Jerusalem: Don’t call it a religious conflict

Ignoring Israeli occupation and blaming religious hate for deadly attacks makes it sound like violen

The attack on a synagogue in West Jerusalem has sparked descriptions of a 'religious war', writes Shabi [AFP]

They are horrifying images of a house of prayer drenched in blood. That an ultra-orthodox synagogue in West Jerusalem was chosen for this latest, gruesome attack, in which four Jewish-Israeli men were killed by two knife-wielding Palestinians, has detonated appalling historic associations and has been widely condemned. This attack has also, inevitably, sparked descriptions of a “religious war” in the region – depicted in media headlines as being in various stages of development: either a current reality or an unavoidably impending one. Those who insist on stressing the religious dimension are bolstered by the reaction from Hamas to this attack, as the Islamist group has, with bleak predictability, praised and celebrated it.

And once again the media framing designates the starting point – and therefore, implicitly, the causes – of the current bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians. Most importantly, in this context, is the question of who or what set off the religious incitement in Jerusalem.

The Israeli government has repeatedly blamed the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas.

But its own security services quickly quashed such accusations: Shin Bet chief, Yoram Cohen, told a Knesset committee that Abbas (who has no control over Jerusalem) was not involved in igniting violence among East Jerusalem Palestinians.

Indeed, Cohen added, if anyone could be accused of exacerbating tensions, Israeli government officials and legislators are the first in line.

‘Jewish prayer rights’

For some months now, this hard right coalition government has not just tolerated but actively supported a movement agitating for “Jewish prayer rights” at Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif – a sacred site to both Muslims and Jews. Members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s own Likud Party are a visible, vocal part of this campaign. There has been a tendency in some quarters to see the prayer issue as a kind of harmless coexistence campaign focused on equal rights. It is not. This movement goes against a long-established status quo agreement, whereby non-Muslims can visit, but not worship at this holy site housing both the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. 

Israel bulldozes home of Palestinian over Jerusalem attack

But more than that, it runs contrary to what Jewish religious leaders have been saying for centuries, which is to rule against Jewish prayer at Temple Mount. Today, there is only one, growingly influential rabbinical strain that says otherwise and that’s the one guiding the religious-settler movement, which should make it abundantly clear that the issue is political, not religious.

To play down the provocative nature of these attempts is either misinformed or disingenuous in the extreme. This is, after all, the same movement that talks openly about destroying the Dome of the Rock and replacing it with a third Jewish Temple.

Indeed, Israel’s housing minister, Uri Ariel – yes, an active minister in the current cabinet – has said that he supports such a project.

The issue is pushed by the same extremist settler strain that, aided, abetted and funded by the Israeli government, has been colonising swaths of East Jerusalem – the area that is internationally recognised as occupied, the area intended as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

National-religious agenda

It isn’t just Jewish neighbourhoods in the occupied east that are continually expanding; settlers have also taken properties in Palestinian neighbourhoods such as Sheikh Jarrah and non-Jewish parts of the Old City – throwing Palestinian families quite literally out onto the streets. And it is the same movement that – fully supported by the government and the mayor of Jerusalem – has commandeered crucial sites to push a narrow, national-religious agenda. One of these is the politically charged archaeological park at Silwan, in the heart of the Holy Basin, where dozens of Palestinians have already been evicted.

Pushing this conflict into the religious realm, defining it as a ‘religious war’, serves a clear political purpose. It means the Israeli government can bind its cause with the ‘war on terror’, claiming that Palestinians are just like ISIL in their motivation …

So it doesn’t matter how often Netanyahu says he isn’t going to change the status quo at the holy sites; the actions of his own coalition create an entirely different impression. Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer specialising in Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem, explains that the accelerating, rightist-driven changes in the city have meant that Palestinians “feel vulnerable and threatened – and they are not being paranoid. The anger is understandable and derives from serious sources”.

But pushing this conflict into the religious realm, defining it as a “religious war”, serves a clear political purpose. It means the Israeli government can bind its cause with the “war on terror”, claiming that Palestinians are just like ISIL in their motivation – a hyper-violent, hyper-fundamentalist jihadi mission rather than a quest for self-determination. It deprives Palestinians of cause or motivation, save for just one factor: religious hatred.

So in other words, never mind that the Palestinians in Jerusalem have lived under a punitive occupation for decades. Never mind that they are blatantly treated as second-class citizens, subjected to intense surveillance, harassment and arrests (900 in East Jerusalem since July); that they routinely deal with settler violence, house demolitions, chants of “Death to Arabs,” and curtailed access to religious sites. Never mind the prevailing and overriding message that their lives count less than others. For if the horrifying spate of attacks in Jerusalem are exclusively about innate hatred for Jews – well, how can anything else even matter? 

In this religious-hate reading lies a terrible danger: It implies that there is no way out and no solution; that the violence is inevitable. This is a narrative that dovetails perfectly with the lines coming out of Israel’s right-wing coalition about how the conflict can only be “managed“. Because if the issue is religious, then how could ending this thing we insist on calling an occupation, possibly help?

But now more than ever, with religion so rampantly abused to weaponise increasingly brutal wars in the Middle East, the worst thing we could do is to frame the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as religious. Now more than ever, only a just, political solution to this land- and rights-based conflict can save the holy capital from even more bloodshed and grief.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.