On the Temple Mount, a morass a month in the making

The fuse for the clashes sparked by Minister Uri Ariel’s visit stretches back weeks, as Palestinian anger mounted over changes in access to the sensitive holy site

Avi Issacharoff

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.

Israeli Border Police seen during clashes in and around the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem's Old City on September 15, 2015. (Flash90)
Israeli Border Police seen during clashes in and around the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem's Old City on September 15, 2015. (Flash90)

The reports and pictures of the violence in the last three days on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem are not misleading.

Though it’s by now a dreary cliché, this powderkeg is again threatening to worsen the security situation and damage diplomatic ties between Israel and its neighbors.

The West Bank has thus far refused to go the way of East Jerusalem, but nonetheless violent clashes — seen, for instance, on Tuesday in Tulkarem — are on the rise.

More than that, though, the violence is taking its toll diplomatically. In Amman, King Abdullah II said Tuesday that if the Israeli “provocations” continue he will review relations between the Hashemite Kingdom and Israel.

Most of the Israeli public takes at face value the official Israeli position that the unrest in Jerusalem is deliberately fomented by extremist Palestinian organizations. But the reality is more complicated than that.

A series of Israeli measures in the past month have contributed to increasing tensions, even before the spark set off on Sunday by a group of right-wing activists, led by Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, who announced their intentions of going to pray on the Temple Mount, despite regulations against Jewish worship at the site.

That was enough to fuel the pyromania on the Palestinian side, starting with calls to the Muslim public to come and defend the Haram al-Sharif, as the holy site is known in Islam.

From there it was a short way to the ongoing clashes between protesters and police that have dominated the news cycle for the last three days.

Conversations with Palestinian residents in East Jerusalem show that in the last month the regulations for entry by Muslim worshipers to the Mount have become more stringent, including keeping some worshipers out during morning hours, which they say is unprecedented.

The chain of events is somewhat complicated. For many years, non-Muslims have been permitted to visit the Temple Mount during certain hours, in particular during the morning and for one hour during the afternoon.

However, in recent months there was an increase in the number of incidents in which Islamist women, mostly members of the now-outlawed Murabitat group, attacked non-Muslim visitors under the pretense of guarding the holy site.

As a result of this, the Jerusalem police began to block the entry of Muslim women during the hours that Jews and foreigners visited the Mount. Later on, they also kept out men under the age of 50.

These steps heightened tensions and gave Jerusalem Muslims the feeling that Israel was trying to change the status quo at the sensitive site. After that, only a spark — Ariel’s visit with his posse — was needed.

Since Sunday, when clashes first broke out, the Palestinians claim that police have blocked all Muslim entry during Jewish visiting hours.

Added to that is a new police activity: In recent days, about an hour and a half before opening the gates to non-Muslims (prior to 7 a.m.), police have burst into the Temple Mount enclosure and confronted the Palestinians who are already there. The police on Tuesday said they had entered on the basis of intelligence information to thwart a premeditated riot and attacks on Jews. They noted that they found pipe bombs, petrol bombs and other weaponry.

The Palestinians, many of them minors, barricade themselves in al-Aqsa Mosque and throw stones, firecrackers, and various other things at the police.

Police examine a barricade set up by Palestinians on the Temple Mount compound, Jerusalem, September 13, 2015. (Police spokesperson)
Police examine a barricade set up by Palestinians on the Temple Mount compound, Jerusalem, September 13, 2015. (Police spokesperson)

These youths are not members of a specific Palestinian group. There are representatives of various organizations — Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Fatah, and even non-religious groups like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — and they know this is their great moment.

The Palestinians wanted to create conflict and they’ve been getting their wish for the last three days, as pictures from the Temple Mount led news broadcasts on all the major Arab channels, trumping reports from Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

And that created pressure in the Arab states, where leaders were quick to make their condemnations of “Israeli violations” heard.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt warned of a deterioration in the situation on the Mount. Jordan’s Abdullah held a round of phone calls on the issue, including with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Whether this will be a blip or an actual shift in ties remains to be seen.

What is certain, though, is the satisfaction Ariel got out of his visit to the Mount on Sunday. In YouTube clips, the minister can be seen standing in the Temple Mount complex and blessing the people of Israel with a wish for a happy New Year, surrounded by police and security, as if nothing is amiss.

The Jerusalem Police were not available for comment.

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