Mounting Tensions: Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade
Mounting Tensions: Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade

Mounting Tensions: Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade

In this Q&A, Ofer Zalzberg, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for the Middle East, discusses the growing controversies concerning the Holy Esplanade.

Violence in East Jerusalem neighbourhoods, and particularly in and around the Holy Esplanade – the focus of a full policy report by Crisis Group later this month – has surged amid a massive crackdown by Israeli police. In recent weeks an assassination attempt against activist Rabbi Yehuda Glick, and the subsequent killing in a police raid of Mutaz Hijazi, the alleged would-be assassin, further escalated tensions.

What underlies the current escalation in Jerusalem?

Two separate but related processes lie at its root. The first is the alienation and frustration, both social and political, of the Arab parts of East Jerusalem. The second has to do with specific tensions regarding the Holy Esplanade (known as the Temple Mount to Jews and the Noble Sanctuary/Al-Aqsa Compound to Muslims). Both were exacerbated by the tensions the Oslo Accords created, the failure of the Camp David talks in 2000, and the second intifada that then ensued.

What are the causes of the current clashes and violence in the Arab parts of East Jerusalem?

Since the second intifada and the construction of the Separation Barrier, which started in 2002, East Jerusalemites have grown isolated from the rest of the West Bank, geographically and politically. With the Palestinian Authority unable to act in East Jerusalem, city residents find themselves under direct Israeli control, lacking political representation and feeling abandoned by national leaders. They also have a heightened sense of relative deprivation, since, as Jerusalem residents, they compare their situation to that of Jerusalem’s Jewish population, which is better off than they are, rather than to that of the West Bank’s poorer Palestinian population.

A series of Israeli policies contributed to East Jerusalem’s deprivation, in particular limitations on planning, house demolitions, inequitable budgets (Palestinians make up one-third of city residents but receive only 12 per cent of municipal spending) and a severe shortage of classrooms and health services. Settlement construction in East Jerusalem, particularly in the midst of Arab neighbourhoods, further fuels despair. [For details see Crisis Group’s report Extreme Makeover II: The Withering of Arab Jerusalem.]

Over the past four months, some elements of this population, usually adolescents, began to mobilise, protest, and at times attack Israeli civilians and police (including by throwing stones and Molotov cocktails and firing firecrackers). This was set off by the brutal murder of an Arab youth in East Jerusalem, 50 long days of fighting in Gaza and the escalation in and around the Holy Esplanade.

What is causing tension around the Holy Esplanade per se?

This is largely the result of changes in the status quo that has reigned on the site since Israel took control of it in the 1967 War. Fearing that extending heavy-handed control over the site would feed Arab animosity, Israel established a system by which, simply put, it controls the external circumference of the Esplanade and hence access to the site, while Jordan administers the site’s interior, particularly in terms of Muslim worship and maintenance of buildings. Non-Muslim access was permitted, but for tourist purposes only, and non-Muslim prayer was thereby forbidden. Jordan, in line with international law, saw Israel as an occupying force in East Jerusalem, and thus refused to formalise the postwar reality.

In the last decade or so, the status quo has eroded. In November 2003, when Israel reopened access to the Holy Esplanade to non-Muslims after barring them during the second intifada, national-religious Israeli Jews, who previously had all but avoided ascending to the esplanade, began to do so in significant numbers. [For details on this community, which makes up nearly 10 per cent of Israeli society, see Crisis Group’s November 2013 report Leap of Faith: Israel’s National Religious and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.] They were encouraged to do so by their rabbis, who felt threatened both by secular Israeli leaders, who appeared intent on giving up Israeli sovereignty over the site in a peace agreement, and by the destruction of invaluable archeological remains during the illicit transformation of a big subterranean space on the esplanade into a large mosque.

The entry of Jews in such numbers is challenging the status quo that has prevailed on the Esplanade since Israel took control in 1967, which, as noted, does not permit non-Muslim prayer at the site. Non-Muslims can enter as tourists, but when national religious Jews ascend in significant numbers with the stated aim of changing the status quo – by advancing Israeli sovereignty, allowing Jewish prayer or even establishing the Third Temple – Muslims naturally perceive a threat.

In the past 18 months, the rhetoric of Israeli politicians has grown more strident, and two worrying legislative initiatives to change the status quo have been announced. Since June, Israel has limited Muslim entry to the Esplanade a number of times, leading Palestinians to pray in the streets as close as possible to the Esplanade as an act of resistance, leading to clashes and arrests. Tensions have reached a peak not seen since the second intifada. When confronting Palestinian youth who try to prevent access of religious Jews to the esplanade by throwing stones at the police so that it would close access to all non-Muslims, Israel police have fired stun and smoke grenades into Al-Aqsa Mosque, damaging its doors, windows and carpets. On other occasions, the police locked Palestinian youth inside the mosque to allow national religious Jews to enter and tour the compound. This culminated in the recent assassination attempt on a prominent Temple activist, Rabbi Yehuda Glick, which has further fueled Temple activism and its support on the Israeli Right.

Is another large-scale uprising looming?

With President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Security Forces determined to prevent large-scale protests, and the Palestinian leadership fragmented, a third intifada engulfing the entire West Bank is unlikely. But it is entirely possible that increasing tensions will provoke a large number of individual Palestinian attacks against Israelis – of the sort we have seen in recent weeks in Jerusalem, with cars being driven into crowds of pedestrians.

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