By Daoud Kuttab
At least 30 Palestinians and seven Israelis have been killed and scores injured in two weeks of violence that was stirred after Palestinian protesters clashed with Israeli police at Al-Aqsa Mosque in occupied East Jerusalem. Palestinians are angered by far-right Jewish groups’ attempts to change the rules governing the Muslim holy site. Despite claims by Israeli officials to the contrary, Jewish fundamentalists want to change the status quo — in which Jews are allowed to visit the mosque only as tourists — under the guise of the Jews’ right to pray there.
The sharp rise in violence against Palestinians in Jerusalem and other Israeli cities has the potential to explode into a revolt. The Israeli government on Wednesday deployed hundreds of soldiers across the country and ordered police to seal off Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. The histories of the last two Palestinian uprisings (in the 1980s and early 2000s) tell us that a reckless tampering with religion in the absence of a political process can quickly degenerate into mass violence.
The latest violence in Jerusalem is of Israel’s own making. Having successfully decimated Palestinian leadership by denying East Jerusalem residents political rights, Israel is now unable to find anyone to blame or to work with. Its determined efforts to isolate East Jerusalem politically have blunted all efforts to forge a local leadership and denied Palestinians access to their national leaders. As a result, the 350,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem have become political orphans, without representatives who can provide leadership and address their social and political grievances.
The status of Jerusalem is one of the thorniest issues in the political stalemate between Palestinians and Israelis. Despite this, Israel has yet to even suggest a political settlement that could empower the city’s Palestinian population. Its attempts to revoke the residency of Jerusalem’s Palestinians have mostly backfired, with more residents returning to the city to reclaim their rights rather than accept being treated as tourists in their own birthplace.
In 2004 the International Court of Justice ruled that all areas captured by Israel in the 1967 war, including East Jerusalem, are occupied territories. But Israel, which unilaterally annexed East Jerusalem, rejects this characterization and has created a wall to isolate the municipality, thereby denying Palestinians political access to Ramallah, Bethlehem and other Palestinian territories.
Unlike the rest of the West Bank cities, which are controlled by Palestinian security forces, the leaderless Jerusalem is erupting in violent protests that are put down through a disproportionate use of force by Israeli forces, thus intensifying the cycle of violence.
Without a Palestinian leadership that can quell anger and address local concerns, the situation in Jerusalem has been left to the whims and impulses of its beleaguered citizens. The explosion we are seeing today is an outcome of a growing sense of hopelessness and anger over attempts to weaken Palestinian attachment to the holy city and some of its Islamic sites through a Judaization process.
The Israelis have ignored recent recommendations by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, for how to ease the tensions over Al-Aqsa. For example, the group recommended the return of Waqf, an Islamic institution that administers holy sites, to the Mughrabi Gate, which is currently run by Israel, and called for better communications with local Palestinians. It also identified the lack of contact between Israel and the Palestinians on the status of the mosque, which Israelis refer to as the Temple Mount, as a ticking bomb. It further urged Israel to work with a Palestinian advisory group representing Palestinians in Jerusalem to address the issue.
However, Israel has never publicly attempted to reach out or hold any discussions with Palestinian officials. Jordan, with which Israel communicated about the issue in the past, is concerned that Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu has allowed provocateurs to upset the delicate balance and has refused to accept calls from him. In fact, far-right Israeli ideologues and fundamentalists who want to destroy the mosque and rebuild the Jewish temple in its place remain opposed to any and all forms of restrictions on their activities inside the hilltop compound.
The status of Al-Aqsa and other holy sites in Jerusalem should not be left to fights between religious extremists. It requires a unified national effort and robust consultations with all stakeholders. Leaving the volatile issue of Jerusalem in the hands of the Israeli settlers who control Netanyahu’s government will lead only to more disasters.
The international community, along with Arab leaders, must act with wisdom and conviction to find long-term solutions on the future of Jerusalemites and work with Israel to institute policies that guarantee freedom of worship and the protection of all holy places in the West Bank. The local Palestinian community, if given a say in decisions regarding access to the mosque, can play an important role in calming Palestinian fears of a Jewish attempt to divide or destroy it. But they can do that only if they are duly recognized and politically empowered.