Only zealots and extremists welcome tension in Jerusalem

Only zealots and extremists welcome tension in Jerusalem

Palestinians run for cover from sound grenades fired by Israeli security forces outside the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on August 11, 2019. (AFP)

However one looks at relations between Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land, Jerusalem plays a major role, and events there reverberate throughout the country, the region, and way beyond. This is especially true of the city’s holy places, which despite occupying a tiny area play host to some of the most sacred shrines of all three monotheistic religions.

Jerusalem, in old Semitic languages, means “city of peace,” but unfortunately it has had no peace for decades now; at best it has enjoyed a tense calm. At the heart of these uneasy relations is the Haram esh-Sharif, known to Jews asthe Temple Mount, revered by both Jews and Muslims and often the scene of violent clashes between Arabs, Jews and Israeli security forces.

One would hope, and pray, that from a place where people of great faith who are close neighbors and worship the same celestial entity, a message of peace might be beamed worldwide. However, since the closing decade of the last century exactly the opposite has come to pass, and a combination of religious fundamentalism and nationalism, especially on Jewish and Islamic holy days, has led to heightened tensions in this small enclave, and in many cases to violence. It leaves one in little doubt that in the tragic relations between Israelis and Palestinians, the holiness of Haram esh-Sharif plays second fiddle to extremists’ attempts to impose their will on the vast majority of peaceful worshippers.

But although violent clashes can flare up because of local tensions and circumstances, they cannot be separated from the overall conflict, and especially the situation in Jerusalem itself. When the political temperature rises in other sites of friction between Israel and the Palestinians, things are likely to heat up with even more intensity in Jerusalem, and even more so at Haram esh-Sharif. When, as has happened in the past few months, Jewish and Muslim celebrations occur at the same time, the risk of friction is heightened, especially when irresponsible politicians inflame the situation with their populist incitements.

When the political temperature rises in other sites of friction between Israel and the Palestinians, things are likely to heat up with even more intensity in Jerusalem, and even more so at Haram esh-Sharif.

Yossi Mekelberg

In May, the Eid Al-Fitr holiday at the end of Ramadan coincided with Israel’s celebration of Jerusalem Day, a national day rather than a religious feast. For the first time, and in order to avoid clashes with Muslim worshippers, Israeli police prevented Jews from entering Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. Similarly, last week Eid Al-Adha fell on the same day of Tisha B’Av, when Jewish people mourn the destruction of the temples that once stood there. Sadly, such coincidences have predictably become an opportunity for fanatical Jews to violate the status quo established in 2003, when Israel opened the compound to everyone except on Muslim holy days.

The Waqf, the Muslim religious trust that oversees the daily running of the shrine, saw this as a unilateral violation of the protocol that had existed since 1967, which indeed permitted non-Muslims to visit, but under their auspices. In reaction to that violation the Waqf decided to consider non-Muslim visitors to the shrine “trespassers.” Not surprisingly, the Waqf is increasingly suspicious of Israel’s interest in the place, given the rhetoric that is issuing from the Jewish state, as right-wing messianic and anti-Arab sentiments take hold at the heart of government. The views of what used to be zealous, though marginal, elements of Jewish Israeli society who fantasised about rebuilding the Jewish third temple on Temple Mount instead of the Dome of the Rock, have now been legitimized; representatives of this idea occupy seats in the Knesset, and even hold cabinet posts.

Theologically speaking, most rabbis prohibit Jews from entering Temple Mount, as they cannot tell with any certainty how the temples were once laid out, and so access has been allowed only to the High Priest. On the other hand, those rabbis who have ruled in favour of allowing Jews to pray on Temple Mount are those who espouse the religious-nationalist, even messianic, creed and who by their own admission mix theology with the secular notion of sovereignty to justify their argument. There is hardly any separation between their objection to a peace agreement based on two-state solution and any territorial compromise with the Palestinians to achieve this goal, and their insistence on entering and praying on Temple Mount.

This erosion of the Waqf’s authority over Haram esh-Sharif has also led to it hardening its stance over non-Muslim visitors, a position supported by ordinary Palestinians and Muslims around the world. Jewish extremism is also playing into the hands of the more extreme elements among the Palestinians, and especially the religious fundamentalists. However, those tens of thousands of Muslims who were prepared to face the Israeli security forces during Eid Al-Adha, with all that such resistance entails, were responding not only to a threatening situation, but also to the constant efforts to destroy their aspirations to nationhood, of which the Haram esh-Sharif has become a symbol.

To be sure, the Waqf’s position has become more intransigent in recent years as Israel has increasingly taken unilateral steps to change the status quo in the compound, and the fear is that the political trajectory is beginning to favour the most extreme versions of Judaism and Zionism. If this situation continues to escalate, it will be an open invitation to a religious war with all its catastrophic consequences, something that the messianic zealots might welcome, but anyone else with any sanity should do everything in their power to prevent.

  • 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.Twitter: @YMekelberg
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