By: Ben White
1. The ‘status quo’ is already changing
In 2014, almost 11,000 Jews entered the Al-Aqsa mosque compound. This represented a 28 percent increase from the previous year – and almost double the number of Jewish visitors in 2009. While in 2012, Jewish activists entered the compound on average once every 2 weeks, in 2013 this had become once every 4 days, and in 2014, closer to every 2-3 days.
The UN has described how this week’s confrontations were preceded by “three consecutive weeks of [Israeli forces] preventing all Palestinian women, as well as all men under 50, from entering Al Aqsa Mosque Compound during the morning hours, to secure the entry of settlers and other Israeli groups.” Last week, the Israeli government outlawed two Muslim groups, “informal movements of mostly Arab women and elderly men”, who protest Jewish activists’ visits to the compound.
2. The extremists in the Knesset
Almost a year ago, on 30 October, 2014, and for the first time since 1967, Israel closed the compound to all worshippers for an entire day. Shortly afterwards, amid similar tensions, an article in Ha’aretz pointed the finger of blame at “the Israeli right-wing politicians challenging the decades-old status quo.” It went on:
"Until a few years ago, any talk of change at the Temple Mount was a surefire sign of religious madness, the stuff of eccentrics and the certifiably insane. Not anymore. These days there appears to be a wider acceptance for a Jewish Temple Mount, tracking Israel’s right-wing shift and the erosion of its resistance to messianic rhetoric."
The paper also noted how MK Miri Regev had chaired 15 debates in the previous year on the subject of allowing Jews to pray in the compound. Regev, from the ruling Likud, is now Minister of Culture.
Right-wing Jewish activists’ demands range from the formal sanctioning of Jewish prayer in the compound to the physical destruction of Muslim places of worship. Organisations advocating this latter goal receive funding and support from government ministries and the Jerusalem municipality.
In 2013, the then-Housing Ministry (now Agriculture Minister) Uri Ariel called for a Third Temple to be built on the compound, a promise he has since reiterated. Economy Minister Naftali Bennett has also suggested greater Israeli control over Al-Aqsa, while in May 2014, Likud – and Labor – MKs proposed a change to the status quo that would permit Jews to pray at the compound.
3. The Hebron precedent
In 1994, a Jewish settler shot dead 29 Palestinians in Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque. In response, however, Israeli authorities “forcibly partitioned [the mosque] with settlers being given most of the space.” As Ali Abunimah has noted, this is “a precedent many Palestinians fear the Israeli occupation will one day try to repeat at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque.”
4. Why trust Netanyahu?
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated that Israel does not wish to change the status quo at the compound. But why believe him? From his double-speak approach to Palestinian statehood to the pride he has taken in undermining the Oslo Accords, there is good reason to be sceptical about the Likud’s leaders assurances.
5. The wider context in Occupied East Jerusalem
While this may not be about Al-Aqsa specifically, it is essential context for this last week’s events. Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem is 48-years-old, during which time Palestinians have suffered from land annexation, colonisation, discrimination, and repression.
Last month, Israel detained 150 Palestinians in Occupied East Jerusalem. A third of arrests took place near al-Aqsa – dozens more were detained in Silwan, Issawiya, Wadi Joz, Sur Baher and Sheikh Jarrah. Israel also banned 37 Palestinians from al Aqsa for periods ranging from ten to sixty days.
In late August, at least 20 Jewish settlers moved into a 12-apartment building in Silwan, a step which “nearly doubled the number of Jewish settlers in the neighbourhood.” It did not take long for the settlers to be attacking local Palestinians – protected, of course, by Israeli forces.
Clashes between Palestinians and Israeli occupation forces are commonplace. Yet the response of the Israeli authorities is to authorise the use of live fire and to target East Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents with policies that even the police acknowledge constitute “collective punishment.”
*the views expressed in the opinion section are those of the authors