Muslim officials’ dangerous theatrics at the most incendiary spot in the Middle East
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Muslim officials’ dangerous theatrics at the most incendiary spot in the Middle East

Jerusalem police chief meant Temple Mount reopening after Friday's terror attack to be celebratory; Waqf clerics had other ideas

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

File: Waqf officials and others prepare to pray outside the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City, rather than enter the compound via metal detectors set up by Israel following a terror attack, July 16, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
File: Waqf officials and others prepare to pray outside the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City, rather than enter the compound via metal detectors set up by Israel following a terror attack, July 16, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Shortly before 12:30 p.m. Sunday, when Israel had promised to reopen the Temple Mount to Muslim worshipers, a group of Waqf officials, who are charged with managing the holy site, arrived at the Gate of the Tribes, one of the nine entry points to the compound. This area, adjacent to the Old City’s Lions Gate, saw some of the fiercest street battles between Israeli security forces and Muslim protesters at the outbreak of the Second Intifada 17 years ago.

Israeli security forces had been deployed here for several hours, while officers set up metal detector gates, designed to prevent worshipers from smuggling guns, knives and other weapons onto the Mount.

The decision to place metal detectors at the entrances to the compound was the most visible consequence of Friday’s terror attack, in which three Arab Israelis from Umm al-Fahm emerged from the Temple Mount compound, guns in hand, and shot and killed police officers Kamil Shnaan and Haiel Sitawe, who were on duty here. Until Sunday, the only entrance to the Mount where metal detectors were deployed was the Mughrabi Gate, the sole access point for non-Muslims.

Sunday’s formal reopening of the Temple Mount — unprecedentedly closed since Friday, as police searched for other weaponry that might have been concealed inside the compound — was being overseen by Jerusalem Police Chief Yoram Halevi. He stood on one side of the new metal detectors, and waited patiently for the arrival of the Waqf delegation, with whom he intended to jointly welcome the return of Muslim worshipers.

Muslims pray in front of metal detectors placed outside the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City, July 16, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Muslims pray in front of metal detectors placed outside the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem’s Old City, July 16, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Waqf officials knew in advance that metal detectors now stood at the gate; they knew international media would be waiting to see how things would unfold; and they had evidently decided to use the opportunity to display their opposition, knowing it would be broadcast across the world by the dozens of journalists gathered at the entrance.

The waiting police officers made clear to Ahmed Omar al-Kiswani, the director of al-Aqsa Mosque, and to chief Sharia judge Wasef al-Bakri, that they need not pass through the metal detectors and could enter the Temple Mount compound directly. But instead of entering, the Waqf officials halted theatrically, and suddenly begin shouting in protest against Israel’s ostensible “attack on Al-Asqa Mosque.”

“We won’t agree to this violation of the status quo, and we will only return to the mosque once it is restored,” they yelled. “We will not accept security checks at Al-Aqsa… Don’t go through the gates,” they urged.

Immediately, a swelling crowd responded with chants of “Allahu Akbar.”

The entourage accompanying the Waqf officials and other would-be worshipers then moved slowly away from the metal detectors and began their afternoon prayers there and then, outside the Temple Mount.

Master Sgt. Kamil Shnaan, left, and Master Sgt. Haiel Sitawe, right, the police officers killed in the terror attack next to the Temple Mount complex in Jerusalem on July 14, 2017. (Israel Police)
Master Sgt. Kamil Shnaan, left, and Master Sgt. Haiel Sitawe, right, the police officers killed in the terror attack next to the Temple Mount complex in Jerusalem on July 14, 2017. (Israel Police)

Halevi had hoped for the reopening of the holy site to be a celebratory affair. Instead it had quickly turned into an act of protest against the placement of the metal detectors — designed to ensure security in and around the site.

The made-for-TV protest was broadcast on countless media outlets, especially in the Arab world. Al-Kiswani, who was clearly enjoying the limelight, gave interviews, while instructing worshipers not to enter to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque so long as the metal detectors remained in place.

Al-Kiswani knew full well that the three Friday killers smuggled the weapons they used to kill the police officers onto the Mount. He knew, too, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke Saturday evening with Jordan’s King Abdullah, who pays his salary, about the planned reopening of the compound. Nonetheless, he had decided this was the appropriate response.

Three Arab Israelis named by the Shin Bet as responsible for shooting dead two Israeli police officers next to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem on July 14, 2017: Muhammad Ahmed Muhammad Jabarin, 29; Muhammad Hamad Abdel Latif Jabarin, 19 and Muhammad Ahmed Mafdal Jabarin, 19. (Channel 2 composite screenshot)
Three Arab Israelis named by the Shin Bet as responsible for shooting dead two Israeli police officers next to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem on July 14, 2017: Muhammad Ahmed Muhammad Jabarin, 29; Muhammad Hamad Abdel Latif Jabarin, 19 and Muhammad Ahmed Mafdal Jabarin, 19. (Channel 2 composite screenshot)

And that was only part of the farce. What al-Kiswani didn’t know was that, at around the same time, a short distance away, the head of the Waqf, Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib, had entered the Temple Mount Compound, accompanied by a large delegation of Waqf officials, through the Majlis Gate, adjacent to the Waqf’s offices. While al-Kiswani was protesting against the alleged Israeli violation of the site, his boss was at that very moment not merely encouraging worshipers to come pray at the mosque, but was actually leading them up to the Mount.

For the next few hours at Lions Gate, the situation remained heated, and not only because of the oppressive weather. When worshipers tried to enter the site, via the metal detectors, they were immediately met with cries not to do so.

Many were deterred. But a small, steady stream did enter — via the Gate of the Tribes and the Majlis Gate. By 2:00 p.m., police estimated that there were some 600 Muslim worshipers inside the compound., and al-Khatib was explaining to the journalists who had gathered at the site that Al-Asqa Mosque could not be left solitary and abandoned.

Outside the Gate of the Tribes, dozens of people milled around, trying to deter would-be entrants. Many of the protesters were women. Some of them were weeping over the mosque.

Palestinian women chant slogans outside the Temple Mount / Al-Aqsa mosque compound, protesting new security measures introduced on July 16, 2017, after a terror attack on July 14. (AFP PHOTO / AHMAD GHARABLI)
Palestinian women chant slogans outside the Temple Mount / Al-Aqsa mosque compound, protesting new security measures introduced on July 16, 2017, after a terror attack on July 14. (AFP PHOTO / AHMAD GHARABLI)

“Don’t cry. Why are you weeping?” an older man asked a woman who was sitting down near the metal detectors. “Remember what the prophet [Muhammad] went through, what his companions went through. Islam will be victorious, my daughter, don’t worry,” he assured her. The tears did not stop.

Nasser Kos, one of the heads of Fatah’s Tanzim militia in Jerusalem and a leader at the time of the Second Intifada in the city, arrived at the gate — doubtless sensing the potential for trouble.

Still, despite the Waqf theatrics, and the large media turnout, confrontations were relatively minor, and the crowds did not swell dramatically. There was minor excitement when an ultra-Orthodox Jew, apparently a journalist, arrived and began to take pictures. Some of the Muslim worshipers appeared troubled by his “Jewish” appearance, and began walking rather menacingly toward him.

And then two young Israelis appeared, apparently recording the scene on their cellphones. It turned out the two were Matan Peleg, head of the right-wing NGO Im Tirzu, and Tom Nisani, the organization’s director of operations. Some arguing ensued, and police moved them away, as Peleg shouted, “The people of Israel are not afraid.”

It is not clear why some officials of the Waqf — whose members are Jordanian officials for all intents and purposes — have chosen this confrontational course. It may be that they have been inspired by Jordan’s conduct — marked by its unreasonable demand on Friday for the compound to be immediately reopened, even as Israel searched for weaponry.

Protesters chant slogans in the Jordanian capital Amman on July 15, 2017 during a demonstration against the closure of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which Israeli security forces closed a day earlier after Arab gunmen killed two Israeli policemen in the Holy City. (AFP PHOTO / KHALIL MAZRAAWI)
Protesters chant slogans in the Jordanian capital Amman on July 15, 2017, during a demonstration against the closure of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which Israeli security forces closed a day earlier, after Arab gunmen killed two Israeli policemen in the Holy City. (AFP PHOTO / KHALIL MAZRAAWI)

On Saturday, there was an anti-Israel/defend Al-Aqsa march in Amman. On Sunday, the speaker of the Jordanian parliament read out a eulogy for the “martyrs of Palestine and the Jabarin family,” from which the killers hailed. He termed their attack a heroic act. All this, even as King Abdullah and Netanyahu had spoken by phone and agreed to reopen the Mount.

The question now is who will blink first. Will someone from the Hashemite kingdom intervene to impose some order? Will someone in the Israeli government back down? The latter seems particularly unlikely: Netanyahu told reporters on Sunday that the metal detectors are here to stay, and that they constitute an an all too evidently necessary security measure, not a change to the status quo.

As darkness fell on Sunday, there were scuffles at the Gate of the Tribes between protesters and Israeli police. More are in prospect, at what is now the best lousy show in the Middle East.

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