It took a diplomatic crisis with Jordan, following Sunday’s killing of two Jordanians by an Israeli Embassy guard in Amman, to finally shift Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s position on Al-Haram Al-Sharif — two weeks after his far-right government took the controversial decision to install metal detectors at the entrance to the holy compound. And until he and King Abdallah finally resolved the crisis, Jerusalem’s Old City had endured two weeks of tensions that began with July 14’s incident in which two Israeli policemen and three Palestinians (Arab-Israelis) were killed. Israel’s subsequent two-day closure of Al-Aqsa Mosque enraged Palestinians and drew criticism from around the world, and it sparked tensions between Jordan — which has a special role over Muslim holy places in Jerusalem — and Israel.
Against the advice of his own military, Netanyahu went ahead with what everyone else predicted would become a dangerous flashpoint. Installing metal detectors at the entrance of the compound sent a message of defiance to Palestinians, Jordanians and Arab states: That Israel had the final word when it comes to the sensitive issue of Al-Haram Al-Sharif and, by extension, the fate of East Jerusalem. It was a stupid gambit that led to confrontations between Israeli security and the city’s Arab residents, culminating in last Friday’s violence that resulted in hundreds of injuries and at least three deaths among Palestinians who were protesting the Israeli measures.
Still Netanyahu refused to budge, even as he insisted that he was committed to preserving the historical status quo of Al-Aqsa. Meanwhile, protests in the Old City continued and it was clear that they would not stop until Israel backed down. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas vowed not to allow Israel to change Al-Aqsa’s status and announced that the Palestinian Authority (PA) was freezing all contacts with Israel.
The situation was especially sensitive for Jordan, which has a peace treaty with Israel. Jordanians are known for their anti-Israel stance and on Friday, July 21, thousands marched in the capital and elsewhere to show solidarity against Israel’s measures over the previous week. Jordan’s special role in East Jerusalem’s Muslim sites had been compromised as a result of Netanyahu’s move. It is not the first time that King Abdallah has had to intervene to defuse tension in the Old City over Israeli provocations in and around Al-Haram Al-Sharif. In 2014, Jordan and Israel, with US mediation, reached an agreement that would put an end to Israeli provocations. As usual, Netanyahu failed to honor that deal.
It is important to underline that the conflict is not about installing metal detectors or CCTV cameras. The crux of the issue has to do with sovereignty over East Jerusalem, which is an occupied territory under international law. Israel insists that East Jerusalem is an integral part of its unified capital, while Palestinians see it as the capital of their future state. Both Jordan and the PA have scored important diplomatic victories at international forums where Israeli unilateral actions in East Jerusalem, and in particular the Old City, were deemed illegal.
The conflict is not about installing metal detectors or CCTV cameras. The crux of the issue has to do with sovereignty over East Jerusalem, which is an occupied territory under international law.
This was one battle that the Arabs, especially East Jerusalem’s Arab residents, could not afford to lose. The timing was important because Netanyahu and his far-right ministers were hoping to make use of the current regional turmoil to underscore their extremist stand over East Jerusalem — especially the Old City — and Al-Aqsa Mosque. Anyone who has visited the Old City knows that it resembles a military garrison, especially on Fridays, and that stringent security measures already exist at its ancient gates. The metal detectors at Al-Haram Al-Sharif have less to do with added security and more with radical Israeli positions.
For the embattled Abbas, whose decades-old bet on Israel delivering an honorable peace deal has yet to come in, empathizing with his people and recognizing their anguish was his only choice. Israel has been altering the character of the Old City for years and its apartheid-like policies against East Jerusalem’s Arab residents have upset the existing demographics. In reality, the status quo of the Old City and East Jerusalem has already been tampered with. Palestinians’ current anger is a culmination of years of humiliation, economic strangulation and despair.
The crisis with Jordan, especially after Sunday’s embassy killing, put Netanyahu in a tight spot. He backed down and, in effect, suffered a resounding defeat. It was a foolish attempt at brinkmanship on Netanyahu’s part; one that could have unleashed a new Palestinian intifada and jeopardized Israel’s peace treaty with Jordan.
Arab states should do one crucial thing, other than keeping diplomatic pressure on Israel, and that is to support the steadfastness of Jerusalem’s Arab residents.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.