Ramallah, Occupied West Bank – A new report is warning that the “relative calm” at the al-Aqsa compound is “deceiving,” as some Israelis continue to defy rules on their access to the mosque esplanade despite opposition from young Palestinians.
“Any erosion of Israel’s restraint, real or rumoured, is all but certain to provoke a response,” the International Crisis Group said in a report earlier this week, referring to the uneasy calm prevailing thus far since 2014, as a result of talks between King Abdullah of Jordan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
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Both leaders met in the Jordanian capital, Amman, in November 2014 after a Palestinian teenager from Jerusalem – Mohammed Abu Khdeir – was burned to death by a group of Israelis, sparking a wave of unrest and violence.
Palestinians are concerned that Israel is trying to change the status quo, which gives Muslims exclusive control of Islam’s third holiest site, adding an explosive religious angle to the political conflict, with Jerusalem at its core.
These fears have been heightened by the increase in Israeli calls for and attempts to pray at the mosque courtyard – which Jews call the Temple Mount and consider their holiest site, and Muslims refer to it as the Noble Sanctuary or al-Haram al-Sharif – and with more restrictions being placed on Palestinians’ access to the compound.
“Temple activists advocating expanded Jewish rights on the Esplanade gain more traction among the Jewish public,” the ICG said.
“Even if their triple demand – for undisturbed Jewish access, Jewish worship and Jewish sovereignty – has little chance of realisation any time soon, its growing prominence has stoked Palestinian fears that Israel plans to divide the holy site, as it did Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque in 1994 after centuries of Muslim-only worship and control.”
According to the report, which is based on interviews with Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian officials, Netanyahu promised Jordan in 2014 that he would bar ministers and Knesset members from the esplanade, limit right-wing Israelis’ access to it, and remove age and gender restrictions on Muslim visitors to the site.
Netanyahu’s office, however, said the prime minister did not limit Jewish access to the compound at any point, Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper reported on Sunday.
The ICG report said that at the time Jordan vowed that the Waqf – the trust that manages the holy site – would prevent young Palestinians from going into the esplanade at night to prepare for confrontations with police and soldiers, who regularly escort Israelis into the esplanade.
The arrangements collapsed, the report said, when Israeli authorities banned a group of self-proclaimed defenders or sentinels of the Sanctuary – known as mourabitoun – from entering the site, and right-wing Israelis returned to the compound under armed guard. Movement restrictions on Palestinians were re-imposed.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, who visited Jordan in October last year to defuse the tensions, said that Netanyahu had given assurances that the status quo would be preserved at the compound located in occupied East Jerusalem, home to al-Aqsa Mosque and another Islamic icon, the Dome of the Rock.
An agreement was also made to install cameras at the compound, raising fears that the footage, which Israel would have access to, would be used against Palestinians.
One of the conclusions the report comes to is that “the promises Israel had made to Abdullah had been for naught: thousands of Palestinians were again prevented every Friday from reaching the Holy Esplanade, while Jews circulated freely. It seemed that Israel was again trying to reduce the number of Muslims worshippers.”
Ir Amim, an Israeli rights group based in Jerusalem, which analysed data it collected from police, said restrictions on Palestinians’ access to the compound constituted a critical factor in the outbreak of violence in Jerusalem in 2014 and 2015.
“Our analysis [shows that] violence went down because Netanyahu ordered to stop limiting access to al-Haram al-Sharif,” said Aviv Tatarsky, a field researcher at Ir Amim. “There is a strong link between collective restrictions on Muslims to [the compound] and violence breaking out of control.”
There was a decrease in violence in November 2014 when entry restrictions were lifted, according to the organisation, which combed through the police data.
“Similarly, when entry restrictions imposed in 2015 during the Jewish high holidays were lifted for several days during the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, the level of violence in East Jerusalem fell substantially, only to rise again after the restrictions were reintroduced during Sukkot,” Tatarsky wrote in a brief that looked into factors contributing to the violence in Jerusalem back then.
With Jewish holidays fast approaching, officials from the Waqf are warning that any attempt by right-wing Israelis to enter the esplanade would ignite violence.
“Calls by some Israeli groups to storm the compound belie the occupation authorities’ claims that they are preserving the status quo,” said Muhammad Hussein, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.
“Severe restrictions remain on Muslims, who want to enter the compound to pray,” he added.
“And we warn that the ongoing assaults on Palestinian holy sites, especially the al-Aqsa mosque, will ignite a religious war for which Israelis will be held responsible.”