can be said to have started on Temple Mount were caused by a long list of other circumstances, some of which were clear at the time and others emerged only in hindsight.

This goes as far back as the first serious sequence of attacks in August 1929 – known to Israelis as “the Events of 5689” and Palestinians as the “Buraq Uprising” – after an attempt by Jews to place some chairs and a mechitza (a partition separating men and women at prayer) at the Western Wall, which is known to Muslims as the Buraq Wall.

Then as well, the accusations of Jews trying to take over Al-Aqsa were used to whip up public anger. Yet the underlying causes of the ensuing violence, in which 250 Jews and Arabs died, were not only the emerging struggle for control of the land but internal Palestinian politics (the rivalry between the two main Jerusalem clans, the Husseinis and the Nashashibis) and resentment over British Mandate rule.

Just over 70 years later, then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon is said to have caused the second intifada (suitably named “the Al-Aqsa intifada”), which lasted for five years, by making a controversial public visit to Temple Mount. But at the time, the violence around Al-Aqsa was actually relatively minor and the main outbreaks occurred elsewhere. Then, too, the principle causes were not related to Jerusalem but to Palestinian frustration at the lack of progress in the Oslo Accords, the failure of the Camp David talks between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat, and the desire of various factions within the PA to assert their influence.

The same is true of last year’s round of fighting, which included an 11-day war with militant groups in Gaza, rioting in Israel’s “mixed” cities, and a long and violent Ramadan month in Jerusalem. The initial causes were the threat of Arab evictions in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah and heavy-handed policing around Damascus Gate, as well as clashes around Al-Aqsa.

Ultimately, however, Hamas’ decision to escalate matters by launching rockets from Gaza toward Israeli cities, in what it called “Operation Sword of Jerusalem,” was politically motivated: Its need to prove that it was the main Palestinian movement, after President Mahmoud Abbas’ decision to cancel the Palestinian elections denied it an opportunity to do so at the ballot box.

Israeli politicians are every bit as cynical in using the symbol of Temple Mount for their narrow purposes. As leader of the opposition, Sharon insisted on challenging Barak’s government by visiting the Mount in September 2000. Eight months later, as newly elected prime minister, he signed orders forbidding the Temple Mount Faithful movement from holding its own service there during Passover.

Modern-day far-right politicians like Itamar Ben-Gvir, who are trying to stir matters up on Temple Mount and provoke rioting that will topple the fragile governing coalition, disregard the inconvenient truth that the government of Benjamin Netanyahu – for whom they are serving as proxies – also closed Temple Mount to Jews for the final 10 days of Ramadan each year.

Palestinians chanting slogans and waving Hamas flags during a protest in front of the Dome of the Rock shrine at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound last Friday.Credit: Mahmoud Illean/AP

On both sides of the divide, there are those whose political interests would be well served by an escalation. The Iranian-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad, competing with Hamas to lead “the resistance,” launched a rocket from Gaza on Monday, to which Netanyahu responded that this was proof “we need to immediately form a strong right-wing government that will restore calm and security to Israeli civilians.”

But for now at least, neither the Bennett government nor Hamas are going to give PIJ or Netanyahu any satisfaction. Sometimes, Al-Aqsa is just a place to let off steam.

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