Analysis

Temple Mount Protests Could Turn Into an Intifada in the Blink of an Eye

Hundreds of worshippers stayed the night in Jerusalem's Old City; it all comes down to how Israeli police handle the violence during Friday prayers

Palestinians shout slogans during a protest over Israel's new security measures at the compound housing al-Aqsa mosque on Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City July 20, 2017.
RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS

The Palestinian protest at the Gate of the Tribes, the main entrance to the Temple Mount, is deceptive. For brief moments on Thursday, it looked like an intifada, with stones and bottles flying from one side and stun grenades and sponge-tipped bullets from the other. But for most of the day, it looked more like the 2011 social justice protests in Tel Aviv.

>>Live updates: Clashes break out at checkpoints around Jerusalem's Old City>>

Hundreds of people have been praying at the site round the clock, including many women who were apparently bused in from around the country. On Thursday, they came with backpacks, preparing to sleep in the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City to make sure they are there for Friday’s prayers. Rumors had circulated among the Palestinians that the police would prevent people from coming on Friday, so many, including West Bank Palestinians, rushed to Jerusalem on Thursday.

>> Exclusive: Netanyahu Secretly Met With UAE Foreign Minister >>

A kind of civic infrastructure has already sprung up at the site. There’s a group that hands out food and another that distributes water. The Red Crescent has set up stations to treat the wounded, and volunteer guards keep order, though it’s not clear on whose behalf they are acting. Waqf guards, who had been prominent at the protests in previous days, were barely visible on Thursday. 

Surrounding them all are scores of policemen, whose tension is visible in their stern faces and aggressive behavior toward residents and journalists alike.

Shortly before each prayer service – especially the noon prayer at 12:45 P.M. and the evening prayer at 7:45 P.M. – the hundreds of protesters turn into thousands. These mass prayers have become an endless string of protest chants and shouted oaths of fealty to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. 

“Takbir,” someone shouts, and the masses answer, “Allahu akbar.” That call and response is heard over and over, interspersed with chants such as “With blood and spirit we’ll redeem Al-Aqsa.” 

Usually, after an hour or two of chants and sermons, tempers cool until the next prayer. Wednesday was completely calm; barely a stone was thrown throughout the Old City and the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. 

Thursday was also fairly calm until evening. But in the blink of an eye, one of the rounds of chanting and whipping up emotion that followed the evening prayer deteriorated into violence. 

Even from a few meters away, it was impossible to tell who started it. Was a stone or bottle thrown at the police, or did someone merely imagine seeing a stone or bottle? 

Either way, it all blew up in an instant. The police rushed in, firing dozens of stun grenades. The Palestinians responded with stones, and the policemen replied with sponge-tipped bullets. Within seconds, at least two Palestinians were down on the ground, unconscious. 

The speed and intensity of the flare-up are worrying omens of what could happen at Friday’s noon prayer. Jerusalem police chief Yoram Halevy said Thursday that the police can cope with Friday’s expected violence. The question is what the cost will be, and what will happen after Friday prayers. 

It’s also worth recalling that at the beginning of the week, Halevy predicted the Palestinians would ultimately accept the metal detectors at the gateways to the mount and end their boycott. So far, there’s no sign of that happening. 

Though Arabs from the north are also present, most of the worshippers and protesters at the entrances to the Mount are Palestinians from Jerusalem. They are leading this protest, and they are also its big winners (so far). A Haaretz report on Thursday that crowned the Jerusalem street as the true sovereign on the Temple Mount has been translated and disseminated on social media. 

The protesters insist over and over that their protest is nonviolent. “We aren’t violent, we just want to pray,” said Murad, an East Jerusalem resident who came to the Mount after finishing his day job as an air conditioner repairman in Tel Aviv. 

“Everyone says these gates are metal detectors, because they’ve found the steel and gold within Jerusalem’s residents,” he added.