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Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade Reveals the Limits of Israeli Counter-terrorism
Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade Reveals the Limits of Israeli Counter-terrorism
Counting the Costs of U.S. Recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital
Counting the Costs of U.S. Recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital
Muslim worshipers perform Friday Prayer at al-Aqsa Mosque compound after lifting of Israeli restrictions on Al-Aqsa, in Jerusalem on 4 August, 2017. Mostafa Alkharouf / Anadolu Agency

Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade Reveals the Limits of Israeli Counter-terrorism

Israeli-Palestinian tensions are mounting, not just in Gaza and over the U.S. embassys move to Jerusalem, but also over Jerusalems Holy Esplanade, known to Jews as Temple Mount and Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. Israeli and Palestinian leaders could take simple administrative steps to reduce the risks of violence at the holy sites.

A series of momentous events in Israel-Palestine, both national and religious in character, risk spiralling into a dangerous escalation. Since 30 March, tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza have protested each Friday at the border with Israel. According to the UN, Israeli soldiers have so far killed 40 Palestinians and wounded over 2,000 with live fire during the protests; Israel killed over a dozen more in unrelated events in Gaza. The weekly protests are to culminate in what is billed as the largest demonstration on 14 May, when the U.S. is relocating its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their national capital; they see the embassy move as U.S. endorsement of Israel’s claim to the whole city as the “eternal and undivided” capital of Israel. On 15 May, Palestinians will commemorate the nakba – the tragedy of forced displacement and land expropriation that befell their nation in the 1948 war.

Tensions are also mounting in Jerusalem itself. April began with the weeklong holiday of Passover, when an unprecedented number of religious Jews – nearly 2,600, compared to 650 only four years ago – visited the city’s Holy Esplanade. The site is hallowed ground for Jews as the location of the two biblical Temples and for Muslims as the spot from which the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven. Palestinian and Jordanian officials condemned an Israeli court decision to allow a mock sacrificial ceremony, including the actual slaughter of a lamb, on Passover eve at Davidson Park, located immediately below the Holy Esplanade.

On 18 April, Israelis celebrated 70 years of independence; roughly a month later, on 13 May, they marked Jerusalem Day, the moment 51 years ago when the Israeli army “reunified” the city’s western and occupied eastern halves under Israeli rule. Lastly, the evening of 15 May is the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, during which tens of thousands of Palestinians will visit Jerusalem’s Old City and the al-Aqsa Mosque at the Holy Esplanade. The Jewish holiday of Shavuot, one of Judaism’s three festivals of pilgrimage to the Temple Mount, will take place on 19 and 20 May, with numerous religious Jews seeking to enter.

This concatenation of events – sacred occasions, interspersed with anniversaries of turning points in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – takes place amid growing Palestinian fears of Israeli encroachment upon the Holy Esplanade and, by extension, all of Jerusalem.

The keys are for Israel to restore arrangements that were in place at the Holy Esplanade before 2000 and to relax its ban on non-violent protest, instated because of clashes there.

It is impossible to prevent all the violence that could accompany these developments without a comprehensive policy shift by all concerned. Little suggests that the risks of rising violence can be eliminated by military means alone. Instead, Israel and Palestinian leaders should take several steps to address the sources of anger fuelling attacks.

The keys are for Israel to restore arrangements that were in place at the Holy Esplanade before 2000 and to relax its ban on non-violent protest, instated because of clashes there. Together such changes could help reduce the ability of militants to incite violence using al-Aqsa’s symbolism.

Metal Detectors outside the Mosque

Many Israeli politicians think that the relative calm at the Holy Esplanade results from Israel’s 2015 decision to outlaw the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel and associated non-profit organisations that were active at the site. But how much the ban has contributed to the quiet is debatable. Parallel to the ban, Israel and Jordan altered the management of access to the site, calming tensions there. Israel virtually halted restrictions on the entry of certain categories of Muslims (eg, men under 40) and Jewish members of the Knesset stopped advancing bills to allow Jewish prayer at the site. Jordan, for its part, resumed limitations on overnight stays in al-Aqsa following a number of incidents, particularly during Jewish holidays, in which youth who had slept in the mosque threw stones in the early morning at Israeli security forces in order to prevent the entry of religious Jews.

Today, the Holy Esplanade is at the core of a far more serious security challenge – one that the 2015 ban arguably helped catalyse.

Today, the Holy Esplanade is at the core of a far more serious security challenge – one that the 2015 ban arguably helped catalyse. In an unprecedented attack on 14 July 2017, three Arab citizens of Israel smuggled arms onto the Esplanade and shot dead two Israeli police guards standing just outside one of its gates. Previously, Israel’s security services had operated on the assumption that only militant Jews or evangelical Christians would use arms or explosives at the site. (Since 1967, the Shin Bet has pre-empted more than two dozen such attacks aiming to destroy the Dome of the Rock on the Esplanade and replace it with a third Jewish Temple, which is why the site’s entrance for non-Muslim visitors is the only one equipped with metal detectors.) Whereas religious Jews underwent rigorous security checks when visiting the site, Muslims generally entered without being frisked.

In the wake of the 2017 attack, Israel blocked Muslim access to the site for 48 hours – the first such closure in decades – and installed metal detectors at the entrances for Muslims. Palestinians from the West Bank and Jerusalem refused to pass through them, instead praying in the thousands outside the gates. The protesters included Palestinian Christians, showing that the Holy Esplanade has national as well as religious significance. The Shin Bet reported a dramatic rise in attempted attacks upon Israelis, primarily in the West Bank. Jordan and Turkey saw mass demonstrations. Israel’s Arab neighbours condemned the changes at the Esplanade and pushed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to remove the metal detectors. In response, Israel got rid of the devices, though it feared copycat attacks.

Indeed, in early September 2017 the Shin Bet apprehended two residents of the Arab town of Umm al-Fahm in Israel. Israel alleges they intended to kill Israeli police at the Holy Esplanade gates. The Shin Bet reportedly thwarted a similar attack in January 2018. These attempts are unlikely to be the last.

A Focus on Capacity, Not Motivation

The November 2015 ban on the Islamic movement’s northern branch and two non-profit organisations supporting Islamic activism at al-Aqsa (murabitoun and murabitat, Arabic for “defenders of holy places” in masculine and feminine form) did help reduce friction at the site: members of these groups had harassed Israeli Jewish visitors and clashed with Israeli security forces. But the unintended outcome has been increased participation of members of the northern branch in political violence. At the time, the Shin Bet opposed the categorical ban on the northern branch, recommending instead the arrest of a handful of its senior leaders for incitement and sedition, and the firmer enforcement of existing laws. The concern was that shutting down the movement’s twenty non-profit organisations would foster support for violence among its 10,000-strong membership or among the roughly 150,000 recipients (about 10 per cent of Israel’s Arab population) of its services across the country.

The Shin Bet views any violence carried out by Israel’s Palestinian citizens as particularly hazardous, since it risks severely damaging fragile Jewish-Arab relations within Israel. These fears have been borne out: according to the Shin Bet, growing numbers of Palestinian citizens of Israel who were formerly associated with the northern branch have attempted, since late 2015, to perpetrate attacks around the Holy Esplanade and in Israel. Those accused of planning both the September 2017 and January 2018 attempted attacks at the Esplanade fit this profile. The attacks so far – small in number but large in impact, one of them having led to Israeli measures that sparked the largest demonstrations in Jerusalem in many years – might be the first of several instances in which members of the banned northern branch attempt violent attacks.

In addition, dismantling the northern branch has made it harder for the Israeli security services to monitor the activities of the movement’s Israeli-citizen sympathisers, who have intimate knowledge of the country and operate in small cells. Shin Bet officials who advised against the ban further argue that the heavy-handed Israeli crackdown on Palestinian groups at the Holy Esplanade – the murabitoun hassling Israeli Jewish visitors and the youth throwing occasional stones at Israeli security forces – may have inadvertently led to much more dangerous attacks. This dynamic could accelerate if legislation is passed that would ban additional non-profit organisations associated with former northern branch members, and if right-wing ministers and Knesset members are able to push through their demand to outlaw Knesset parties like Balad, an Arab grouping that rejects Israel’s characterisation of itself as “Jewish and democratic”. That stance is illegal under existing Israeli law.

Arab leaders in Israel have been calling for over a decade for the state to collect unlicenced weapons, but only now has Israel begun a serious campaign to do so.

The ready availability of firearms in Israel makes it difficult to prevent attacks. There are more than 100,000 firearms in the hands of Arab citizens of Israel. It would be easy and inexpensive for those keen on emulating the July attack to procure machine guns and automatic rifles – an improvised Carlo submachine gun can be bought for 5,500 to 8,000 shekels ($1,560 to $2,265) and an Uzi submachine gun for 5,000 shekels ($1,415). Arab leaders in Israel have been calling for over a decade for the state to collect unlicenced weapons, but only now has Israel begun a serious campaign to do so. Completing it will be a Sisyphean task; even if many guns are confiscated, the illegal sale of weapons by Israeli soldiers remains rampant.

The current campaign highlights a key limitation of Israel’s response to the challenge: it tends to focus on capacity rather than motivation. But the well of capacity is highly unlikely to run dry, and, at present, motivations are plentiful. Israeli policy now prioritises facilitating the entry of religious Jews to the Esplanade and tolerates individual Jewish prayer there, contrary to the government’s official position maintaining the status quo in place since Israel conquered the Old City and East Jerusalem in 1967 – the informal arrangement providing for exclusive Muslim worship at the site and access as tourists for all, including Jews. The categorical ban on protests against Jewish prayer on the Esplanade has only made more likely hard-to-prevent lethal attacks that invoke the “defence of al-Aqsa”.

Toward a Temporary Remedy

In order to curb both protests and armed attacks, Israel must revisit its policy. Advancing Jewish interests at a site in occupied territory while in effect ignoring the concerns of the Muslim-majority population in that territory – namely, that Israel is trying to divide the Esplanade between Jews and Muslims, either spatially or temporally, as it did at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron – will invite more violent Palestinian responses.

Advancing Jewish interests at a site in occupied territory while in effect ignoring the concerns of the Muslim-majority population in that territory will invite more violent Palestinian responses.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s Jerusalem proclamation deepened the peril: though he explicitly stated that the status quo should be kept, he also said he has taken “Jerusalem off the table”, creating ambiguity about whether he has recognised an Israeli capital in West Jerusalem alone or also in the occupied East. Trump’s remarks made it easy for those recruiting militants to stoke fears that the U.S. is giving legitimacy to Israeli rule in occupied East Jerusalem and non-Muslim rule over al-Aqsa. Muslim attention will soon shift to al-Aqsa during Ramadan, when motivations for personal sacrifice are high. If past is precedent, there will be a heightened risk of violent attacks during this period.

A productive step would be for Israel and Jordan to restore certain features of the site’s management before 2000, when there was less tension and the site was friendlier to tourists. From 1967 to 2000, Israel policed the Holy Esplanade only from its perimeter, not from within the compound as well, as it does today. The waqf (the Muslim religious endowment), meanwhile, had a say in determining which non-Muslims could enter the site; it sold admission tickets to its historic buildings. Israel almost never restricted the entry of entire categories of Muslims, and the waqf’s prominent stature made it much more tolerant of visits by religious Jews: its palpable influence led many Muslims to consider their interests protected, lessening concerns that religious Jews at the site would leverage their presence to harm al-Aqsa’s integrity.

This period, known as the pre-2000 status quo, ended with the outbreak of the second intifada that fall and the ensuing prohibition of entry to non-Muslims. In 2003, Israel unilaterally renewed non-Muslim access, overriding then Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat’s vehement opposition to such a step. Jordan, which had initially consented to renewed access for non-Muslims but changed its position in response to Arafat’s opposition, responded to Israel’s unilateral move by, among other things, referring to religious Jews as invaders and halting sales of admission tickets to non-Muslims.

Turning back the clock to the summer of 2000, as Jordan, the waqf and PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas repeatedly demand, is impossible. But Israel and Jordan – acting in consultation with Palestinian leaders from East Jerusalem – should build on two central features of that arrangement to smooth the site’s management and decrease tensions. First, they should visibly empower the waqf, so that Palestinians feel it is protecting Muslim interests at the site and therefore they do not have to. Renewing the sale of admission tickets by the waqf, enabling it to conduct maintenance work that does not damage archaeological activities and resuming coordination between Jordan and Israel on non-Muslim entry would go a long way. Second, they should encourage free access for all. An empowered waqf presiding over a vibrant site will be more tolerant of Jewish and other religious groups than one that feels itself under siege.

Other steps would include expanding access to Jerusalem for West Bankers and Gazans, so they could reach the holy site, and facilitating single-day bus access on Fridays for Jordanians from Amman, with passengers vetted by the Jordanian security services. The more Muslims have undisturbed access to the site, the less apprehensive they likely will be about the presence of visitors from other faiths.

Addressing tensions at and around the Holy Esplanade could facilitate future peacemaking.

Palestinian leaders have a role to play, too. Some of them – Abbas, Arab members of the Knesset and the High Follow-up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel – have condemned attacks at al-Aqsa and its use as a symbol to incite others. More of them could do so, including additional leaders from the PLO, Hamas, the main Arab coalition in the Knesset (the Joint List) and the former northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, all of whom speak to different constituencies. In their eyes, as some indicate in private, the July attackers violated the sanctity of al-Aqsa by carrying firearms inside it. Particularly important would be condemnation from Sheikh Raed Salah, a senior northern branch leader who attended the funerals of the July attackers and praised them as “martyrs”, but did not explicitly condemn violence at the site. Many in Israel view Salah’s stance as condoning if not encouraging such acts. While curbing violence at al-Aqsa undoubtedly serves certain Israeli interests – by reducing friction, violence and resistance to occupation in East Jerusalem – it also serves some Palestinian ones: the targeting of al-Aqsa could help Israeli hawks to justify taking the far-reaching steps at the site that Muslims fear most, such as dividing it temporally, with separate prayer times for Muslims and Jews.

Even such steps would deliver only a partial, tentative remedy, so long as there is no significant movement toward a broader settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and end to Israel’s deepening occupation of East Jerusalem. Indeed, action against violent extremism should not distract policymakers from addressing the conflict’s core. But addressing tensions at and around the Holy Esplanade could facilitate future peacemaking.

A man walks by as the Israeli national flag and an American one are projected on a part of the walls surrounding Jerusalem's Old City, on 6 December 2017. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Counting the Costs of U.S. Recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital

President Donald J. Trump on 6 December 2017 declared U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, breaking decades of precedent even while saying the U.S. was not “taking a position of any final status issues”. In this Q&A, Ofer Zalzberg and Nathan Thrall, Senior Analysts for Israel/Palestine, examine what the decision means for Israelis, Palestinians and the future of their conflict.