Jerusalem's importance grows as Israeli-Palestinian peace talks flounder. Both Jewish and Muslim leaders call the situation a "war of religion." Apocalyptic clouds on the horizon?
by Ben Caspit, AL Monitor — April 22, 2014
The conflict around the Temple Mount is increasing as Israeli-Palestinian peace talks might be on the verge of collapse.
Israeli policemen run in front of the Dome of the Rock during clashes with stone-throwing Palestinians after Friday prayers on the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, Feb. 7, 2014. (photo by REUTERS/Ammar Awad)
Assessments of the situation as well as in-depth intelligence reviews by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) regarding mounting tensions in the territories do not, for the time being, include warnings about a possible violent conflagration between the Palestinians and Israelis. For now, a third intifada is not featured among the working papers, forecasts or charts of plausible scenarios and expectations for the coming year. To extricate itself from its serious diplomatic and operational isolation and improve its standing among the Palestinian public, Hamas is trying to set the territories on fire. As a result, the number of terrorist attacks has risen steadily as has the number of disturbances.
The above notwithstanding, we are not talking about the orchestrated activity of organized cells, but more about what Israelis call “mood-based attacks.”
According to IDF and Shin Bet assessments, there is still no pent-up, popular energy just waiting for a volatile incident to turn it into a wave of violence. The Palestinian public has yet to forget the horrors of the previous intifada, which left some 4,000 Palestinians and more than 1,000 Israelis dead. Israel’s greatest fear is a “diplomatic intifada” — called here the “South African intifada” — which will be inflicted on it in UN institutions and accompanied by a series of international boycotts and anti-Israeli measures.
On the other hand, a well-known adage in the Israeli air force goes, “The one that will shoot you down is the one you can’t see.” With or without intelligence assessments, tension in the territories is growing. Clashes on the Temple Mount — pitting Palestinian youths, Hamas militants and Salafist activists against thousands of Jews, mostly right-wingers attempting day after day to get to the Temple Mount to exercise their freedom of religion — have reached a new peak during this year's Passover holiday in April.
Until about two years ago, events surrounding the Temple Mount were the exclusive domain of a few dozen, lone right-wing Israeli militants considered to be from the surreal, messianic margins of society. Following intensive daily activity, broad public campaigns and a number of Knesset members and politicians jumping on their bandwagon, thousands of right-wing Jewish activists, including key Knesset members, have been flocking to the Temple Mount in recent years. Going the extra mile in recent days is Miri Regev, chairman of the Knesset Internal Affairs Committee and a retired brigadier general who served as IDF spokeswoman. On April 20, she declared that if the Temple Mount is closed off to Jews, she will demand that it be closed off to Muslims as well. Although from a moral standpoint this appears to make sense, her statement is appalling at the practical level. The last thing Israel wants is to turn the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a religious war.
Of late, the number of Israeli politicians not embarrassed to call the conflict a “war of religion” has been growing. By doing so, they cooperate with those on the Palestinian side who want to turn it into a religious conflict rather than a territorial-national dispute. The issue of the Temple Mount, which to date has not taken center stage in the conflict’s agenda, is paving its way into becoming a main topic on both the Israeli and Palestinian agendas. Dozens of organizations advocating the application of Israeli sovereignty on the mount as well as freedom of religion for Jews inside the compound have united under one umbrella. Daily issuing several reports to the media, they also bring dozens (and at times hundreds) of Israelis each day to the complex, where they are met by organized and ever-growing Palestinian violence on the one hand and conspicuous police incompetence on the other. The Temple Mount, the holiest site for Judaism, is also one of the holiest places for Islam. It's a powder keg waiting for a match. This is taking place as the talks between the Israelis and Palestinians are, at least for now, stymied.