The religious motif has played a significant role in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian for a long time. Disagreements and incidents involving the Temple Mount have ignited periods of increased violence several times in the past – in 1990, in 1996, in 2000 and to some extent also in 2015. In recent years religious justifications and characteristics were evident in some of the attacks, probably in an effort to echo the successes of ISIS. Religious motives are being increasingly intertwined with the national conflict with the Palestinians. But in this upsurge in tension, which began with the murder of two Israeli policemen on the Temple Mount 10 days ago, religion has become the central issue.
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Chief of General Staff Gadi Eisenkot, who spoke to reporters on Sunday while visiting with those being inducted into the Israel Defense Forces, hinted as much. The current escalation, he said, isn’t similar to the wave of terror in October 2015 because this time there are “different motivations.” IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis said Saturday that the army is seeing “religious elements we hadn’t seen previously” in the events of the past few days.
The murder of the three members of the Salomon family on Friday night in Halamish, along with car-ramming and stabbing attempts last week, are all being attributed to the new tensions surrounding the Temple Mount. The responses on the Palestinian social networks have been especially extreme. Hundreds of thousands of posts have dealt with the issue in recent days, and a relatively high number of young people, both male and female, have threatened to carry out attacks because of the Temple Mount events. The Shin Bet security service and Military Intelligence say the scope of the incitement and its seriousness are both markedly greater than what was seen in 2015.
This is also the reason Israel is now considering a way out of the crisis that will include removing the metal detectors from the Temple Mount, despite the tough public declarations. Between the lines, in off-the-record conversations, even some of the ministers admit this. There is nothing holy about metal detectors, one of them said. The security cabinet, which convened Sunday, heard a report about the contacts being held, with the aid of several Arab countries and the limited involvement of the United States. Calming things down will require an agreement with the Waqf that the Israeli government can present as a reasonable compromise which doesn’t involve humiliating capitulation.
Housing and Construction Minister Yoav Galant, who in the security cabinet meeting on Thursday night found himself in the minority with Infrastructure and Energy Minster Yuval Steinitz, described the situation as follows: It’s clear to all of us that at the end of the dispute, the magnetometers will be removed. The Palestinians will succeed in marketing this confrontation as an argument over the Muslims’ right to worship on the Mount, not over security checks or signs of sovereignty. The international community will pressure Israel and it will have to give in, so as not to get caught up in a head-on confrontation with the entire Muslim world. That’s why it would be best to remove the magnetometers now.
But the other ministers, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, voted for the proposal to leave the metal detectors in place and authorize the police to make operative decisions henceforth. Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich was firmly against removing the metal detectors.
Alsheich is not your typical police commissioner. He came to the police after a long career in the Shin Bet, where he served in such positions as head of the Jerusalem and West Bank district, head of the southern district and deputy head of the service. That’s the background to the mild rivalry between him and Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman. When Alsheich relies on his experience in the Palestinian arena, his arguments carry a certain weight, even if the other representatives of the security forces – Eisenkot, Argaman, MI chief Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi and the Coordinator of Government Activity in the Territories Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai – pretty firmly present the opposite position.
Defense minister Lieberman vs. military brass
In the earlier security cabinet meeting something else unusual occurred. For the first time in many years, the defense minister took the opposite position of most of the top security brass on a critical issue. In contrast to some of the other ministers and MKs on the right, Avigdor Lieberman was careful not to issue any personal criticism of the IDF and Shin Bet brass, but it seems the “responsible adult” label awarded him by the media since he assumed his post in May 2016 has its limits. One can assume that this disagreement on an issue that the General Staff regards as vital is causing tension between Lieberman and senior army officers.
To date, despite his vehement public declarations, Lieberman has never sharply disagreed with the IDF, even when Eisenkot insisted on not giving in to right-wing demands to impose broad collective punishment in the territories in response to deadly attacks. This last argument follows other disagreements that have gradually emerged regarding the handling of the situation in the Gaza Strip. Upon assuming the post, Lieberman said Israel must prepare for another round of fighting against Hamas that would be the last round of its kind, because it would end with the collapse of the Hamas regime in Gaza. The IDF, on the other hand, has always taken a cyclical approach to Gaza: Once very few years the two sides slide into a round of conflagration, with the aim of ending it with as much damage to Hamas as possible so as to assure quiet for another few years.
Early Sunday morning a single rocket was fired from the Gaza Strip that landed in an open area of the Negev. It was relatively unusual and the first violent response from Gaza since the latest crisis broke out. Israeli intelligence still believes that Hamas isn’t interested in escalation in the Strip. The group is investing its efforts in encouraging terror in the West Bank and within the Green Line. The murderer of the Salomons was a Hamas member, although there is no indication as yet that he had acted on the group’s behalf.
The IDF has completed its deployment of several additional battalions in the West Bank and launched a broader round of arrests than usual, aimed particularly at Hamas. The General Staff’s operations department is prepared to bolster the forces for a month, but as has happened in the past, the amount of time these battalions stay in the West Bank – at the expense of their training – could be longer if there’s a lengthy escalation.
Compared to the previous escalation in 2015, however, the IDF has one significant advantage: The modus operandi of “lone wolf” attackers has been analyzed and ways of battling them have been formulated and intelligence collection has improved. If another major wave of attacks occurs, that won’t be enough, but at least the army is better prepared for the next round.
If there’s one problem Netanyahu has until now managed to avoid during the six-and-a-half years of shake-ups in the Arab world, it’s getting entangled in the Middle East turmoil. But the crisis the Palestinians have inflated regarding the Temple Mount could drag Israel down exactly that path if it isn’t resolved quickly.
The problem is that religious considerations have also emerged on the Israeli side. Behind the repeated declarations by the heads of Habayit Hayehudi regarding the need to strengthen Israeli sovereignty over the Mount, there is another intention: To raise the status of Jewish worshipers there. When religion insinuates itself into the considerations of both sides, it’s much more difficult to reach a compromise.