Explaining the relative calm at Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade during Passover
Explaining the relative calm at Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade during Passover
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 5 minutes

Explaining the relative calm at Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade during Passover

For the first time in years, Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, was relatively calm during the Passover holiday. The reasons why are as complex as they are significant. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pointed to his government’s heightened use of force and the banning of the northern branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement, which increasingly mobilized Islamic activists over the past few years. But while Netanyahu’s claims have a purpose — defending his right flank against criticism that he has grown soft on security — the real sources of calm are different. Accurately understanding them is necessary in order to sustain and expand the success.

Here are six (and a half) thoughts that could help in designing sound policies at the site in the future:

  1. Diplomacy can work: Improved Israeli-Jordanian cooperation deserves much of the credit. Prime Minister Netanyahu and King Abdullah should be congratulated for reaching the quiet understandings that kept Israeli politicians away from the Esplanade, prevented categorical age or gender limitations on Muslim access, limited the number of Temple activists ascending daily and kept Palestinian youth who might throw stones from surreptitiously entering the compound under the guise of performing night prayer. Likewise, praise should go to Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan and the police chiefs on the one hand and the Waqf leadership on the other hand for making the understandings a reality. Though Netanyahu argues calm resulted from banning the northern branch, stone throwers in recent years were primarily Old City youth, not activists of the banned movement who come from within Israel proper. The key to calm was removing the mobilizing grievance of these young activists — categorical limitations on Muslim access in parallel to increased Jewish access. Without addressing this grievance, even heightened policing in and around Jerusalem’s Old City — even severe measure like shutting down commerce on much of the Old City’s main thoroughfare, al-Wad street, which police tacitly threatened may occur – would not have delivered the results we have witnessed: Palestinians did not throw stones and the Israeli Police did not storm the Esplanade and fire tear gas and smoke grenades into Al-Aqsa Mosque.
  2. Unilateral action is counter-productive: The Knesset campaign by Temple movements and their supporters to unilaterally promote Jewish worship and Israeli sovereignty, which was most intense 2012-2014, boomeranged. Activists secured neither. Conversely, the campaign made it easier for Palestinian activists to claim that Israel seeks to divide Al-Aqsa — which has forced the Israeli government both to limit the entry of Jewish Israelis to their holiest site and to prevent completely the entry of Israeli politicians. Until the campaign is convincingly suspended, access for Jews cannot be increased without backlash from Palestinians.
  3. Violent protest backfires: As over the past few months, throwing stones and firecrackers failed to stop the entry of religious Jews to the compound. Palestinians recently have experienced a massive wave of arrests and administrative detentions — aimed particularly at violent protesters – and much tighter control of the Old City and East Jerusalem. Policing has been so tight and fears from arbitrary police operations so rampant that most Palestinian residents of Jerusalem have not dared to visit the Old City during the past seven months. Meanwhile, Jordan’s relationship with Israel has been strengthened and its role at the site augmented, which, if consolidated, may give Amman a further advantage over Palestinians in future decisions about the site, especially in the event of a political settlement. Finally, the Netanyahu-Abdullah understandings make it easier for Israel to argue that it has some legitimacy in holding onto a site occupied in contravention of international law – including when ensuring Jewish access during Jewish holidays.
  4. Police should focus on individuals: Policing centered on individuals, Jews or Muslims, who violate the rules at the site is more effective than policing which categorically prevents access of an entire sector of a society to the Esplanade. In the current circumstances, preventing the entry of certain Jewish and Muslim leaders who take advantage of the sanctity of the site for their personal interest helps to reduce tensions. Fiery declarations on the weeks before Passover by Jerusalem Mufti Sheikh Muhammad Ahmad Hussein and Sheikh Raed Salah, who leads the outlawed northern branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement, did not spark violent mobilization. Similarly, Temple activists’ provocations challenging the status quo – like the Temple Institute organizing and publicizing a Jewish wedding at the Esplanade a week before the holiday as well as the attempted entry of religious Jews intending to sacrifice young goats at the site – did not lead to a collapse of governmental restraint.
  5. Boosting Jordan’s stature to address protest: The empowering of the Jordanian Waqf during the last few months – including by augmenting both the number and quality of the guards, increasing considerably the administrative staff, and adding new fire extinguishing capacities and maintenance equipment – enabled the body to take a more active role in upholding public order at the site. On the Friday during Passover, the Waqf guards handled the single instance of stone throwing toward the Mughrabi Gate. The Jordanian decision not to install cameras, as a result of Palestinian opposition, helped the Waqf preserve what remains of its credibility in the eyes of East Jerusalem’s Arab residents, allowing it to operate more effectively when violence occurred.
  6. More inclusive dialogue to resolve outstanding issues: The Esplanade was and remains a highly sensitive site for all sides. Given continued violence and potential for much more, it would be wrong to assume that the relative calm of Passover portends the same for the high holidays – especially if Israel tries to increase Jewish access considerably. Those keen on expanding non-Muslim access to the site during the coming Jewish High Holidays should hold political and religious dialogue about this now to design consensual – and only consensual — policies. This will not be easy. Palestinians will need to be represented, either by Ramallah or leaders in East Jerusalem – who will demand addressing the entirety of the territory between Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea as a part of reconfiguring the setup at the Holy Esplanade. This likely will prove an insurmountable obstacle in the short run, but sustaining the progress achieved over the past months could, in the long term, be taken as a basis for future agreements on access, worship and sovereignty.

A final half-thought to keep the controversies swirling over the Holy Esplanade in proportion: Temple activists report that 1,015 (religious) Jews visited the Esplanade during the week of Passover. Nearly 200 Jews a day is clearly an increase compared to the past. However, by way of comparison, a Priestly Blessing held at the Western Wall drew over 30,000 Jews in a single day. In 2016, and in every year since 1967, Israeli Jews clearly voted with their feet, indicating that the Western Wall is by far their main site of worship — as will Muslims during the upcoming Ramadan, when if past is precedent, each Friday some 200,000 Muslims will worship at the al-Aqsa Mosque.

Those aiming to keep calm at the tinder box that is the Holy Esplanade should take away from Passover 2016 the lesson that cooperation and coordination were no less crucial than disciplined policing for preserving calm at the site.

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