Israel provokes the holy city

The last few weeks have witnessed the storming, desecration and closure of one of Islam’s holiest si

Israeli border police run during clashes with Palestinians [AP]
Israeli border police run during clashes with Palestinians [AP]

Israel’s actions in the last few months alone suggest a strategy of constant provocation against the Palestinians, but one that entails successive rather than simultaneous flashpoints. This summer Israel went on a rampage in the West Bank, followed by an invasion of Gaza, and now a series of escalations in East Jerusalem.

Perhaps the thinking is that this piecemeal approach can better contain fallout, and thus enable Israel to steadily pursue its overall objectives of occupation, colonisation, and dispossession. This is an incendiary strategy that, particularly in the context of East Jerusalem’s holy sites, dangerously underestimates Palestinian anger and frustration.

The past year has seen an increase in warnings from Palestinian, Israeli, American, and UN officials that another Intifada (uprising) is on the horizon. Rather than heeding such warnings, Israel’s actions are serving to make this a distinct possibility. If its devastating campaigns in the West Bank and Gaza brought the situation to the brink, its provocations in East Jerusalem could tip it over the edge.

The last few weeks in particular have witnessed the storming, desecration and closure of the Haram al-Sharif compound – one of Islam’s holiest sites – visits to the compound by Israeli extremists, and stringent restrictions on Muslim worship.

Stone-throwing punishable

Israel’s response to inevitable Palestinian unrest has been violent crackdowns on protests, home demolitions, announcements of 1,500 new settlements in East Jerusalem, statements that the city is Israel’s “eternal and indivisible capital”, and draft legislation making stone-throwing punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

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“The result is the greatest period of unrest the city has experienced since the second Palestinian uprising … began in 2000,” Reuters reported.

Have Israelis so quickly forgotten that it was sparked by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s heavily armed visit to the Haram al-Sharif? Yet, who does Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blame for recent history repeating itself? Hamas and the Palestinian Authority of course, as Sharon did then.

Unrest has spread across the occupied territories, and Hamas has announced the establishment of a “popular army” to defend the Haram al-Sharif, the closure of which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas described as “tantamount to a declaration of war”. He added that it should be defended “with all means”.

These are unusually strong words from someone who has previously expressed opposition to armed resistance or another uprising. Perhaps Abbas realises he may not be able to stand in its way.

Before the current unrest in Jerusalem, it could be convincingly argued that conditions were not ripe for another Intifada, as the Palestinians, while understandably fed up with their plight, are too politically and geographically divided. However, passions run so high over Jerusalem’s holy sites that an uprising may occur spontaneously, as happened previously, and may paper over existing divisions.

The Haram al-Sharif is not just a religious symbol to Palestinians but a national one, and today’s anger is the result of years of Israeli violations in East Jerusalem, which was captured in 1967 and illegally annexed in 1980. Relentless settlement expansion has cut Jerusalem off from the West Bank, and is steadily Judaising the city at the expense of its Palestinian residents, who are discriminated against in numerous ways.

Israeli extremism

Particular sensitivity over the Haram al-Sharif is understandable given past arson attacks and raids, excavations underneath it, attempts to assert Israeli control over it, and calls for its destruction to make way for a Jewish temple. Such calls and attempts have become increasingly mainstream in a society that has shifted dangerously to the right.

Israel’s actions over the Haram al-Sharif are not just inflammatory to Palestinians but to the entire Muslim world, where there have been widespread condemnations and demonstrations.

It is ironic, then, that Netanyahu, who has done so much to foster Israeli extremism, should now call on MPs to show “responsibility and restraint” over the current crisis. With members of his own government and Likud party openly defying him and pouring further fuel on the fire, he is either trying to portray himself as a voice of reason while conducting business as usual, or he has helped create a monster over which he has lost a degree of control.

Israel’s actions over the Haram al-Sharif are not just inflammatory to Palestinians but to the entire Muslim world, where there have been widespread condemnations and demonstrations. Perhaps most strikingly, Jordan – traditionally a dependable neighbour – has, for the first time since making peace with Israel 20 years ago, recalled its ambassador in protest.

Amman has also warned that it may review the peace treaty – which recognises Jordan’s custodianship over the compound – if Israel changes the status quo there, describing Jerusalem as a “red line”.

As thousands of Jordanian protesters call for the scrapping of the treaty, Netanyahu has given assurances that Israel will not change the status quo. However, there is understandable scepticism over his sincerity, and future prime ministers may not feel the same way.

Reaction from the region’s governments have varied between calls for action from the international community – which will do nothing, as usual – or familiar strong words and empty threats.

However, Israel should understand that continued provocations in East Jerusalem could lead to a point where governments are either forced to act so as not to face the wrath of their own people, or their suppression of public anger will lead to radicalisation and violence that could target Israeli and Jewish people and interests worldwide. Israel seems to be playing with fire without realising how far and furiously it could spread.

Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs. He is a regular contributor to Al Jazeera English, Al Arabiya News, The National, The Middle East magazine and the Middle East Eye.

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