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Israel checking its limits on al-Aqsa

The escalation in violence in Jerusalem may reflect another bid by the Netanyahu government to change the Temple Mount status quo

Israel has considerable reserve forces ready to be deployed in times of war. It used this tool during the high days of the 2000-2005 Second Intifada, during the war in Lebanon in 2006 and in the various military campaigns against Gaza.

On Friday the Israeli parliament (Knesset) gave the go-ahead to the military to recruit reservists from Border Police units to tackle the growing violence in Jerusalem. The numbers are less important than the message sent to Israelis: we are facing a serious crisis in Jerusalem.

Clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinian militants have certainly intensified in the past week inside and around the al-Aqsa mosque compound and elsewhere in Jerusalem. The most dramatic event occurred on the eve of the Jewish New Year last Sunday, when a Jewish resident died from a heart attack after his car was stoned by Palestinian youth on the unmarked but very present "border" between Jewish and Palestinian neighbourhoods in occupied East Jerusalem.

Yet up until now the scale of the clashes have not reached even the size of the "mini-Intifada" that broke in July 2014, after a Palestinian teenager from Shuafat neighborhood was burnt alive by a group of Jewish extremists.

The tough Israeli response, and the recruitment of police reservists, may be explained as a show of force. But above all it has to do with the fact that the current round of violence is seen as a battle for al-Aqsa, or Temple Mount as it is named by Jews. For almost 100 years, violent clashes on this sensitive site have spread violence all over Israel/Palestine.

Israeli officials, such as Internal Defence Minister Gilad Erdan, try to frame the current clashes as an effort to restore order to this holy site and to maintain the status quo. The Muslim militants on the mountain are depicted as the source of violence, harassing and attacking Jewish "tourists" who only want to visit Temple Mount, and gathering semi-military equipment like firework flare pistols and even makeshift explosive devices.  

That view works quite well in Israeli media and political circles. Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu called for a firm hand against Palestinians throwing rocks and even asked the attorney general to authorise the use of snipers against Palestinian protesters in Jerusalem.

Erdan also suggested that judges who give "mild" sentences on Palestinians convicted of rock throwing would not be promoted.   

But Israel is far from being innocent in the current escalation around al-Aqsa.

About a month ago, Erdan announced his intention to outlaw two Palestinian organisations, the Murabitun (men) and Murabitat (women), whose members confront the Jewish visitors on Temple Mount and accompany them with cries of "Allah Akbar".

Two weeks ago, restrictions on Muslim worshipers - preventing men and women under a certain age to enter al-Aqsa - were reintroduced a year after they were cancelled. Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher in Ir Amim, a left-wing Israeli organisation active in Jerusalem, says that this was certainly a political decision, not a police one, as there were no significant clashes in the area during the months in which the al-Aqsa  compound was open to all Muslims.

Escalation at al-Aqsa

A day before the Jewish New Year the police stormed the compound, and allegedly found explosive devices and other materials ready to be used against Jewish visitors and worshippers who were supposed to pray in the Western Wall, situated just below the Temple Mount/al-Aqsa courtyard.  

This raid met with violent resistance inside the al-Aqsa mosque itself and led to clashes with Israeli police all over the Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. The incident in which the Jewish resident died after a rock was thrown at his car occurred a day later.

As Erdan and other Israeli officials well know, the vast majority of  Jews visiting the compound are not innocent tourists who only wish to marvel at the beauty of the old Muslim architecture on the mountain. They comprise political activists, from Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel from the extreme-right Jewish Home party, to Yehuda Glick, a Likud activist who visits the compound almost daily and pressures the government to enlarge significantly the Jewish presence in the al-Aqsa compound.  

Glick, who survived an assassination attempt by a Palestinian gunman last year, demands that freedom of worship in al-Aqsa should not be restricted to Muslims, but also be allowed for Jews. Nor does he hide his ultimate goal: to rebuild the Jewish Temple on the mountain.

Glick is rather vague on the fate of the present Muslim places of prayer, but others, such as Agriculture Minister Ariel, have expressed their wish to see the Dome of the Rock dismantled and the Third Temple built in its place. It is no wonder that Palestinians get nervous when they see "tourists" such as Ariel or Glick walk near these places.

This goal seems, of course, rather impossible to achieve. So it may be that Israel will settle for lesser achievements- such as dividing visiting areas or even prayer hours in the area between Jews and Muslims.

The Hebron model

The not very promising example is the Tomb of the Patriarchs (Ibrahimi mosque) in Hebron, where the Israeli army forced a partition of this holy place between Jewish and Muslim worshippers. It resulted in the massacre of 29 Muslim by a Jewish gunman in 1994.

Miri Regev, the present culture minister, told MEE on October 2014, while still serving as chairperson of the influential internal affairs committee in the Knesset, that she was "striving in order that every citizen in Israel - Muslim, Christian or Jew - would be able to pray in his sacred places. It is inconceivable that there will be freedom of worship for Muslims on Temple Mount but not for Jews." In Hebron, she claimed, "it works very well".

Erdan and Netanyahu have vowed to maintain the status quo on al-Aqsa, in place since Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967. But it may be that under the guise of "freedom of worship" for all lies that same goal to which Regev referred just a few months ago.

As the researcher Tatarsky notes, Palestinian violence on Temple Mount against Jewish "visitors" may help Erdan and Netanyahu portray a decision to separate visiting and praying hours on the mountain between Jews and Muslims as almost inevitable. The decision to prevent the Murabitun and Murabitat from entering al-Aqsa and a future intention to forbid Muslim worshippers from staying the night in the mosque compound may be part of the same process. Erdan boasts that since his new policies were adopted, the number of Jews visiting the mountain has increased sixfold.

Jordan's role

Yet Israel does not have to deal only with Palestinians concerning al-Aqsa. According to Israel’s peace treaty with Jordan, the Hashemite kingdom has a special status in al-Aqsa. It even pays the salaries of Waqf officials - Islamic trust officials - responsible for managing the site - on Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount.

Last November, when similar clashes erupted in al-Aqsa, King Abdullah of Jordan summoned Netanyahu to Amman to warn him of the consequences of changing the status quo there. The day after, Netanyahu ordered the gates of al-Aqsa be opened to all Muslim worshippers and restricted the visits of Israeli politicians on Temple Mount.

Now things may have changed. The new Netanyahu government formed after the elections in March is comprised of only of right-wing parties. The new ministers such as Regev in the culture ministry and Ayelet Shaked at the Ministry of Justice are trying to implement their political  beliefs.

Regev threatens to deprive Arab-speaking cultural institutions of public funding if they refuse to endorse the idea of Israel as a Jewish State. Shaked wants to lead an attack on the independence of the Israeli High Court. In such an atmosphere, it is easier for minister Erdan to envisage a change in the status quo in al-Aqsa in favor of Jewish political activists like Glick.

The clashes that erupted after the raid on al-Aqsa early last week spread over East Jerusalem and seem bound to intensify, but they have not yet crossed into the West Bank. The rocket attack from Gaza on the southern Israeli town of Sderot on Friday night, the first one to hit a populated area since Operation Defensive Edge last summer, can still be considered a limited escalation.

Tatarsky believes that, as in November last year, the pressure coming from Jordan, where the king warned Israel during his meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron early this week, that his country “will not have a choice but to take action” if Israel infringes the status quo in al-Aqsa, will have its effect on Netanyahu.

Perhaps. But with the current gung-ho mood in the Israeli government, things may go in other ways as well. In which case, recruiting some veteran Border Police reservists will not be enough. 

- Meron Rapoport is an Israeli journalist and writer, winner of the Napoli International Prize for Journalism for a inquiry about the stealing of olive trees from their Palestinian owners. He is ex-head of the News Department in Haaertz, and now an independent journalist.

​The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

Photo credit: An Israeli flag, displayed on a roof of an Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem, is seen in front of the dome of the Al-Aqsa mosque