The small police station on the Temple Mount targeted by a firebombing attack on Tuesday has long been a symbol of Israel’s sovereignty at the site, as well as its weakness. The position is near the Dome of the Rock, and has come under attack in the past during periods of tension in the area.
The most serious incident was in 1990 when 17 Palestinians were killed in an altercation that erupted there after tensions over plans by the Temple Mount Faithful to lay the cornerstone for a third Temple. In that clash, thousands of Palestinians had surrounded police at the station, compelling a Border Police force to break into the area to try to extricate their fellow officers.
The last time the station was torched was in 2014, three weeks after Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir was murdered by Israelis in Jerusalem. During a mass prayer service at the Temple Mount at the end of Ramadan, shortly after the murder, police ended up abandoning the position. Palestinians broke in and set it on fire.
In Tuesday’s incident it had seemed as though the tensions on the Mount had ebbed and the sides were taking a few more days to try to resolve the crisis over the Bab al-Rahma building. Magistrate Court Judge Dorit Feinstein was supposed to sign an order shutting down the structure which was recently opened for prayer by Muslim worshippers, against Israel’s objections. Feinstein decided to postpone that decision in light of reports of negotiations with Jordan aimed at resolving the issue.
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On Tuesday afternoon a young Palestinian man threw a firebomb into the doorway, setting the police station on fire, slightly injuring one policeman and heavily damaging the site. In response police swiftly and forcibly evacuated hundreds of worshippers and Muslim visitors from the Mount and shut its gates. A short while later they also shut all the gates to the Old City. Thus some new friction points were created and confrontations between Palestinians and police erupted at various places around the Old City.
The right accused the Waqf, the Muslim religious trust, of being responsible for instigating the attack. Otzma Yehudit and the Union of Right-Wing Parties, as well as a group of third Temple activists, called for implementing Israeli sovereignty on the Temple Mount and ousting the Waqf.
In fact, it was members of the Waqf who were the first to rush in and douse the flames at the station.
While the Waqf is seen among Israelis as being extremist, it is in fact a very conservative, establishment organization, especially compared to other forces at work on the Temple Mount. The Waqf is an arm of the Jordanian government and as such Israel has an interest in bolstering it over other groups. The Waqf also operates on the basis of rights it has been granted by Israel and via the Israel-Jordan peace treaty.
The new Waqf council, appointed by Jordan, initiated the opening of the Bab al-Rahma building three weeks ago in a step that set off the latest crisis. But it did so after years of attempts at quiet dialogue with Israel on the issue. Since then the Waqf has lost control of the events. To say that it has an interest in torching the police station or that it was behind it makes no sense.
The Waqf lies between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, the Israeli police accuse it of helping terrorism and demand that it shut down the building. On the other hand, the Palestinian masses accuse it of giving up too much and even of collaborating with Israel. Senior Waqf officials face threats and accusations of betrayal. The situation got so bad last week that the director-general of the Waqf, Azzam al-Khatib, asked to resign. Only Jordanian pressure kept him in his seat. Because of Palestinian pressure the Waqf recently had to cancel a meeting with the Jerusalem police commander and the negotiations were moved to the political echelons in Jordan.
At the same time Israeli right-wingers are correct in saying that Israel doesn’t always display its sovereignty on the Temple Mount. Prof. Yitzhak Reiter of the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research says that every time Israel tries to enforce its sovereignty there it winds up with less sovereignty than before. This is what happened with the crisis over the opening of the Western Wall tunnels in the 1990s, with Ariel Sharon’s visit at the outset of the second intifada, and with the attempt in 2017 to deploy metal detectors at the entrances to the Mount.
Force alone won’t help the situation this time, either. Shutting Bab al-Rahma would force police to station a force permanently at another venue on the Mount which would only create more possible friction points. On the other hand, it may be possible to reach an agreement with Jordan about a long-term renovation of the building. But that would require three things sorely lacking during an election campaign: for politicians to use common sense, show a little restraint and do away with empty symbols of national pride.