What do we know about the attack and how unusual was it?
On Friday 14 July 2017, three Palestinian citizens of Israel attacked and killed two Israeli-Druze policeman who were guarding one of the entrances to Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade – known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount. The police then pursued the attackers, killing all three inside the compound. So far there has been no evidence of the attackers’ political affiliations; the police claims they have none. All three came from Um al Fahem, an Arab city in northern Israel known historically for the strong presence of the more militant, “northern” branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement.
Preventing violence at the site is one of Israel’s General Security Services’ two top objectives (the other being preventing an assassination of the prime minister) because of its potentially dramatic implications. While protesters at times have thrown stones and launched incendiary firecrackers at the police in and around the esplanade, this incident was remarkable in two respects. First, resort to firearms in the holy site to kill Israeli policemen marks a significant escalation. Second, Friday’s attack also was unusual in that the attackers emerged with two improvised machine guns and a pistol from within the religious complex.
The Israeli police claim that their weapons previously had been stored in an unknown location inside, raising sensitive questions about how the firearms were smuggled in the first place. The Israel police responded to this rare incident by pursuing and killing the three attackers; video footage showing one of the gunmen lying on the ground motionless, suddenly jumping up and then falling again after a new exchange of fire fed Palestinian accusations that one of the perpetrators could have been shot in the legs and captured alive but instead was deliberately shot.
How important is the Holy Esplanade for Muslims and Jews and what is its current status?
One cannot overstate the importance of the Holy Esplanade to both Muslims and Jews. The site is Islam’s third holiest after Mecca and Medina; in the Islamic tradition al-Aqsa (“The Furthest”) Mosque was Muhammad’s destination on his night journey from Mecca aboard his winged horse. From the same foundation stone on the esplanade, Muhammad’s journey took him to heaven and on to Mecca. Palestinians see it as their national mission to defend it from foreign encroachment. Similarly, the site is Judaism’s holiest. In Jewish tradition, it contains the foundation stone of the world’s creation, on which Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac; it is where the First and Second Jewish Temples stood (destroyed in 586 BCE and 70 CE respectively). It has played an outsized role in the Zionist imagination as a symbol of the Jewish Israeli connection to Jerusalem and the Land of Israel.
The Status Quo governing the site dates back to Ottoman times. Under this arrangement, only Muslims have the right to worship while non-Muslims, including Jews, can visit. Since 1967, all Israeli and – in their capacity as Muslim custodian of the Holy Esplanade – Jordanian Hashemite kings have remained committed to this formula. In the summer of 2014, daily clashes broke out between young Palestinian protesters and Israeli police over what the former perceived as changes to the Status Quo. These ended only after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jordan’s King Abdullah reached a quiet understanding in November 2014 that reaffirmed the prevailing formula. As part of their understanding, they agreed to four key commitments, all of which until recently have largely been upheld:
- All Israeli Knesset members were to be kept off the esplanade;
- Israel would refrain from age or gender limitations on Muslim access;
- Israel would bar provocative Jewish activists from the site and limit religious Jewish groups entry;
- Jordan would prevent young Palestinians from surreptitiously entering the compound at night.
How has Israel responded to Friday’s attack?
The government’s initial objective was to ensure that such an attack – which happened in spite of its tremendous ongoing security efforts – would not recur. Israel immediately closed all entrances and commenced extensive searches for further weapons within the site; dual-use weapons including knives and sticks were found, but no additional firearms. The police at first did so unilaterally but soon thereafter worked with the Jordanian Waqf, which, as the site’s administrator, facilitated police entry into closed buildings. As the attack occurred on the day of Friday prayers, tens of thousands of Muslims from across the West Bank and Jerusalem already were on their way to the site so Israel’s decision to close the holy site that day and bar access to the Old City to all but its residents triggered angry reactions. In an act of defiance, Muslims prayed outside the gates.
Further complicating matters, Israel, seeking to upgrade security measures, set up metal detectors at the entrances to the site, a measure it had sought to implement since the 2014 escalation but refrained from doing due to Jordanian opposition and fears of potential backlash. The widespread perception among Palestinians is that this decision represents an Israeli attempt to extend its control over an illegally occupied sacred Muslim and Palestinian site, further restricting Palestinian and Muslim access. For Jordan, Israel’s move signals another deterioration of the access arrangement that reigned until the second intifada and was never restored, when Israel and Jordan jointly determined entry for non-Muslim tourists and Muslims faced few constraints at the site itself. With the installation of metal detectors, Palestinians, Jordanians and most Muslims see Israel unilaterally arrogating to itself the right to regulate access for everyone, of all faiths, to one of Islam’s holiest sites.
Though Netanyahu telephoned King Abdullah and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority (PA)’s president, to announce his intention to install the detectors, he neither sought nor received their public backing for the measure; he possibly interpreted their lack of public opposition as a green light. But news of Netanyahu’s phone calls coupled with the two leaders’ subsequent silence regarding the metal detectors intensified Palestinian feelings that no Muslim ruler could or would protect the site.
Are the 2014 understandings between Jordan and Israel still able to preserve the relative calm?
The November 2014 understandings between Prime Minister Netanyahu and King Abdullah have been effective at preserving the relative calm in spite of their informal character. Yet in the last year – and even more so in the last month – they have begun to unravel. This largely is due to a change of policy on the Israeli side.
The new head of the police’s Jerusalem district, Yoram Halevy, who was nominated in January 2016 by Israel’s minister of internal security, Gilad Erdan, gradually has altered the police’s attitude toward the Temple activists who seek to revise the Status Quo. Specifically, both Erdan and Halevy adopt a more tolerant stance toward individual, quiet Jewish prayer on the esplanade, in effect contravening the Status Quo’s ban on non-Muslim worship. When Halevy joined a 29 June visit of Temple activists to the site in order to commemorate the murder of a thirteen-year-old girl from the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, he received the priestly benediction from an activist in the group. Photos of the event were incendiary and went viral in the Palestinian media: a senior official from the Israeli institution tasked with preserving the ban on non-Muslim worship, in accordance with a more than 150-year-old arrangement, participated in such worship.
In the last month, in contravention of Netanyahu’s express commitment to King Abdullah, the police twice imposed age-based limitations on Muslim access to the Holy Esplanade in order to, they said, protect large groups of Temple activists visiting on those days, despite the fact that Netanyahu had promised previously to constrain the size of such groups. Netanyahu’s announcement that he plans to allow once again Israeli politicians to access the site on 23 July could augur yet another serious erosion of the understandings. That such visits risk having an inflammatory effect is clear: then Likud leader Ariel Sharon’s visit to the holy site in 2000 helped trigger the Palestinian uprising known as the second intifada. The prime minister resisted years of pressure by Knesset members to take these steps, but recently, a Knesset member took the matter to Israel’s Supreme Court. As it seemed a ruling against the government was likely, Netanyahu felt forced to accede.
Many Palestinians and Muslims fear that Israel will now go further and use the current crisis to discard the Status Quo together, allowing Jewish prayer and perhaps allocating an area on the esplanade for it. However, this is highly unlikely as Netanyahu is well aware of the likely explosive consequences and of the potential it has for provoking a crisis not only with Palestinians, but with Muslims worldwide.
Israel also knows that altering the existing arrangement could have serious implications for Jordan’s stability. King Abdullah is Guardian of the Mosque and therefore considered by Jordanians personally responsible for it. Undermining him could hurt his domestic legitimacy and, if pushed too far, even destabilise Hashemite rule and threaten relations with a country with which Israel enjoys a peace treaty. Finally, changing the Status Quo would undermine Israel’s budding relations with several Gulf Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia.
What has been the Palestinian response to these developments?
On Sunday, when Israel installed metal detectors at two gates to the esplanade and allowed access for Muslims, virtually all Palestinians refused to enter. The Jerusalem mufti and senior Waqf officials declared that nobody should enter as long as the metal detectors remain in place, and led prayer immediately in front of them. Only the Waqf’s head, accompanied by a few employees, entered the site. These defiant prayers steadily have grown – thousands of Muslims gather five times a day around the gates of the mosque and pray in long rows in the streets near the esplanade. Though the gatherings have largely been peaceful and the police have been disciplined and treated worshippers respectfully, there have been repeated clashes after the evening prayers – involving shoving, stone throwing, stun grenades and rubber bullets – injuring dozens of Palestinians and a handful of police officers. Because prominent Jerusalem figures have stood front and centre at the prayers, several have been wounded. Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Central Committee member Mustafa Baraghouti and former Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Ikrima Sabri were hospitalised after being shot by rubber bullets near the Lions’ Gate.
Since Monday, the nightly clashes have spread to other parts of Arab Jerusalem, notably Issawiyah and Silwan. While commerce and tourism in the Old City have resumed, the area around the esplanade is tense, particularly during prayer times. Fatah has declared a “day of rage” against the metal detectors for Wednesday. The Waqf already has decided to shut down all mosques in Jerusalem on Friday so that as many Muslims as possible will come to pray around al-Aqsa. Most Israelis view these moves as irresponsible and escalatory. Palestinians view them as mobilising against an Israel takeover of their holiest national site.
The nascent boycott potentially is highly significant because it marks the first time since the second intifada that East Jerusalem Palestinians are organising en masse. So far, the mobilisation includes only those coming to weekday prayers but if the situation is not resolved by this coming Friday, 21 July, its scope could expand. Already, notable Palestinians of different backgrounds and political affiliations – al-Aqsa imams; Jerusalem’s mufti; leaders of Fatah, Islamist and Leftist factions; Israeli-Palestinian Knesset members; and PA officials – have been at the forefront of the prayers outside the site. They reportedly rejected a compromise formula pursuant to which Waqf personnel would operate the metal detectors, though key details of the suggested compromise, such as the role Israel police would play around the metal detectors, have not been reported. Hamas and Islamic Jihad issued calls for more violence.
How has Israel’s policy toward Arab East Jerusalem affected its own security?
As part of its reaction to the collapse of peace talks and the outbreak of the second intifada in late 2000, Israel suppressed political activity in Arab East Jerusalem in order to advance its objective of maintaining the entire city under Israeli rule. In 2001, Israel shut down the Orient House, seat of the Palestinian leadership there that was loosely affiliated with the PLO. The leadership void in Arab parts of Jerusalem cast Palestinian Jerusalemites politically adrift. Israel’s construction of the separation barrier also walled off much of East Jerusalem from the West Bank; this, coupled with stricter Israeli enforcement of a ban on covert PA activity (including policing) in Jerusalem, has prevented Palestinian factions from operating within the city’s Israeli-defined municipal boundaries. Across Jerusalem criminal elements have flourished in this void.
At the Holy Esplanade, Islamic activism, mostly supported or led by the northern branch of Israel’s Islamic movement, consolidated itself in this vacuum. Its fortunes grew as those of its Palestinian competitors declined, and in direct correlation with Israel’s Temple activists. As efforts by Israel’s religious right to alter the Status Quo became more potent, so too did Islamic activism succeed in mobilising resources and men. Conversely, the more Islamic activism became confrontational, the easier it became for Temple activists to amass political and financial support.
The pattern continued in late 2015, when Israel banned the northern branch and the organisations that led Islamic activism at the site (often led by murabitoun, Arabic for “defenders of holy places”). In the short term, this has been effective in reducing organised opposition. But the longer lasting effect of these policies has been to transform Arab East Jerusalem into an increasingly leaderless and lawless urban zone rife with criminality.
The aftermath of Friday’s attack demonstrates that, in the absence of organised East Jerusalem Palestinian political institutions, Israel faces two different kinds of challenges. The first is mass protest, as evidenced on Monday and Tuesday evenings, when non-violent demonstrations rapidly turned violent, with dozens injured. Clashes already have spread from the Old City to other neighbourhood-villages across Jerusalem, primarily Issawiyah and Silwan. The second challenge is that without effective institutions to defend Muslim and Palestinian interests in the city, younger militants will choose to act alone and to do so violently, without anyone capable of reining them in. These unaffiliated attackers are harder to identify or preempt – and when Jordan is not seen to be effectively defending the interests of Muslims at the site, the odds are that young militant Palestinians will decide to shoulder this burden themselves.
What can be done to reduce tensions?
The widespread mobilisation of Palestinians against the metal detectors could play a significant role in terms of how the crisis is resolved. Arguably the first large-scale instance of East Jerusalem Palestinian activism since the end of the second intifada, it could enable the emergence of an organisational infrastructure for coordinated collective action. The longer the crisis drags on, the more likely such networks will be institutionalised, however informally. From an Israeli perspective, a collective Palestinian leadership is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it theoretically has the potential to organise violent activities but on the other hand, it is a political address that can coordinate with Israel to contain violence. In the absence of a political address, Israel will have few options in East Jerusalem other than coercing the other side or being coerced by it, neither of which is sustainable.
One way for Israel and Jordan to de-escalate tensions would be to boost the importance of expanded Waqf Council meetings, to which East Jerusalem leaders are invited for consultation. These could be used both regularly and in times of crisis, in order to involve the local population and secure its support for decisions taken jointly. If the parties – Israel and Jordan, ideally in consultation with the Palestinian Authority – are to reach a compromise, they will need a body to negotiate and implement it. Given the absence of Palestinian political institutions in East Jerusalem, it may be wise to leverage such expanded Waqf Council meetings.
King Salman reportedly passed a message to Prime Minister Netnayahu through senior U.S. officials, asking him to reverse the installation of metal detectors. This may present a ladder for Israel in case it accepts some kind of compromise. At the same time all parties should be cognisant that this crisis already has weakened King Abdullah and President Abbas, to the benefit of local leaders in Jerusalem, but with no other Muslim address at present, King Abdullah or his Waqf authorities need to visibly be part of whatever solution is reached. On Wednesday, the king formally requested that Netanyahu uninstall the metal detectors, but even (or especially) if the prime minister agrees, their coordination on the issue should not remain behind the scenes.
Israel cannot manage the site without Muslim interlocutors. Indeed, the character and trajectory of this dispute suggests that even if acting together, Jordan and Israel cannot on their own alter management of the site without Palestinian participation and consent. They have refused this in the past. But as tensions at the holy site increase, it is high time to change course and include Palestinian leaders of East Jerusalem in the management arrangements. Their choice is between recognising a legitimate leadership body of East Jerusalem or sustaining a void from which violence all but certainly will sprout.
Ofer Zalzberg, Senior Analyst, Israel/Palestine.