Recent tensions around Jerusalem's Temple Mount are the worst in years, and the effects are being felt across the region, explains Adam Hoffman.
For almost three weeks, Jerusalem's Temple Mount, known in Arabic as al-Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary), has been at the centre of renewed tensions between Israel and Palestinian protesters. Although the Temple Mount – the holiest site in Judaism and the holiest outside Mecca and Medina in Islam – has been a site of recurring friction, mass prayers, protests, and clashes with Israeli police forces, as well as the reactions of the Palestinian leadership to the situation, mark a significant escalation compared to previous incidents concerning the site. The latest clashes had a strong international resonance, with protests across the region and condemnations from foreign leaders.
The current period of heightened tension started after July 14, when two Israeli police officers were killed by three Arab-Israelis in a shooting at the entrance to the al-Aqsa Mosque compound. Immediately after the shooting, Israeli police ordered the sealing off of the Temple Mount as security forces sealed the scene in order to search for more weapons on the site. Israeli authorities also ordered the cancellation of Friday prayers, for the first time since 1990, according to one religious official.
Shortly after the shooting and the closure of the Temple Mount, Hamas called for further attacks on Israelis and staged a rally in Gaza to celebrate the attack. The Palestinian Islamist group described the closure of the Temple Mount as "part of an overall religious war." Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum called "to escalate [the] al-Quds [the Arabic name for Jerusalem] uprising and to combat with the Jewish settlers at all the flash points to defend our holy shrines."
In addition to closing the Temple Mount immediately after the shooting of the two police officers, Israeli authorities installed new security cameras and metal detectors at the entrance to the site to prevent the use of weapons in future attacks in the compound. Though metal detectors have long been used at the Temple Mount's entrances for non-Muslims, they have never been used for Muslim worshippers who wish to enter the site.
The installation of the metal detectors enraged Palestinians leaders and Muslim religious authorities in charge of the Temple Mount. Israel's decision to place metal detectors at the entrances was immediately denounced by the Waqf officials who administer the holy site, who labelled the move "Israeli aggression" and called on Muslim worshippers not to enter through the metal detectors.
In a rare move, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced the halting of security coordination with Israel in protest of the installation of the metal detectors, a relationship considered essential for preventing terrorist attacks in Israel. Abbas said that "[Israeli authorities] don't have a right to place the [metal detectors] at the gates to the al-Aqsa Mosque, because sovereignty over the blessed al-Aqsa Mosque is our right... So we took a decisive and firm stance, especially with regard to security coordination and all kinds of coordination between us and them." Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said that "al-Aqsa mosque and Jerusalem are a red line" and urged Palestinians to participate in a "day of rage" against the stepped up security measures. Large-scale riots and clashes between protesters and Israeli police forces in Jerusalem resulted in three Palestinians being killed and over 300 wounded.
Hundreds of Muslim worshippers refused to pass through the metal detectors and instead held prayers in the alleys below the entrances to the Temple Mount. What Israel saw as a security precaution in the wake of the killing of two police officers, many Palestinians viewed as an attempt to expand Israeli control over the contested site. These reactions were rooted in existing Palestinian fears regarding Israel's intentions towards the Temple Mount: a Palestinian public opinion poll from March 2016 found that "an overwhelming majority [of Palestinians] believes that al-Haram al-Sharif is in grave danger" as a result of Israel's intentions to change the status quo prevailing in the Temple Mount since 1967. Al-Aqsa Mosque compound director Sheikh Omar al-Kiswani stated to the Palestinian news agency Ma'an after the start of the tensions that he would continue to oppose all procedures that could eventually result in "changing the historic and religious status quo in Jerusalem and its holy sites, including the al-Aqsa Mosque."
While the Palestinian political scene remains deeply divided between Fatah and Hamas, the deep religious and national significance of al-Aqsa is shared by all Palestinians. A Palestinian resident of Jerusalem described this sentiment by noting that "the al-Aqsa Mosque is the last place we have in this country... If al-Aqsa goes, we lose everything." Worshippers gathered in the streets of Jerusalem in the weeks since the installation of the metal detectors explained this non-partisan feeling, saying that "they are neither Fatah (Abbas's party) nor rival party Hamas... [but] rather the street, the people, the Jerusalemites."
The tensions at the Temple Mount have also been cited as a rationale for extremist violence and terrorism beyond Jerusalem. On July 22, a 19-year old Palestinian attacker stabbed a father and two of his children to death in the West Bank settlement of Halamish during Shabbat dinner. Ninety minutes before the terror attack, Omar el-Abed, the attacker, accused Israel of "desecrating the al-Aqsa mosque" in a Facebook post and claimed that he was "going to die for al-Aqsa." In addition, an investigation by Israeli security authorities into two attempted terror attacks last week in the West Bank revealed that tensions concerning the Temple Mount served as motivation for the assailants. By last week's end, Israeli military intelligence and the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic security service, expressed concern about such "inspired attacks" – operations by individuals or small local cells, launched against the backdrop of religiously motivated escalations in the Temple Mount.
The responses to the installation of the metal detectors were not limited only to the Holy Land, but also included condemnations and protests elsewhere in the region. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned the new security measures, claiming that "it is unacceptable that Israel shut down Haram al-Sharif for three days and imposed new restrictions, including metal detectors, on Muslims' entry to the area." Turkey's Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım also spoke out, claiming that Israel's action in the Temple Mount is "unacceptable behavior including hurting the al-Aqsa mosque." In Jordan, an estimated 8,000-strong crowd gathered in Amman, demanding that Israel open the gates to the Temple Mount to Muslim worshippers "without restrictions;" other protests took place outside the United States Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. In Turkey, protesters demonstrated twice outside synagogues in Istanbul, as well as the city's Beyazıt Square.
Back in Jerusalem, tensions around the Temple Mount appear to have calmed in recent days. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said on Saturday that he believed the tensions are almost over, claiming that "I think we are coming to the end of the crisis." Last week, the Israeli cabinet decided to remove the metal detectors from the entrances to the Temple Mount – a decision which was widely criticized in Israel, as 77% of Israelis saw the removal of the metal detectors as a capitulation to Palestinian demands. Following this decision, officials of the Islamic Waqf authority that administers the al-Aqsa Mosque stated that "the Islamic religious authorities in Jerusalem call on Palestinians to enter the al-Aqsa mosque to perform the afternoon prayer", and Muslim prayers at the Temple Mount last Friday ended peacefully.
However, due to the sensitivity of the Temple Mount, and specifically the al-Aqsa Mosque, for Palestinians and Muslims globally, any slight change (perceived or real) in the existing security arrangements regarding the site could cause renewed rounds of mass protests in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the region, or even further attacks by individuals citing the tensions at Temple Mount as their justification.