Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa | Analysis

MIDEAST: Is Jerusalem Burning?

Analysis by Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

JERUSALEM, Oct 26 2009 (IPS) - Déjà vu on one of the world’s most volatile religious sites, a site deeply revered by both Muslims and Jews.

On Sunday, Israeli police helicopters circle over the Al-Aqsa mosque and the adjacent Golden Dome of the Rock from where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven and where, for Jews, two Biblical temples once stood.

In the narrow alleyways below, heavy Israeli police reinforcements, batons, tear-gas and shock grenades at the ready in order to confront young Palestinian protesters.

On the contested ‘Temple Mount’ (for Jews), ‘Haram el-Sharif’ or ‘Noble Sanctuary’ (for Muslims), clashes soon erupt – dozens are lightly injured on both sides; the Israeli police arrest 21 Palestinians, among them the former Palestinian Authority minister in charge of Jerusalem, Hatim Abdel Qader.

The Mount is closed to worshippers and tourists alike.

On Monday, the police reopen the site.

That’s the nub of the problem: Muslims fear that extremist Jews want to infiltrate the holy compound in the guise of visitors in order to stage demonstrative prayers there.

This stokes Muslim and Arab fears that such demonstrations are a prelude to a full-scale Israeli takeover of the holy site. That, Israel categorically denies, is its intention.

But, over the years, the disputed site has become the focal point of besieged national pride for Palestinians and Israelis alike.

Ever since the 1967 Arab-Israel war when Israel took control of Jerusalem’s walled Old City, the holy compound has been left under the administration of the Muslim religious authority, the Waqf. This pragmatic approach was aided by a pervasive ruling of most leading rabbis that, precisely because it is considered the holiest site in Judaism, Jews should not set foot there until God has rebuilt the Temple.

But, over the years of occupation, the site has become more and more a fixation for nationalist religious Jews who are challenging, and often trampling on, the traditional rabbinical consensus.

That’s what lies behind the intermittent clashes which have been going on since the start of the Jewish high holiday season a month ago.

The current tension was apparently precipitated by news that such ultra- nationalist Jewish groups were coming together for a meeting to promote the cause of “returning to the Temple.”

That, in turn, triggered Muslim hardliners who, like their Jewish counterparts, want to change the fragile 42-year status quo, and to block all hope of progress towards a negotiated agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.

Indeed, the Jewish hardliners are not concealing their goal.

At a meeting, organised by ‘The Temple Institute’ which declares itself dedicated to “eventually rebuilding the Temple”, Prof. Hillel Weiss of the religious university, Bar Ilan, urged, “The Temple must be built now. The mosques do not have to be destroyed in order for us to do this.”

A prominent settler rabbi, Dov Lior, said, “It is vital that the Israeli people visit Temple Mount.”

“At present the Muslims have the momentum,” said Rabbi Yaakov Meidan. “But if Jews were to increase their presence, hundreds and thousands were to keep coming to the Temple Mount, then we would gain the momentum.”

Several parliamentarians belonging to the governing coalition attended the meeting including Tzipi Hotovely of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party. “The more we back away from Temple Mount, the more violence will increase. Not only will it increase, it will spread to other parts of Jerusalem,” Hotovely insisted.

Palestinians across the political board as well as Arab leaders in the region warn of dire consequences if Israel is not curbed.

“The international community must intervene and demand an end to Israeli incitement,” said the chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. “Otherwise we fear that violence may spiral out of control.

“This latest assault on Al-Aqsa is part of a systematic and deliberate policy of incitement,” Erekat added. “By escalating tensions to the point of violence, the Israeli government is looking for an escape clause to avoid meaningful negotiations.”

Erekat reported that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will soon meet King Mohammed VI of Morocco, who chairs the Organisation of the Islamic Conference’s Al-Quds (Jerusalem) committee, to urge action.

Jordan is also urging Israel to rein in its extremists. “We are extremely worried about the provocative behaviour,” said Nabil Sharif, the kingdom’s minister of state for media and communications, in a statement.

In Damascus, Hamas’s top political official, Khaled Mash’al, warned in a televised news conference that Israel could attempt to divide Al-Aqsa and “force their religious rituals on it,” a clear reference to the division of the Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of the Patriarchs, half of which is under direct Israeli control, in the West Bank town of Hebron.

“Jerusalem’s fate will not be decided in negotiations but in the balance of confrontation and resistance,” Mash’al predicted.

Exactly nine years ago, Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s opposition leader, staged a deliberate challenge to the status quo when he provocatively visited the Mount. That sparked the second Palestinian Intifadah uprising.

The question now on everyone’s lips is, will another Intifadah erupt from the latest confrontations?

On the surface, two key processes would seem to point ominously in that direction.

There is a deepening stalemate in peacemaking, and extremist voices on both sides are gaining ground, threatening to push both the Israeli and the Palestinian political establishments towards a showdown which both say they do not want.

On the other hand, analysts note, a third key ingredient for a renewed uprising is absent – Palestinian unity. That remains a running sore, with President Mahmoud Abbas and the Hamas leadership in Gaza uncompromisingly at loggerheads with one another.

Palestinian divisions in turn constitute a major obstacle in the way of U.S.-led efforts to rekindle peace hopes through Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.

And, in the absence of a political alternative, no one can guarantee that rational assessments will not be set aside, and the ‘extreme faithful’ on both sides will come to dictate whether Jerusalem burns or not.

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