Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is playing with fire and in a desperate bid to secure the votes of religious radicals and far right followers he is introducing a toxic mix of religion and politics into one of the most sensitive components of the conflict with the Palestinians — and by extension Arabs and Muslims — which is the tampering of the status quo at Al Haram Al Sharif.
Last Sunday morning, on the first day of Eid Al Adha, and in a break from over 50 years of understandings with Jordan, Netanyahu’s government allowed hundreds of Jews, who had gathered at the compound’s entrance to enter the site, under police protection, where tens of thousands of Muslims were praying. The breach triggered angry reactions from Muslims and led to clashes with the police, who fired tear gas canisters and rubber bullets injuring more than 60 Palestinians.
Shortly after, the Jewish visitors retreated only to be allowed in once again in the afternoon. Netanyahu had caved in to far-right and Jewish zealots’ pressure and gave the go-ahead for a second incursion knowing that it would only result in more violence.
There is no doubt that such radicalisation, which serves Netanyahu’s core base of colonists and far-right groups, will trigger major confrontations with Palestinians
This was the first time that Jewish visitors were allowed into the compound during a Muslim holy day. The excuse was that Jews too were marking a religious event; the destruction of their temple centuries before. It was a rash and irresponsible decision; one that radicals on both sides stood to gain from. It also marked further tampering with the status quo of the compound; straining ties between Israel and Jordan; the latter acting as the custodian of Muslim holy places in occupied East Jerusalem.
Netanyahu’s opportunist tactics to win a new term as prime minister next September have crossed all red lines. His supporters are openly calling on him to annex the West Bank while religious fanatics do not hide their scheme to tear down Al Aqsa Mosque and build a Jewish temple in its stead.
By allowing racist and openly hostile acts against Palestinians on nationalist/religious grounds, Netanyahu is bringing down previous understandings over the status of Al Haram Al Sharif, which had stood since the 1967 occupation of the Holy City. For decades non-Muslims were allowed to visit the compound but only Muslims were permitted to pray there. Jordan’s special role over Muslim sites in the city was formalised in the 1995 Israel-Jordan peace treaty and in a March 2013 Jordan-PLO agreement.
And in October 2015, following the outbreak of violence at the compound, US Secretary of State John Kerry brokered a set of understandings between Jordanian King Abdullah and Netanyahu, designed to lower tensions at Al Haram Al Sharif. Among these understandings was the reassertion that there is freedom of worship for Muslims, and freedom of access for non-Muslims, and the long-standing ban on Jewish prayer.
But since the election of Donald Trump and his appointment of his son-in-law Jared Kushner to head a White House team to broker a peace deal with the Palestinians, incursions into the compound by Jewish radicals as well as far-right government ministers have increased exponentially. In addition, the far right Israeli government has sanctioned plans to build hundreds of illegal colonies in occupied East Jerusalem as well as carrying extensive excavations under the foundations of Al Aqsa Mosque. Most recently it opened a tunnel under the Muslim Quarter in the old city and razed an entire Palestinian neighbourhood in Silwan to make way for the so-called biblical city of David. Netanyahu has emboldened Jewish zealots to carry out almost daily incursions into Al Haram Al Sharif compound. The final objective of these radical groups is to destroy the mosque and build a Jewish temple in its place. Soon after the fall of East Jerusalem, in August 1969, an extremist Christian Australian citizen set fire to the pulpit of the Al Aqsa mosque causing damage to its southeastern wing
There is no doubt that such radicalisation, which serves Netanyahu’s core base of colonists and far-right groups, will trigger major confrontations with Palestinians. In 2000, a provocative visit by then Likud leader Ariel Sharon to the Muslim site led to violence and started the second intifada.
Certainly Trump’s unilateral decision three years ago to recognise [occupied] Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, thus undermining the status of East Jerusalem as occupied territory, has only made things worse. His Evangelical voter base in the US continues to push for full embrace of Israel’s far right and religious extremist agenda.
The Muslim compound in East Jerusalem will remain a dangerous flashpoint between Israel and the Palestinians so long as Netanyahu continues to politicise and tamper with its status. And the more he allows Jewish extremists to provoke Muslims there the farther we will be from a political settlement and the closer we will approach a point of no return. The fallout from an inevitable bloody clash over the compound’s fate will be dire for all sides.
— Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.