Analysis

In Calculated Risk, Israel Shutters Jerusalem's Old City After Temple Mount Attack

Jerusalem becomes a ghost town after the terrorist attack at Temple Mount, and currently the decision to close the Old City has been accepted with relative quiet

The Temple Mount, July 14, 2017.
AP / Mahmoud Illean

Hours after the shooting attack that killed two police officers on Temple Mount, Jerusalem's Old City was a ghost town. Almost all the shops were closed, and only lost tourists wondered the deserted streets. This is an unusual sight for a Friday afternoon, when the streets are usually filled with Muslim worshippers making their way to and and from Temple Mount.

So far, the unprecedented decision to shutter the Old City and cancel the Friday prayers on the Mount has been met with relative quiet in East Jerusalem. In Silwan, a Jewish couple and their baby suffered from smoke inhalation after a firebomb was thrown at their car, but this isn't unusual for this neighborhood. Light clashes unfolded between police and residents on their way to the Al-Aqsa mosque or their homes in the Old City. A mass prayer took place at the Lions' Gate, at the end of which Jerusalem's mufti was arrested in another unusual step by the police. But protests didn't take place around the Old City or in Jerusalem's Palestinian neighborhoods.

Asked to recall the last time Friday prayers on the Mount were canceled, the elders of the Waqf, the Muslim religious trust that administers the site, looked back as far as 1969. At the time, the police blocked the prayer for fear of riots following an attempt to torch the mosque by Denis Michael Rohan, an Australian citizen who suffered from Jerusalem Syndrome. During the second intifada, Friday prayers were sometimes restricted to worshippers over the age of 60, according to Knesset Member Mickey Levy, then the Jerusalem police district commander. He can't remember a time the prayers weren't held at all.

The current Jerusalem district chief, Yoram Halevy, and probably his superiors, Police Commissioner Maj. Gen. Roni Alsheich and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, took a calculated risk. On one hand, it's important to them to convey the severity of the incident to the Muslim public. On the other, the past teaches that shuttering the Temple Mount, even partially, escalates the tension and violence in the neighborhoods around it and infuriates the Arab world.

The last time the Temple Mount was closed to Muslims was following the attempt on right-wing activist and now Knesset Member Yehuda Glick in November 2014. At the time Israel faced harsh responses from Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and the Mount was reopened before Friday prayers. Meanwhile, hours after the decision to close the site, it looks like the gamble has paid off. The Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank has accepted the decision without protest, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has condemned the attack.   

The Israeli side has tried to demonstrate that the closure does not mean a change in the arrangement on the Mount. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised to main the status quo. The coordinator of government activities in the territories, Maj.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai, has vowed to preserve the freedom of worship, and said the measures were meant to make sure no weapons are held on the Mount. It is also possible that the fact that the assailants attacked police officers from within the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound is perceived among Muslims as an act that warrants the closure. Nevertheless, Palestinians in the city say they see the shuttering of the Mount as yet another act of collective punishment.

The attack offers more proof, if anyone needed it, that the Al-Aqsa Mosque continues to be a draw for Muslim assailants from Jerusalem and the West Bank as well as Arab citizens of Israel. The car- ramming attacks of the summer of 2014 were replaced with the stabbings of the fall of 2015. In February 2016, a police officer, Hadar Cohen, was killed in an attack involving several assailants and improvised Carlo rifles. Since then, similar cells have carried out attacks in Jerusalem, most recently killing another police officer, Hadar Malka, at Nablus Gate. What they all have in common – the car-rammers, the stabbers and shooters who hail from the West Bank, Jerusalem and northern Israel – is the independent activity without backing of any organization and without an intelligence trail that can be detected ahead of time, as well as the sense of emergency vis-à-vis the protection of Al-Aqsa. Therefore it seems that any attempt to unilaterally change the prayer arrangements would be a dangerous endeavor. It is also safe to assume that Netanyahu's promise to right-wing MKs to renew visits on the Temple Mount will be reconsidered. Eight days before the attack that killed Maalka, Jerusalem police chief Halevy expressed pride in an interview with the Makor Rishon newspaper in the drop in violence in the city. Then, as usually, Jerusalem reality hit.