Tension over control of the Haram al Sharif compound of mosques in Jerusalem’s Old City has reached a pitch unseen since clashes at the site sparked the second intifada nine years ago.
Ten days of intermittently bloody clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces in Jerusalem culminated yesterday in warnings by Palestinian officials that Israel was "sparking a fire" in the city. Israel’s Jerusalem Post newspaper similarly wondered whether a third intifada was imminent.
Israel, meanwhile, deployed 20,000 police to safeguard the annual Jerusalem march, which was reported to have attracted a crowd of 70,000 passing through sensitive Palestinian neighbourhoods close to the Old City.
The ostensible cause of friction is Israel’s religious holidays that have brought Jewish worshippers to the Western Wall, located next to the Haram al Sharif and traditionally considered the holiest site in Judaism. The wall is the only remnant of the Jewish temple destroyed by Herod in AD70.
At a deeper level for Palestinians, however, the ease with which Jews can access sites in and around Jerusalem, while the city is off-limits to the vast majority of Palestinians, highlights the extent to which Palestinian control over Jerusalem and its holy places has been eroded by four decades of occupation.
That point was reinforced on Sunday when the gates to the mosque compound were shut by Israeli police, who cited safety concerns for 30,000 Jews praying at the Western Wall for Succot.
Jerusalem’s police chief, Aharon Franco, also incensed Palestinians on Monday by castigating them for being "ungrateful" after Israel had allowed them to pray at Al Aqsa during Ramadan.
In fact, only a small proportion of Palestinians can reach the mosque. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza cannot get past Israel’s separation wall, and the 1.5 million Palestinians in Israel and Jerusalem are finding it harder to pray there. This week police have been allowing only women and Palestinian men with Israeli identification cards showing they are aged at least 50 to enter.
Both the Palestinian Authority and Jordan issued statements this week warning that Jewish groups, including extremists who want to blow up the mosques, should be prevented from entering the Haram.
It was in this context that the leader of the Islamic Movement inside Israel, Sheikh Raed Salah, called on Israel’s Palestinian citizens to "shield the [Al Aqsa] mosque with their bodies".
Concerned that most Palestnians can no longer access the mosques, Salah has taken it on himself to campaign against Israeli moves under the banner "Al-Aqsa is in danger", urging Israel’s Palestinian minority to protect the mosques by increasing their visits and ensuring a strong Islamic presence at the site.
In a further provocation by Israel yesterday, Salah was arrested on suspicion of incitement and sedition. A judge released him a few hours later but only on condition that he stay away from Jerusalem.
Palestinian concerns about Israeli intentions towards the Haram are not without foundation. Israel’s religious and secular leaders have been staking an ever-stronger claim to sovereignty over the compound since the occupation began, despite an original agreement to leave control with Islamic authorities.
On the ground that has been reflected in Israel’s efforts to reshape the geography of the city.
It began with the hasty razing of a Muslim neighbourhood next to the Western Wall that was home to 1,000 Palestinians. In place of the homes a huge prayer plaza was created.
Next a ring of Jewish settlements were built separating East Jerusalem from the West Bank, and more recently Jewish extremists have been taking over Palestinian neighbourhoods just outside the Old City, such as Sheikh Jarrah, Ras al-Amud and Silwan.
With official backing, Jewish settlers have also been confiscating and buying Palestinian homes in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, including next to the mosques, to establish armed encampments.
They have also been assisted by Israeli archeologists in digging extensively under the quarter. Tensions over the excavations escalated dramatically in 1996 when Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister then as now, approved the opening of the Western Wall tunnels under the mosques. In the ensuing violence, at least 70 Palestinians were killed.
In addition, Israeli officials and rabbis have been redefining the significance in Jewish religious thought of the compound, or Temple Mount as it is known to Jews.
The rabbinical consensus since the Middle Ages has been that Jews are forbidden from entering the compound for fear of desecrating the site of the temple’s inner sanctum, whose location is unknown. Instead religious Jews are supposed to venerate the site but not to visit it or seek to possess it in any way.
That view has been shifting since a wave of religious nationalism was unleashed by the seemingly miraculous nature of Israel’s victory in the Six-Day war. As the Israeli army captured the Old City in 1967, for example, its chief rabbi, Shlomo Goren, rushed to the Haram to read from the Bible and blow a ram’s horn, as the ancient temple priests had once done.
At the Camp David talks with the Palestinians in 2000, Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister at the time, demanded – against all Jewish teachings – that the whole compound be declared the "Holy of Holies", a status reserved for the temple’s inner sanctum. His adviser Moshe Amirav said Barak had used this precondition to "blow up" the negotiations.
The Camp David failure led to an explosion of violence at the Haram al-Sharif a few months later that triggered the second intifada.
Islamic sovereignty was challenged again in 2003 when Israeli police unilaterally decided to open the compound to non-Muslims. In practice, this has given messianic cults, who want the mosques destroyed to make way for a third temple, access under police protection.
It was precisely rumours that Jewish extremists had entered the compound on the eve of Judaism’s holiest day, Yom Kippur, that provided the spark for the latest round of clashes.
It is reported that a growing number of settler rabbis want the injunction against Jews praying at the compound lifted, adding to Palestinian fears that Israeli officials, rabbis, settlers and fundamentalists are conspiring to engineer a final takeover of the Haram al Sharif.
Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel.