Given the absence of a comprehensive and viable political solution between Israel and the Palestinians, and the complete lack of trust between the two sides, a large scale confrontation is more a matter of when and not if. The situation in Jerusalem is especially fragile – any interference with the long-standing status quo on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, especially one that is not coordinated with all interested sides, would lead to the eruption of violence in the city and well beyond.
So it was careless of Israel, in the wake of the shooting of two Israeli policemen by three Israeli Palestinian militants at the Lions’ Gate, to apply collective punishment on Palestinians from East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and to introduce metal detectors at the entrance to the Al-Aqsa mosque. Both were neither justified nor required to ensure security. The assailants were neither Jerusalemites nor from the West Bank, but from the northern Israeli town of Umm Al-Fahm.
It was, essentially, an intelligence failure by the Israeli security services in not detecting the formation of such a militant cell within Israel, and for allowing the purchase of lethal weapons and their smuggling into the holy compound to go unnoticed. Enabling a proper investigation and collection of evidence by the police is understandable, but preventing thousands of worshippers from exercising their right to pray can only aggravate an already very volatile situation.
The events of the last fortnight have highlighted the deep gulf in the narratives about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Israel consistently insists that a united Jerusalem would remain its eternal capital under its sovereignty, while the Palestinians see East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state under Palestinian sovereignty. Facts on the ground clearly demonstrate that the city is far from being united with a clear demarcation between both communities.
If the lack of progress for a political solution contains the seeds of conflict, it is already a fertile ground for extremists from both sides. Hardliners on both sides believe that a clash in this holy place would serve their purpose and ultimately lead to a decisive victory.
In the mysterious ways of Middle East politics, a tragic event in Amman enabled the Israeli government to climb down from their previous decision. After an Israeli embassy security guard shot dead his alleged young Jordanian attacker and accidentally his landlord, Israel removed the metal detectors from Temple Mount, in exchange for Jordan allowing the Israeli guard to return to Israel.
This provides one of the most important lessons – that only by regional and international cooperation is it possible to prevent or contain violence in the holy sites in Jerusalem. This can be done only through daily coordination with all those with a stake in the holy places including the Waqf, which manages the site and is responsible for religious and civil affairs, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other international stakeholders.
Nevertheless, no coordination mechanism, however efficient in dealing with maintaining the status quo or addressing a crisis situation, can replace building trust through a genuine comprehensive political process leading to ending the occupation and ensuring the political, human and civil rights of both peoples.
Professor Yossi Mekelberg, Senior Consulting Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme.