Unholy Fire on the Temple Mount

October 15, 2015 § 5 Comments

As terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians proliferate across Jerusalem and other Israeli cities, everyone seems to be hoping that a combination of a greater Israeli military and police presence on the streets and the Palestinian Authority holding the line on larger organized attacks will prevent further violence. While everyone recognizes that there are no perfect solutions, the nature of this nascent uprising is more dangerous than those that have come before because of the fusion of political nationalism and religious nationalism. The Temple Mount has always been in the background imagery of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but now it is front and center and it does not bode well for what is to come.

The PA is largely impotent here because the attacks are being carried out by Palestinians from East Jerusalem, who are not under the PA’s jurisdiction, and the primary motivation is the most dangerous one of all, which is a perceived threat to Muslim dominance of the Temple Mount. Palestinians (and Jordanians, and the Arab League, and the Turkish government) accuse Israel of altering the status quo on the Temple Mount, and Abbas, the PA, Hamas, the Islamic Movement in Israel, Joint List Arab MKs, and nearly every other actor on the Palestinian side are whipping the Palestinian public into a frenzy over the issue. Because the status quo is an unwritten agreement and because the margins of what precisely it means have shifted over time, there is no consensus as to what precisely it entails, but the basic parameters are solely Muslim prayer on the Temple Mount and some form of access to the Mount for non-Muslims so long as prayer is not involved. From a technical standpoint, and in line with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s constant claims on the subject, the Israeli government has not altered the status quo, as it maintains an official policy of prohibiting Jews from praying on the Temple Mount. Indeed, Netanyahu has gone so far as to ban MKs from the site entirely so as not to risk a potentially explosive incident.

Nevertheless, Palestinians and Muslims worldwide refuse to believe that Israel is not in the midst of violating and attempting to alter the arrangement that has held since 1967. The reasons for this suspicion are that in the past half decade, and even more markedly this year, there have been increased Jewish visits and in larger numbers, along with visits from rightwing government ministers – Uri Ariel most prominent among them – who have prayed on the Mount and publicly demanded that the status quo be changed. This is part of a trend within religious Zionism to embrace the Temple Mount – as opposed to solely the Western Wall – as a site for prayer and a way of asserting Jewish nationalism in contrast to what was once a nearly universal religious prohibition from ascending to the Temple Mount plaza.

Given the involvement of government ministers in this changed dynamic and new restrictions on Muslim access to the Temple Mount during the High Holidays this year for security reasons, it is easy to understand why Palestinians are literally up in arms when their leaders demagogue about a mortal threat to Al-Aqsa. The fact that what Israel has given up in agreeing to this status quo – creating a blatantly discriminatory religious double standard against Jews at the holiest site in all of Judaism – or that by all objective accounts Netanyahu desperately does want to maintain the status quo seems not to matter. Also overlooked is that weapons and explosives were seized from Al-Aqsa by the Israeli police last month after having been stockpiled right under the noses of the Waqf in charge of administering the site, which seems to be quite the violation of the status quo given that weapons stockpiled atop the Temple Mount would almost certainly be used as part of a campaign to deny access to non-Muslims.

Despite the fact that the incitement taking place on social media is centered around the Temple Mount, that Abbas and other Palestinian leaders keep on raging about the Temple Mount, and that attackers who have been apprehended have given defending the Temple Mount as their primary motivation, some refuse to accept the reality of what is taking place. In a widely shared column in the Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens characterized the wave of terrorist attacks as a Palestinian communal psychosis with no motivation behind it other than to kill Jews. Stephens is absolutely and unreservedly correct that knifing Israelis on the streets is indeed a psychotic and evil act and that there is no rational justification for it. But his dismissal of the Temple Mount status quo motivation wholesale because “Benjamin Netanyahu denies it and has barred Israeli politicians from visiting the site” rings a bit hollow, and not only because in the very next paragraph he quotes Abbas saying, “Al Aqsa Mosque is ours. They [Jews] have no right to defile it with their filthy feet.” It ignores the fact that irrespective of what Netanyahu has actually done to preserve the status quo – something that State Department spokesman John Kirby yesterday confirmed – the perception among Palestinians, including those killing and maiming Israelis, is very different.

Which brings me to the final point, which is the wider context beyond the Temple Mount. To deny the role of the occupation of the West Bank and the second class status of Palestinians in Jerusalem in all of this is to be willfully blind, just as blaming the occupation for this completely is to be dangerously naïve and enables more and uglier violence. There is a middle ground between “the occupation causes terrorism” and “terrorism isn’t related to the occupation at all” and it is vital to keep this in mind, as there are no easy answers or parsimonious narratives that can entirely account for the terrible events happening in Israel. Humans are complex animals and we are capable of processing complex thoughts. Incitement from Palestinian leaders and false claims about the Temple Mount and even outright murderous hatred of Jews may be the spark for the current violence, but it can also simultaneously be true that a nearly half-century long military occupation of the West Bank and blatant mistreatment of Arabs living in a supposedly undivided Jerusalem is the propane supply for the current explosion. To deny the lessons of history on the awesome and destructive power of nationalism and to not see it on display among Palestinians as their nationalist dreams go unrealized is to defy logic, even when there are other factors at play as well.

If there is one lesson to take away from all of this, it is that separation for Israel from the Palestinians is more important than ever, as this is only a taste of things to come. The current violence is being driven by Palestinian women, teenagers, and children who could not care less about the PA leadership, the Oslo Accords, or the PA’s desire to maintain some sense of quiet in order to preserve its own hold on the West Bank. While the PA security forces may be able to keep the lid on organized terror attacks planned by cells in the West Bank, the lone wolf and unorganized attacks taking place on Israeli streets are beyond its control. The disappearance of a sense of safety and security for Israelis during their daily routines illuminates the chimerical fantasy of a one-state solution and provides a glimpse into what ethnic strife in a bi-national state might look like. Terror cannot and should not be rewarded, but there also needs to be a greater sense of urgency to come up with a solution that will ameliorate this situation for good.

A Glimmer of Light Through the Clouds

October 8, 2015 § 7 Comments

This piece can also be found on IPF’s website here.

These are not auspicious times for supporters of two states. The generally despondent mood was captured by Chemi Shalev this week in a column where he declared the death of whatever remaining optimism to which he had been clinging, and resigned himself to Israelis and Palestinians never resolving their differences and continuously battling – a “war of the cowards” in his formulation. This comes on the heels of Mahmoud Abbas’s UNGA declaration that the Palestinian Authority no longer feels bound by the Oslo Accords and will pick and choose which elements it cooperates with; the mounting terrorist attacks targeting Israelis of all stripes and ages; the unrest wracking Jerusalem and its immediate environs; and the rumbling conflict and potential wider conflagration over the Temple Mount.

The most immediately pressing problem is the intifada that is taking place in Jerusalem, despite the reluctance of most politicians and other observers to call it what it is. There are multiple attacks and arrests taking place every day, too many incidents of rock throwing to catalogue, seizures of caches of weapons and firebombs, and entire neighborhoods in Jerusalem that are rapidly becoming battle zones. This does not even take into account what is going on in the West Bank, where attacks and arrests are both up as well, or the riot in Jaffa on Tuesday night. The intelligence and security forces have assured Prime Minister Netanyahu that there is no intifada yet, only a wave of increased violence, but this is a distinction without a difference that is based on an outdated fallacy. The fallacy is that an intifada can only erupt with the complicity of the Palestinian leadership, and since Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have been cracking down and trying to prevent the violence from spinning out of control, ipso facto there must not be an intifada.

This ignores a very basic lesson in political science, which is that just because something has always happened in one particular manner does not mean it is fated to always unfold the same way. Civil uprisings have a logic of their own, which is what makes them so difficult to predict. One of the main lessons of the inaptly termed Arab Spring is that Middle Eastern authoritarian governments –which the PA most certainly is – do not have absolute control over their subjects, and this is particularly the case for regimes that are already hampered by questions of legitimacy. Just because the first and second intifadas were encouraged and planned by the Palestinian leadership does not mean that the next one must take the same path. The PA does not have a monopoly on violence in the territory under its control, and nationalist entrepreneurs seeking to foment civil unrest for their own political goals will not necessarily heed the PA’s preferences or follow its lead. In addition, Palestinian politics is more fragmented than it was fifteen years ago, and Hamas and other even more extreme groups do not have the same incentive structure as the PA. Finally, given what we have seen from seemingly leaderless social movements around the globe over the course of this decade, expecting the PA to turn the intifada switch on or off at its discretion may be foolhardy.

Adding to the tension is that the current unrest is centered around Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. While the second intifada was set off following Ariel Sharon’s Temple Mount visit but was not driven by the Mount itself, the recent increase in violence is centered almost entirely around the Temple Mount and the allegation that Israel is attempting to alter the status quo that establishes the plaza as a site exclusively for Muslim prayer. Anything having to do with the Temple Mount is inevitably explosive given that it is a symbol simultaneously religious and nationalist for both sides, and the fact that actors who should know better – such as Abbas and King Abdullah of Jordan – are fanning the flames by making grossly exaggerated accusations about Israeli actions only furthers the prospects of violence spreading out of control.

It is not only the Palestinians or the Jordanians who are using attacks on Israelis to further their own political ends, but members of the Israeli government as well. The more hardline rightwingers in Netanyahu’s coalition, including ministers from Likud such as Haim Katz and Yariv Levin and Habayit Hayehudi ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, have been agitating that Netanyahu needs to adopt harsher responses to terrorist attacks on Israelis, and some went so far as to demonstrate outside his house in protest of policies that the government in which they serve has adopted. Netanyahu batted them down earlier this week by implicitly threatening to disband the government should the friendly fire continue, but adding a dose of political unrest to the soaring civil unrest makes for a poisonous mix.

So what is the silver lining, if any, to be found in this doom and gloom? It is that Netanyahu is actually behaving like the reasonable adult in the room and doing his best to prevent the situation from spiraling further downward. Aside from appearing to finally understand the threat that expanded settlement activity poses to Israel internationally and continuing to enforce an unpublicized settlement freeze, Netanyahu is doing his best to actually maintain the status quo on the Temple Mount despite the enormous political pressure on him to establish new facts on the ground (and despite the inherent injustice of preventing Jewish prayer at Judaism’s holiest site). Furthermore, Netanyahu has ordered the police to ban all government ministers and MKs from the Temple Mount, an extraordinary step that speaks to how seriously he understands that there will be no capping the eruption should tensions over the site escalate.

Folks on the left and the center tend to come down hard on Netanyahu – and rightly so – when he does and says things for his own political gain that deepen Israel’s isolation or contribute to illiberal trends in Israeli politics and society, yet Abbas is often given a free pass due to the uncomfortable political situation in which he must operate. While the estimation of the Israeli security establishment is that Abbas is doing his best to tamp down the violence erupting throughout Jerusalem and the West Bank and that Israel is going to miss him enormously when he is gone, this is not the whole story. He certainly deserves credit for all positive steps, but the fact that he has his own political survival at stake should not inoculate him from criticism over fanning the flames on the Temple Mount, or refusing to condemn terrorist activity that can in no way be chalked up as legitimate political protest or civil disobedience or resistance against an occupying power. The Israeli occupation is not a trump card when it comes to irresponsible rhetoric that will inevitably lead to incitement or the murder of civilians, and holding Netanyahu to an exceedingly higher standard than Abbas is the soft bigotry of low expectations.

A rightwing Israeli prime minister who presides over the narrowest possible coalition in the Knesset and is under constant assault from those to his right, whose commitment to two states is in question, and who has spent decades caving to the most irredentist elements of his party and coalition, has now halted new settlement growth, banned elected officials from the Temple Mount in an effort to protect exclusive Muslim rights on the site, and has so far refrained from a large and public show of force in the West Bank in response to multiple firebomb attacks, shootings, and stonings, all in recognition of the fact that the volume must be turned down in a major way. While some of these actions may be less just than others (and the Temple Mount issue in particular is one that I will write about in depth next week), they all point to a prime minister putting pragmatism over politics for the moment. Shalev opens his otherwise depressing column by noting how anyone watching Anwar Sadat emerge from his plane at Ben Gurion Airport in November 1977 could not help but believe that miracles do happen, and that it showed how calamity could transform into opportunity. Let’s hope that Netanyahu’s new leaf demonstrates that history always holds open the possibility of new beginnings.

A Quick Note On Rockets At Jerusalem

November 16, 2012 § 3 Comments

There are all sorts of reports and firsthand accounts over Twitter that Hamas has started shooting rockets at Jerusalem and Hamas itself has claimed that it shot a rocket toward the Knesset.  It doesn’t appear that any rockets have hit Jerusalem proper, and it sounds as if they fell instead on Gush Etzion, which is a large settlement bloc south of Jerusalem. Where the rockets have landed is not as important as where they were intended to go though, and shooting at Jerusalem is a big, big deal for a couple of reasons.

First, the limited historical experience that Israelis have with this sort of thing is that Jerusalem is generally not targeted. During the Persian Gulf War, Saddam Hussein shot 42 Scuds at Israel and 39 of them landed, and they were all aimed at Tel Aviv and Haifa, but not at Jerusalem. During the 2006 war with Hizballah, Jerusalem was not targeted despite the rumored presence of long-range rockets in Hizballah’s arsenal. When Iran has made threats to attack Israel, Tel Aviv has been mentioned but not Jerusalem. The oft-stated Palestinian desire to liberate Jerusalem is a reference to pushing Israel out rather than destroying the city. Targeting Tel Aviv is not a surprise to Israelis, but sending large scale ordinance in the direction of Jerusalem is very much out of the ordinary.

Second, leaving aside the historical experience, there has been a presumption that Jerusalem would be left alone because of the makeup of its population and what the city contains. There is a large Palestinian population in East Jerusalem of over 200,000 people, and shooting notoriously unreliable and inaccurate rockets at Jerusalem is taking a huge chance of killing large numbers of Jerusalem’s Arab residents. While Hamas sent suicide bombers to Jerusalem with alarming frequency in the past, blowing up a bus or cafe in West Jerusalem meant killing large numbers of Jews. Sending rockets is a crap shoot, and while Jews are the obvious target, there is by no means a guarantee that Hamas will actually hit where they are aiming. In addition, Jerusalem is a patchwork mosaic of sites holy to Jews, Muslims, and Christians, whereas Tel Aviv and Haifa are not. Just imagine what would happen if a Hamas rocket hit the Old City and did any damage at all to the Temple Mount; the consequences of that are literally unimaginable.

Targeting Jerusalem is an enormous escalation and very risky, much more so than rockets toward Tel Aviv. Rocketing Tel Aviv to my mind guaranteed an eventual Israeli ground invasion, but attempting to bombard Jerusalem just exacerbates the situation to an exponential degree. Blake Hounshell tweeted earlier that Hamas firing at Jerusalem is the equivalent of scoring on your own goal, and I think that analogy is an apt one. It says to me that Hamas is getting desperate, and I think this move is going to backfire in a big way, both in terms of creating a more ferocious Israeli response and costing Hamas important points in the court of public opinion. Hamas is now acting in ways that could cause large numbers of Palestinian casualties and damage to Muslim holy sites, and I think that there will be consequences for this strategy.

Some Thoughts On 60 Minutes and Palestinian Christians

April 23, 2012 § 3 Comments

60 Minutes ran a segment last night on Christians in the Holy Land that examined their dwindling numbers in cities like Bethlehem and Jerusalem and how this relates to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. A report like this is bound to draw controversy and this one did not disappoint, with Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren taking lots of heat due to the disclosure during the segment that he called the president of CBS News and tried to have the story killed. Before I dive in, a disclaimer: Ambassador Oren was one of my professors at Harvard and is a friend, and I spent many fond hours chatting with him about all sorts of topics in his office at Georgetown (he arrived one year after I did) before he was appointed ambassador. Since then, I have seen or spoken with him only two or three times, and I continue to hold him in the highest regard.

Given the above facts, I am certainly not the world’s most objective commentator on Michael Oren. But I fail to see why heads are exploding over the fact that the Israeli ambassador is trying to protect his country’s image. Did he come off as tongue-tied when Bob Simon ambushed him on camera with a question that was purely about process rather than substance? Sure. Let’s remember though that THIS IS HIS JOB. He is not paid to be an objective analyst. He is not paid to project a balanced and nuanced view of events in the Middle East. He is paid to be Israel’s spokesman in the United States and to advance Israeli interests, and if he gets wind of the fact that a network is planning on airing a story that is unfairly critical of Israel (more on this below) on its flagship news magazine program, it would be diplomatic malpractice for him not to try and keep the story off the air. Does anyone reading this actually believe that diplomats from every country on the planet do not do the same thing? Is this legitimately more surprising than the stories that emerged just last week about the Pentagon and the State Department trying to suppress reports and leaked photos of American troops in Afghanistan posing for pictures with Taliban corpses? This is what governments do, folks. Michael Oren is a high ranking official of the Israeli government and his first and only priority is to protect his country and its image, and if he comes off looking poorly in the course of doing so, it’s because that comes with the territory. Please spare me the feigned outrage, particularly when Bob Simon claims that this is the first time he has encountered a reaction to a story before it has been broadcast, which was far and away the most outrageous statement of the night.

Moving to the substance of the story, the gist of the 60 Minutes report was that the Christian population in the West Bank is shrinking and that Palestinian Christians are leaving in large numbers, and that this can be blamed on Israel. It is difficult to assess the size of this reported exodus or how rapidly it is taking place since Bob Simon provided little in the way of hard numbers. The implication is that this is a direct result of the Israeli occupation, and while this may very well be true, there was nothing but purely anecdotal evidence provided to support the charge. Simon interviewed the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem who said that in 1964 there were 30,000 Christians in Jerusalem and now there are “very few” with Simon putting the number at 11,000. Damning stuff, until you find out that according to Menashe Harrel (whose numbers are widely considered authoritative) there were 25,000 Christians in Jerusalem in 1948 and only 12,646 in 1967, which leads one to conclude that the Jordanians must have been secret Israelis given the dastardly effect their control of Jerusalem had on the Christian population. With Jerusalem’s Christian population now standing at 11,000, it is impossible to claim with a straight face that Israel is responsible for a rapid mass migration by Christians elsewhere.

In addition, there is the inconvenient fact that while the Christian population is shrinking, the Muslim population is growing. Are we supposed to take away from this that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank disproportionately affects, or even purposely targets, Christians? If Israel’s actions are the direct and proximate cause of Christian flight, then it would have been helpful to see some sort of causal chain established by 60 Minutes, but instead the viewers are told that Christians residents are disappearing and that this is due to occupation of the West Bank, yet no effort is made to ascertain why Christians are leaving (aside from Ari Shavit’s observation about Christians being squeezed between political Islam and political Judaism) but Muslims are not. Christian communities are disappearing across the region, have been driven out of Iraq entirely and are coming under sectarian pressure in Egypt, yet 60 Minutes finds Zahi Khouri’s claim that he has never heard of someone leaving because of concern over Islamic fundamentalism to be a completely credible one. Bob Simon asked Shavit, “Do you think the Israeli government ever thinks of the fact that if Christians aren’t being treated well here, and America is an overwhelmingly Christian country, that this could have consequences?” yet there was no documentation at all of ways in which Christians are being specifically mistreated for being Christian, just an allegation hanging in the air as if the question itself were somehow proof.

The bottom line is that this was a sloppily reported and lazily researched segment falling far below 60 Minutes’ usual standards. Anyone who reads this blog knows that I carry no water for the Israeli occupation of the West Bank or mistreatment of Palestinians, and would be thrilled to see both of those things ended immediately. I call out what I view to be Israeli missteps and bad behavior all the time. But Michael Oren was correct to view this piece as a hatchet job that was undeserving of being aired. Yes, Israel has made life very unpleasant for plenty of Palestinians, and Christians in Bethlehem are particularly ill-served by the occupation and the separation barrier given their proximity to Israel proper and their reliance on religious tourism, but there was simply no proof presented by CBS outside of empty conjecture that Israel is deserving of more blame for this than are the Palestinian terrorists that prompted the construction of the barrier in the first place, nor was there even a scintilla of historical or regional context to place this story in perspective. Being a Christian in the West Bank cannot be easy for a variety of reasons, and I can understand why Palestinian Christians would feel uncomfortable under both Jewish and Muslim rule, particularly when they each rely on an increasingly assertive religious nationalism. It should be perfectly clear though that Israel is not targeting Christian Palestinians, that the Christian population of Jerusalem has remained steady since Israel claimed the entirety of the city in 1967, and that the Christian population of the West Bank is shrinking for a variety of reasons, some of which have to do with the occupation and some of which have nothing to do with it whatsoever. The public perception following the 60 Minutes report is that Michael Oren did not come off well, but 60 Minutes and Bob Simon did not exactly cover themselves in glory (the segment has been in the works since last year and this is the best they could come up with??) and deserve any criticism that might come their way.

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