The violence at the Holy Esplanade accompanying the commemoration of the 9th of Av may have been a mere preview of the High Holidays in September. Dozens of young Palestinians barricaded themselves within the Al-Aqsa Mosque and attacked the Israel Police at the holy site with stones and firecrackers in order to prevent the ascension of religious Jews to the Temple Mount on the day marking its destruction. The Israel Police, under new Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan, chose not to close the site to Jews, as it occasionally has done, but rather to enable the entry of hundreds of religious Jews (reportedly 300-1,200) by rushing the Esplanade and forcing closed the doors of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, sealing violent protesters inside.
Unlike the second half of 2014, the Israel Police wisely did not punitively prevent the entry of young Muslims into the Esplanade, which may have helped contain the violence at the Esplanade itself, sparing the rest of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. But the breaching of al-Aqsa by the police and the presence of hundreds of religious Jews on the Esplanade as young Muslims were locked within the mosque only affirmed to many Arabs and Muslims the sense that Israel’s policy is to divide the site.
If the spread of violence was limited, its severity was not. In just two days clashes reached the level they did last year after an escalation over three months. That had been kicked off by the kidnapping and murder of the three Jewish youths and was followed by the killing of Palestinian teen Muhammad Abu Khdeir, the seven week-long Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, increased tensions during Ramadan and the Jewish High Holidays, and the attempted assassination of Temple Activist Yehuda Glick. This year, the progression was more rapid: a call by the Temple activists for a mass ascension on 9th of Av and large-scale counter-preparations by the “Murabitoun” (Arabic for “Guardians of Islamic holy places”) who harass Jewish visitors to the site in order to deter them. On the day itself, one of the Jews shouted “Muhammad is dead” and young Palestinian activists, known to some as Shabab al-Aqsa [Al-Aqsa Youth], attacked the Israel Police. The events demonstrated that the November 2014 decisions by Prime Minister Netanyahu – prohibiting the ascension of ministers and members of the Knesset, reducing Knesset discussions about the topic and limiting the size of visiting groups of religious Jews to fewer than ten at a time – do not suffice as a means to prevent violence.
Activism has increased and improved over the past year. The Shabab al Aqsa [Al Aqsa Youth] have figured out how to overcome new Jordanian measures preventing them from illicitly entering the Mosque, from where attacks on the Israeli Police are easier. Hamas has called for attacks on Jews on the Esplanade, including both visitors and the police. Temple activists have raised their numbers and improved media outreach, eroding the government self-restraint on enhancing Jewish rights at the site.
More importantly, the fundamental reasons for the weakness of the site’s management mechanisms have not changed. The rapid escalation indicates that Palestinian sensitivity to any perceived changes to the status quo is high, as is their ability to mobilize. The Jordanian Waqf is squeezed in the middle: Palestinians see it as incapable of defending the site while Israel blames it for failing to stop violence. For a time in early 2014, the Jordanian Waqf acted vigilantly against young stone throwers in order to prevent recurrent storming of the holy site by the Israel Police, but last year’s dramatic escalation eroded Amman’s will and ability to confront them.
From an Israeli point of view there are three ways to address the crisis in advance of the High Holidays: more aggressive policing even at the cost of confrontation; offering Palestinians a way to voice their concerns and have them addressed; or empowering the Jordanian Waqf.
The tendency of the current government, and perhaps particularly of the new internal security minister, is to rely on increased policing in East Jerusalem and in the Old City in particular, outlaw Murabitoun non-profits, prevent funds from reaching Hamas and the northern branch of the Islamic movement, etc. These moves probably would have some effect, but at the price of feeding the radicalization of the Palestinian public of East Jerusalem and heightening the escalation. Should Israel resume punishing Palestinian violence by limiting their access to the site (the so-called “dilution policy”) the escalation would be even greater and quicker. Among the Shabab al-Aqsa, there are indeed some Hamas members, but there are apparently even more youth who are not affiliated with any faction. This is a popular movement that policing alone cannot contain.
There are alternatives. In order to prevent the Esplanade from becoming a battlefield, Israel should take steps to reduce the threat perception of East Jerusalem’s residents. Two measures would be particularly significant. First, the more Muslims at the site, the less threatening the entry of religious Jews – which is why resuming the “dilution” policy would be a mistake and expanding access to Muslims would be helpful.
Second, most residents of East Jerusalem trust neither Israel nor Jordan, who jointly manage the site, so integrating representatives of Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem – and representatives from the Old City in particular – into the Waqf, or into a separate body working closely with it, could reduce local uncertainty and provide them with an active role. A modest option would be for the Waqf to set up a consultative body through which East Jerusalem representatives – perhaps one from each neighborhood — could inform the Waqf of their needs, hear about the site’s management and offer their own ideas. As long as the mandate of the body remains consultative and its composition excludes prominent representatives of Palestinian factions, Israel and Jordan likely could accept it, thereby helping to lower tensions at the Esplanade.
Another possibility is empowering the Waqf. Israel could do so by any combination of the following: reversing the erosion of the assurances Netanyahu gave King Abdullah in November 2014 (as demonstrated by the ascension of Minister Uri Ariel on the 9th of Av); permitting the Waqf to carry out certain maintenance projects (establishing a modest fire station, installing makeshift lavatories, erecting additional prayer platforms, etc); allowing the Waqf to demonstrate some measure of control over the site (for instance by regulating the compound’s opening hours for Muslims, expelling Jews who try to pray, and restoring and controlling access for non-Muslim visitors to the Dome of Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque;) and declaring publicly that the involvement of Jordan in the management of the site is of high importance.
A new intifada will most likely not break out during the coming High Holidays. But violence could easily spill over to the rest of the city and the West Bank, lowering the bar for future escalations just as the events of summer 2014 contributed to the rapidity of the recent mobilizations. In order to prevent this, Israel will need to pursue a combination of steps, taking from all three approaches, instead of relying virtually exclusively on policing.
Ofer Zalzberg is Senior Analyst of the International Crisis Group’s Arab-Israeli project.