Is It Too Late to Defuse a Third Intifada in Jerusalem?

Inflammatory calls by both Jewish and Muslim theologians and politicians to change the status quo in Jerusalem’s Old City but not the status of the rest of the city and region is a recipe for intensified violence.

Eyal Toueg

"History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme." The famous quote from Mark Twain seems coined specifically for Jerusalem. Since when the Jebusites founded Uru-Salem about 5 thousand years ago, the Holy City has experienced many tragic vicissitudes, all different and yet each linked to the others.


This is particularly true in regard to Al-Haram al-Sharif, the site on which Solomon’s Temple stood and that long before of the three monotheistic religions hosted a Canaanite place of worship. This coveted area is now back in the spotlight because of "a growing sentiment among Jewish Israelis that the status quo needs to change," as Shmuel Rosner wrote recently in the New York Times.

He was not referring to the decades-long status quo suffered by millions of people in the Palestinian territories, nor to the inability of a large percentage of the Palestinian population to access their holy sites. Echoing a common opinion, he instead urged the lifting of restrictions imposed on Jews to pray "in the holiest place of Judaism." These restrictions, as well as the modern history of the Western Wall, are for many observers a symptom of "Islamic intolerance." Between 1948 and 1967, as pointed out for instance by a Jerusalem Post writer, "not one Jew prayed at the Western Wall."

Because this trope has gained so much prominence recently, it’s important to note that the restrictions imposed on Jews accessing the Western Wall in that period did not have any "Islamic connotation." Jews, in fact, have had free access to the area during the previous twelve centuries of Islamic domination, while they were prevented from doing so under the Christian Byzantines and the Crusaders. The issue of the Western Wall can only be understood in the context of the history of the last century and in particular as a consequence of the War of 1948, when about 400 Palestinian villages were razed to the ground and, often, renamed. And while Jews were prevented from accessing the Western Wall for twenty years, Palestinian refugees and their descendants were and still are prevented to access their erstwhile lands within Israel.

Today most attention is focused not on the Western Wall – known and revered as Al-Buraq Wall by Muslims – but instead on the upper esplanade. Under the present arrangement this area remains under Jordan’s custodianship – as part of the 1994 peace agreement – and Jews are allowed in the compound, but are barred from religious worship or prayer.

Several Islamic figures, in Palestine and elsewhere, continue to express extremist views denying any connection between Jews and what is known to them, since millennia, as the "Temple Mount": "Those who claim that they [Jews] have a long history in Israel are liars," wrote a few months ago the Egyptian Islamic theologian Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, "where could this so-called Solomon’s temple possibly be?," he concluded. A study published by the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Information went a step further warning that "no Muslim or Arab or Palestinian had the right to give up one stone of Al-Buraq Wall."

On the other hand, Bar Ilan University political scientist Mordechai Kedar and other scholars continue to claim that "Jerusalem is a Jewish city" that "is not mentioned even once in the Koran," while a growing number of groups such as the Temple Mount and Land of Israel Faithful Movement declare "their long terms objectives" as follows: "Liberating the Temple Mount from Arab (Islamic) occupation. The Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque were placed on this Jewish or biblical holy site as a specific sign of Islamic conquest and domination. The Temple Mount can never be consecrated to the Name of G-d without removing these pagan shrines."

In such a looming scenario only two options can avoid the further strengthening of extremist elements. The first one is the maintenance of the current precarious yet effective (until today) status quo in Jerusalem’s Old City. To require a change in the equilibrium achieved in these last few centuries within Suleiman’s walls, while maintaining the status quo in the Palestinian territories and continuing to turn a blind eye to the policies carried out by right-wing groups such as Elad – 
often using the controversial Absentee Property Law to takeover apartments in densely-populated Arab quarters – would be a recipe for more violence.

The second alternative is the internationalization of the Old City and its holy places, a solution in line with the original international consensus when the State of Israel was established. It is noteworthy that Israel’s admission to the United Nations (May 11, 1949) was not unconditional but bound up with the full acceptance of the UN Charter and provisions regarding Jerusalem (Israel’s original application for admission was, not by chance, rejected by the UNSC): "Negotiations," assured Abba Eban (1915-2002) in front of the UNGA on May 5, 1949, "would not, however, affect the juridical status of Jerusalem, to be defined by international consent." None of the historical events of the last 65 years have the legal power to erase these assurances.

Jerusalem’s Old City has not belonged to one single people in its entire history. At the turn of the twentieth century almost 80 percent of its population lived in mixed neighborhoods and quarters. This is why in its nature it must be internationally, or at least bilaterally, shared. Moshe Ma’oz, one of the most renowned Israeli historians, explained to me why in this complex process religion must play an inclusive role: It functions as a recipe against the denial of others’ claims and in support of the acceptance of others’ traumas and "myths."

"The mosque of al-Aqsa, or ‘the farthest,’" Ma’oz clarified, "which is discussed in Quran’s Sura 17, the one on prophet Muhammad’s night journey, is certainly the result of an interpretation. But I wonder what difference it makes if Jerusalem is explicitly mentioned or not in the Quran. All religious matters are the result of interpretations. A number of academics have demonstrated that the history of the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt is full of distortions. This does not change anything for us, Jews. We continue to believe in our myths, as other peoples continue to believe in theirs. It is not a matter of facts, but of beliefs. A billion and a half Muslims believe in the Isra and the Mi‘raj, the Prophet’s night journey to Jerusalem. This is what matters, unless we do not intend to scrutinize all the events mentioned in the books of the three monotheistic religions, to find historical evidence. If so, we would be very disappointed."

Two major lessons can be drawn from the events inflaming current-day, terrestrial Jerusalem. First, religion cannot be used as a political tool, to deny the beliefs and the "myths" of others – in this case either Jews or Muslims. Second, a solution must be found through sharing or internationalizing Jerusalem’s Old City and in striving to trigger a radical political change in the status of the Palestinian territories. If none of these scenarios can be achieved, the status quo in the Temple Mount/al-Aqsa complex remains – at least for now – the least worst alternative.

Dr. Lorenzo Kamel is a Research Fellow (2013/14 and 2014/15) at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies.