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The Temple Mount: Where Holiness Meets Violence

By Charles Bybelezer | The Media Line

July 16, 2017

Three Jewish worshippers are escorted by Israeli security forces as they visit near the Al-Aqsa mosque compound on the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as Haram Al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, on October 28, 2015. In the background, the Dome of the Rock mosque. (Photo: THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images)
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Security forces on high alert after attack at al-Aqsa mosque kills two Arab-Israelis

“Al-Aqsa is under attack” is a common rallying call in the Arab-Islamic world, alluding to Muslim allegations that Israel seeks to “Juda-ize” Jerusalem and its holy sites, or altogether destroy the mosque—Islam’s third-holiest site—where scripture says the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.

On Friday, an assault indeed took place there, but it was three Arab Muslims who perpetrated the mass shooting, killing two Israeli police officers—Haiel Sitawe, 30, and Kamil Shnaan, 22—and injuring a third. That both Sitawe and Shnaan were themselves Druze Muslims is another example of the indiscriminate nature of random violence.

In response, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu ordered the closure of the entire complex for two days (it has since gradually been reopened, with protests at the site underway), and held a rare phone conversation with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas—their first since November, evidencing the severity of the matter. The issue’s sensitivity was likewise on display with Netanyahu stressing above all else that “the status quo will be preserved,” referring to various longstanding policies upheld by all Israeli governments with a view to maintaining relative peace at the holy site.

For his part, Abbas condemned the attack, “affirm[ing] his rejection of any violent incident [carried out] by any party, especially in houses of worship.” He nevertheless condemned the complete shutdown of the site, the first such occurrence in decades, if not altogether unprecedented (depending on how one defines “fully off-limits”).

Demonstrating the matter’s global implications, the White House released a statement reaffirming U.S. President Trump’s “zero tolerance for terrorism,” and vowing “in the strongest terms [to] defeat and eradicate it.” The UN likewise weighed in, with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calling for calm on both sides, before making explicit the present, overriding concern; namely, that the episode has the potential to “ignite further violence.”

In the result, Israel has taken measures to beef up security. Speaking to The Media Line, National Police Spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld explained that, “Following the very serious terror attack, security assessments were made throughout the weekend. Extra police officers were mobilized in and around the Old City and Temple Mount.” Rosenfeld confirmed that “metal detectors and cameras will be set up there for the first time,” and stressed that police will “keep all measures in place for as long as necessary.”

Israeli leaders, including Netanyahu, have in the past attributed flare-ups at al-Aqsa to Palestinian incitement. During the 2015-2016 “Stabbing Intifada,” for example, which killed dozens of Israelis and lead to the deaths of more than 200 Palestinians, the government accused the PA of fueling the killings by spreading lies about supposed existential threats to the mosque, and thus the need to defend it.

In this respect, Abbas himself previously vowed to prevent Jews and their “filthy feet” from defiling the site; which, in the event he warned, could spark a “religious war.” Following the latest killings, Hamas, the radical Islamic rulers of Gaza, “prais[ed] the guerrilla attack in Jerusalem…[as] a legitimate right for our people.”

Meanwhile, a statement released by the High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel rejected the “individual act” on grounds that it “doesn’t serve the struggle of the Arab masses to defend their presence, rights and holy sites.”

Mahmoud al-Habash, Palestinian Authority Religious Affairs Minister, echoed this sentiment, telling The Media Line that “any Israeli control over al-Aqsa is unacceptable and will never be tolerated.” Al-Habash believes that the measures taken by Israel in the wake of Friday’s attack are not about security, but rather an excuse to “continue implementing a pre-existing plan against al-Aqsa and Muslims.

“The international community,” he continues, “must therefore decide whether it supports a culture of peace, which can lead to an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, or leave Israel to do what it is doing, which could lead to unexpected consequences.”

Habash concluded that “Israel is trying to paint this as a religious conflict, which is very dangerous.” Indeed the “status quo” on the Temple Mount is one of the most contentious—and potentially explosive—issues in the Holy Land, dividing the population along racial and religious lines.

The arrangement has its roots in the immediate aftermath of the 1967 war, when Israel unilaterally relinquished administrative control over the Temple Mount to an Islamic Wakf, under Jordanian custodianship (hundreds of people demonstrated in Amman this weekend against Israel’s closure of the site). Since then, Jews have had very limited access to their holiest place—where the two biblical Temples are said to have stood some 2,000 years ago—and are barred entirely from performing any religious rituals, even moving their lips in a manner that could be construed as prayer.

This reality, coupled with the frequency of violent outbursts atop the mount, has led to a growing chorus of calls by the Israeli right-wing for the “status quo” to be changed. After the latest attack, Education Minister Naftali Bennett called for “a thorough and new consideration of the current Israeli policy on the Mount,” whereas Culture Minister Miri Regev said the complex should be open to all, without time or area limits.

Perhaps the most vocal proponent of unrestricted access to the site is Israeli parliamentarian Yehudah Glick, one of the chairs of The Knesset Caucus for the Temple Mount. In October 2014, he barely survived an assassination attempt, shot multiple times by an assailant who accused him of being “an enemy of al-Aqsa.”

Glick reaffirmed to The Media Line his opposition to the “status quo” because, he says, it discriminates against Jews. “This must change,” he stressed, explaining that he works to achieve this goal by increasing the number of Jewish and Christian visitors to the site. In this way, Glick believes a critical mass will eventually be reached that will leave no choice but to alter the situation.

Then, in his view, the Temple Mount will become a place of “dialogue, unity and a world center for peace.”

In the interim, according to archaeologist Dr. Gaby Barkay, co-director of The Temple Mount Sifting Project, the violence will likely continue; as a manifestation of what he calls “cultural terror.” With respect to the Waqf in particular, Barkay tells The Media Line that “the body has already irreversibly changed the nature of the Temple Mount…by deliberately destroying relics at the site, barbarically and with bulldozers.” He considers this distortion of the historical record as part of a “general phenomenon” across the globe, citing the Taliban’s blowing up in 2000 of Buddhist statues in Afghanistan, and, more recently, the demolition of artifacts by the Islamic State in Palmyra, Syria.

Barkay contends this trend applies equally to the Palestinians, who he claims have waged a concerted campaign to “deny all Jewish links to holy sites.”

In this respect, two weeks ago, UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural organization, declared the ancient core of Hebron—where Abraham roamed some 4,000 years ago—as an endangered Palestinian World Heritage site. The city’s Cave of the Patriarchs, the resting place of Judaism’s forefathers and the religion’s second holiest site, was previously renamed by the PA the Ibrahimi mosque. Joseph’s tomb, located in the West Bank near Nablus, has repeatedly been defiled since the city was transferred to the PA’s jurisdiction in accordance with the Oslo agreements.

At hand, then, is a confrontation which, evidently, has become a major point of contention within Israel’s already fragmented society, and between the Jewish state and Muslim World, generally. It is a battle between peoples harboring conflicting beliefs and ideas, a war of competing narratives which both claim titleship over the heart and soul of Jerusalem.

And, to date, neither side appears ready, willing or able to concede one holy inch.

(Dima Abumaria contributed to this report)

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