No place encapsulates the ills of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the desperate need for peace as much as the city of Jerusalem. The city of peace might appear peaceful at first glance. Nevertheless, unrest has been bubbling and occasionally bursting with alarming frequency for more than three decades. It has become a living manifestation of the inability of the Israeli occupation to impose sovereignty over its Palestinian-Arab population. Events last week clearly demonstrated that the vision of a united Jerusalem under Israel’s control is an illusion.
The killing of two Israeli policemen last Friday near the Lion’s Gate to the Old City of Jerusalem has certainly put the Israeli government in a very difficult situation. It is one of the entrances to the Haram Al-Sharif, known to Jews as Temple Mount, and is revered as a holy site by both Muslims and Jews. The smuggling of firearms, and the use of them with fatal consequences against policemen, was a severe escalation that the government understandably felt obliged to respond to. The killings should be condemned without reservation and, much to his credit, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas did so instantly. Yet, it is worth remembering that, although in the eyes of the Israelis those who wear uniforms are there to ensure law and order, even for the most moderate of Palestinians they are the most striking representation of the five decades-long occupation.
Needless to say, most Palestinians are not engaged in violence in any way. However, after every act of violence carried out by a small number of individuals, a large number of them pay the price through Israeli-imposed collective punishment. There is always the danger, especially with an ultra-right government currently in power in Israel, that the reaction to acts of terrorism will be ideological in nature, or aim to pander to its constituency, rather than a genuine reflection of security needs. It is worth bearing in mind that the three assailants were not from East Jerusalem or the West Bank, but were Israeli-Palestinians from the northern city of Umm Al-Fahm, which has a strong extremist presence. It was, first and foremost, a failure by the Israeli security services for not detecting the formation of such a militant cell within Israel, and for allowing the purchase of lethal weapons and their smuggling into the holy compound to go unnoticed. Enabling a proper investigation and collection of evidence by the police is understandable, but preventing thousands of worshippers from exercising their right to pray can only aggravate an already very volatile situation.
The metal detectors are not worth insisting on considering the political cost. Israel would be foolish and irresponsible to allow them to become a test of its control over the holy sites, or of patriotism.
In most places on earth, the introduction of a commonplace security measure like metal detectors would not be regarded as a provocative act. But in the fragile context of Jerusalem, and especially its holy places, any change is perceived — or, at times, exploited by extreme elements — as a deliberate attempt to alter the status quo which has existed since the early days of the occupation. Dangerously, there are extremists on both sides, who, from their disturbing apocalyptic-messianic perspective, would view a clash in this holy place as desirable and ultimately leading to a decisive victory. In their blind hatred, they are oblivious to the fact that such a scenario is more likely to end in countless victims, devoid of any winners.
It is, therefore, as important for the Waqf, which manages the site and is responsible for religious and civil affairs, as it is for Israel that any change occurs through mutual consent, in coordination with the Jordanian government, and potentially other international actors of significance within and outside the region. The metal detectors are not worth insisting on considering the political cost. And Israel would be foolish and irresponsible to allow them to become a test of its control over the holy sites, or of patriotism.
In accordance with their leaders’ instructions, Muslims in Jerusalem are avoiding coming to pray at Al-Aqsa mosque as long as the new Israeli security measures are in place. This is proof, if anyone needed it, of who has more authority and influence on developments at the holy site, and it is not the Israeli government. Now it is time for all sides to show restraint and avoid unilateral steps that can only lead to friction and, ultimately, violence.
It would also be imprudent to isolate what happens in Jerusalem, and especially in its holy sites, from the bigger picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the end of the day, the Israeli government is on a mission to ensure that, even if there is a peace agreement based on a two-state solution, East Jerusalem will not be the capital of a newly established Palestinian state. It isolated Palestinian East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank by encircling it with Jewish settlements, the security wall, and by restricting building permissions for its ever-growing population. The constrained rage shown this week by many Palestinian Jerusalemites has not been only about interfering with the status quo on Haram Al-Sharif, but also about their daily treatment by the Israelis and the fast-disappearing hope that one day East Jerusalem will become the capital of an independent Palestinian state.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.