By Alex Shkurko
Since Israel carried out ‘Operation Protective Edge’ in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip this summer, following the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers and the brutal kidnapping and immolation of a Palestinian, the state of affairs had managed to remain relatively calm. That is, until recently. The fatal shooting of an an Israeli Arab in the western Galilee town of Kafr Kanna, sparked riots and protest all over Israel. In an incident that was captured on a surveillance camera nearby, Kheir al-Din Hamdan is seen rapping on the windows of a stationary police van with an alleged weapon in his hand, after which an officer exits the van—with a pistol in hand—and shoots the 22-year-old as he walks away. Following his shooting on November 8 riots quickly spread throughout northern Israel, as well as in East Jerusalem, which is home to nearly 260,000 Palestinians. Stones and Molotov cocktails were thrown and a general strike crippled the economic activity of a majority of Arab cities in the Negev on the day following the shooting of Hamdan. At the same time an outbreak of stabbings and intentional hit and run attacks were perpetrated by Palestinians, one in the West Bank and the other in Jerusalem mere hours apart, with 14 people injured in the Jerusalem attack.
The rise in confrontations has been attributed to recent demand by right-wing Jews to be allowed to pray at the Temple Mount, the holiest of Jewish sites and equally revered by Palestinian Muslims as the al-Haram al-Sharif. Tensions have been progressively rising, with both sides feeling increasingly threatened: Israelis by the acts of violence and fears of another Intifada—or uprising—and Palestinians with the threat of losing control of the al-Haram al-Sharif and many of their homes in the aftermath of the destruction and death of the Israeli incursion. Tuesday morning’s attack on a West Jerusalem Har Nof synagogue, which killed five Israelis—four of them Rabbis—has been condemned by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, though he simultaneously asserted Israel is sparking a “religious war”.
Israel has responded with heightened security in Jerusalem, by deploying thousands of police personnel, and by reinstating a controversial policy of demolishing the homes of Palestinians who perpetrate terrorist acts. While originally deemed ineffective in preventing attacks, and subsequently phased out in 2005, this deterrence policy has reemerged as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent speeches have contained promises to settle “the score with every terrorist” who attacks Israel. Hamas has taken a more proactive approach in encouraging Palestinians to attack Israelis as retribution for Yousuf al-Roumani, the bus driver that was found hanged in his bus on November 16. His death—which further contributed to increased violence and collective resentment—was blamed on Israeli assailants by both Hamas and his family, despite initial Israeli police reports that indicated suicide as the cause of death.
Per the findings of a European Union report released in March 2014, 100,000 East Jerusalem residents are at risk of losing their homes due to increasingly stringent building restrictions imposed on them by Israel. Demolition of the homes of those Israel calls terrorists is in violation of international law that expressly bans collective punishment except when no other alternative is available. While Netanyahu may find this to be effective, it also allows him to present himself as hard on terrorism. This in turn helps to cement the foundation for a January 2015 coalition that will be dominated by conservatives in the Knesset. The homes of the recent Palestinian attackers have already been demolished or their occupants served with demolition warrants, which carry a 48-hour window for appeal. The question of effectiveness has been brought up, not only in terms of their ineffectiveness as a deterrent, but also for their potential to inflame resentment and anger in East Jerusalem—already dangerously high.
In the same light, the recent synagogue attack pose a unique challenge to Israel’s security forces: independent Israeli residents are now waging their own fight and there have been talks of expanding gun rights in Jerusalem. While Netanyahu has denounced Abbas’ speech as inciting further violence, he also criticized the implication that Jewish worship at the Temple Mount, which has been off limits to this point, could contaminate a site they themselves hold to be the most sacred. Abbas’ Fatah party has praised the attackers and called them “heroic”.
Despite repeated assertions that Israel’s longstanding policy of forbidding Jewish worship at al-Haram al-Sharif will not be repealed, they have provided little solace and hope: despite Netanyahu’s promises, members of his own Likud party have paid repeated visits to the site and publicly spoken out in favor of erecting a third Jewish Temple there. The movement is headed by the Temple Institute, whose stated mission is to “see Israel rebuild the Holy Temple on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem,” and have successfully fundraised more than $100,000—its original goal—through a crowd-funding website.
The rise in confrontations has been attributed to recent demand by right-wing Jews to be allowed to pray at the Temple Mount, the site of the Jewish temples, the last being the “Kodesh Hakodashim,” or the “Holy of Holies,” destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. It remains Judaism’s most revered and sacred place, which is said to have held the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. The very same site is also venerated by Muslims, who call it “al-Haram al-Sharif”—or Noble Sanctuary—and regard it as the third holiest site following Medina and Mecca. The Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque sit on this plateau and are equally revered for their connection to Mohammed’s ascension to heaven. Naturally, this is a site of contention between the two religious faiths. While Jews and Muslims may disagree about the name of the boy who—according to both faiths—was nearly sacrificed before God intervened, they both hold the Foundation Stone to be a significant vestige that bridges the heaven and the earth and also the site where Isaac or Ishmael almost lost his life.
Since the annexation of East-Jerusalem following the 1967 war, colloquially known as the Six-Day War, King Hussein of Jordan agreed to become the religious guardian of East Jerusalem and its religious structures—most notably the al-Haram al-Sharif. Jordan’s special role in holding religious authority was cemented in the Washington Declaration, which signaled a serious commitment to the future status of Jerusalem and the al-Haram al-Sharif. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) regarded this agreement as illegitimate, since they believe the Palestinian people hold the rights to the holy site. More specifically, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat viewed it as an attempt to extract political power from him and his movement.  Since the time of the agreement, Jews have been cautioned and warned to not pray on the al-Haram al-Sharif and are threatened by police removal if they attempt to defy the long standing status quo. Rabbinic scholars themselves, most notably Maimonides, argued that it is not permissible for a Jew to step onto the Temple Mount because of the possibility that they are standing on top the Kodesh Hakodashim.
What’s significant now is that both Abbas and Netanyahu seem to agree that the al-Haram al-Sharif and the Al-Aqsa mosque will remain standing and that no serious plans for destruction and the rebuilding of the third temple are realistic options. The furthering of opposing religious narratives is beyond toxic for two peoples that have found themselves at odds, not only politically but religiously as well. Naturally, Netanyahu must resist the temptation to further alienate East Jerusalem’s residents and the Palestinians; what recent events show more than anything is the near inevitability of an Intifada and a long war, with more blood spilt. Reinforcing their own positions, while important for their respective standing in their communities, need to take a backseat to the basic need for Abbas and Netanyahu to come together, with at least the blessings of their bases, in order to build a plan for moving forward. Even if such a course seems idealistic, the violence and demolitions will only escalate and magnify the intractability of the situation, and reinforce divisions many of their followers already feel and think.
However, in catering to their respective bases, both Netanyahu and Abbas have highlighted the potential for peace that still incredibly exists somewhere in the void between Fatah’s calls for violence and Netanyahu’s plans to erect more than 1,000 apartments in East Jerusalem. Israel has no better partner for peace than in Abbas: that 30 would-be attackers have been arrested in the West Bank is an act of good faith that might provide an opportunity for new dialogue. Netanyahu earlier this week jointly blamed Hamas and Abbas for providing the necessary fodder that led to Tuesday’s brutal attack on an ultra-orthodox synagogue, largely attended by non-Zionists. Abbas himself, after pressure from US Secretary of State John Kerry, finally condemned the Har Nof synagogue attack, and then faced significant opposition from Fatah leaders who refused to condemn the attack and instead said that it was the natural reaction to Israeli assaults. The dueling narratives, despite Al-Aqsa incitement and reactionary violence, must find a way to come together under a single roof—a space that has no room for accusations and recrimination, but instead looks for solutions that move beyond polemics and playing to the extremists on both sides.
Photo by Etienne Valois