Israeli decision not to limit access to Jerusalem prayers helped reduce protests

In times of tension, Israel often bans younger Palestinian males from prayers at Temple Mount. On Friday, it showed that, despite Trump’s speech, nothing had changed on the ground

Dov Lieber

Dov Lieber is a former Times of Israel Arab affairs correspondent.

Israeli security forces detain a Palestinian protester on December 9, 2017, in East Jerusalem. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)
Israeli security forces detain a Palestinian protester on December 9, 2017, in East Jerusalem. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)

Palestinian protesters came out in the tens of thousands night after night for two weeks in July when Israel placed metal detectors at entrances to the Al-Aqsa Mosque after three Arab Israelis killed two policemen there with weapons they had smuggled into the sacred Temple Mount compound.

In contrast, in response to US President Donald Trump’s speech on Wednesday night recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the holy city in the past three days has seen relatively mild protests, with perhaps a few hundred East Jerusalemites participating.

On Thursday and Friday at the Damascus Gate, often a focal point of protest and violence, journalists outnumbered the protesters — a sign that news editors had taken Hamas’s repeated entreaties for a new intifada more seriously than the Palestinians themselves.

On Saturday in Jerusalem, the protests were smaller still.

And outside of this one congested point in the city, life has gone on as normal.

Israeli security forces clear area outside Damascus Gate, Jerusalem, during protests over US President Donald Trump’s recognition of the city as Israel’s capital on December 8, 2017. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

On Thursday, the Palestinian leadership called a general strike across the West Bank and Jerusalem. But while many in the city did close their shops, some stores in East Jerusalem’s main thoroughfare remained open, selling not just food and other essentials, but also clothing and children’s toys. Some shop owners compromised: They propped the doors to their shops half-way open, so locals could get a look at their goods and come in, while avoiding trouble if men seeking to enforce the strike walked by.

Without Arab Jerusalemites taking a central part in protests surrounding the fate of their city, it may be that the furious demonstrations elsewhere — in the West Bank, the region and beyond — may fade away as well.

The most serious and violent protests have taken place at the Gaza border, where Hamas has been allowing thousands of Gazans to approach the fence, with two protesters killed on Friday, and at the permanent border crossings between Israel and the Palestinian territories surrounding Jerusalem.

Hamas, of course, is doing its utmost to incite protests in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Thus far, without much success.

Perhaps Palestinians took to heart the US president’s assurance, in his speech on Wednesday, that the boundaries of Jerusalem would still be part of a negotiated settlement, and his call for no change to the status quo at the city’s holy sites.

More likely, though, is the fact that, unlike the situation surrounding July’s hugely attended Al-Aqsa protests, Trump’s decision simply hasn’t affected the lives of Palestinians, including those who might be moved by perceived threats to Al-Aqsa.

A highly significant move in this context was the decision by Israel not to limit access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque on Friday, even as security forces braced for violence amid the calls for a “Day of Rage” and a new intifada. Israel’s response to surges in tension has often been to bar younger Palestinian males from Friday prayers at Al-Aqsa, but it chose not to repeat this practice on Friday.

While Palestinian agitators argued that Al-Aqsa was in danger, the Israeli decision meant that, for ordinary Palestinians, it was evident that nothing had actually changed. Quite a contrast with the rapid installation of the metal detectors at the entrances to the Temple Mount in July, which was seen as tangible proof that Israel was tightening its control of the holy compound — and which Israel ultimately had to reverse.

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

This time, the Israeli decision-makers showed that the lesson had been learned: Curtailing access to the holy site can escalate the very tensions it is ostensibly designed to reduce.

Hamas is still calling for more violence, while rival Fatah is calling for an intensification of non-violent protests. So the political actors will try to keep people coming into the street.

Hamas, which has units patrolling the Strip to prevent rocket fire into Israel to avoid any unwanted conflagration, allowed three rockets to be fired into Israel Friday night. Israel, as it always does, responded with air strikes, which resulted in the deaths of two Hamas terrorists as well as 14 injured, among them women and children, the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry said.

A previously unknown Salafist group calling itself the Salahedin Brigades claimed responsibility for one of the attacks.

The deaths of civilians in Gaza from retaliatory air strikes by Israel could swell the numbers of Palestinians protesters.

On Saturday, PA Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki made an unprecedented call at a press conference in Cairo for Arabs to descend upon Jerusalem to support the protests. It was a strange measure by Maliki, as most Arabs eschew entering Israel for fear of being seen as normalizing relations with the Israeli state.

Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki. (AFP/Miguel Medina)

On the political level, Abbas is considering reorganizing the Palestinian political arena. In the coming days, the leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which Abbas heads, will review whether the Palestinian Authority will have to be remodeled from a “service provider” in accordance with the Oslo Accords, or transformed into a true Palestinian government.

The Palestinian leadership in the West Bank is also seeking an ostensible parallel response to the US measure, calling on countries to recognize a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The Arab League is meeting Saturday night in Cairo. On Wednesday, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation will meet in Istanbul.

The Palestinian leadership is hoping to pressure Arab/Muslim states into forcing a reversal of the US decision.

Thus far, in part because of some Israeli security forbearance, it has been unable to get East Jerusalemites massing in the streets.

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