The confluence of Passover and Ramadan that had American, Israeli, and Palestinian government and security officials so worried in the lead-up to this week has so far been less harrying than it could have been. Yet there has still been violence and tension surrounding the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, the most sensitive spot in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and one of the most sensitive spots anywhere in the world. Unsurprisingly to anyone who is familiar with how this sequence of events always plays out, varied governments and international bodies such as the U.N. and the Arab League are gearing up to blame Israel for violating the sanctity of the site and being insufficiently sensitive to Muslim rights in al-Aqsa Mosque. And it is precisely that reaction that has not only led to the current situation on the Temple Mount, but that guarantees that a spot that should be a model of sharing and coexistence in overcoming difference will instead continue to be dangerously volatile and the likeliest spark for future fighting.
The factors that make the Temple Mount singularly explosive are numerous, but the one that has led most directly to the current environment—in which insignificant episodes take on enormous proportions and relative restraint is portrayed as reckless abandon—is the tolerance for an exclusionary narrative that grants one side an overwhelming moral and temporal high ground. According to much of the condemnatory commentary, Israelis, Jews, and non-Muslims generally should be grateful to have any access to this Muslim holy site, and safeguarding the primacy of al-Aqsa is a categorical imperative that Israel is inappropriately violating through repeated offensive incursions. This week, Jordanian Prime Minister Bisher al-Khasawneh “saluted” Palestinians for “hurling their stones in a volley of clay at the Zionist sympathizers defiling al-Aqsa Mosque under the protection of the Israeli occupation government” while the Arab League ministerial meeting convened to discuss “the dangerous Israeli escalation in al-Aqsa Mosque of Jerusalem and ways to confront it.” Palestinian Authority officials such as Mohammed Shtayyeh and Hussein al-Sheikh claimed that Israel was trying to divide the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif between Muslims and Jews and decried granting any rights to Jews on the compound as unacceptable. The backdrop to this is multiple UNESCO resolutions over the past decade that make no mention of any Jewish connection to the site, and that even cast doubt on the legitimacy of a Jewish connection to the Western Wall. When most of the world accepts and promotes the idea that a site that is as important to Jews as it is to Muslims should be seen as for one side only, it literally fuels the flames that are kindled when Jews are seen as encroaching on a place that is not for them.
The situation on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif this week was not ideal, to state the obvious. Israeli police were there in force, Muslim worshippers were arrested, and the mosque was the scene of pitched battles. The notion that al-Aqsa had to be defended was not based on complete fantasy. Yet without recalling how this started, this description is woefully incomplete. The violence began Friday morning when hundreds of Palestinians holed up in the mosque with rocks and clubs while others hurled stones from on top of the compound down onto the Western Wall plaza below, and then threw stones and shot fireworks at police who entered the compound to prevent the hail of rocks on people at the Western Wall. Notably, the police refrained from entering the compound until after morning prayers at the mosque were finished despite the fact that rock throwing was already taking place. While there is no actual excuse or justification for turning al-Aqsa into a guerilla armory, it came after days of rumors that Israel was going to allow Jewish sacrifices of Paschal lambs on the Temple Mount on Friday morning (which of course did not happen, not to mention that Israeli police arrested six delusional yet fanatical Temple activists who were caught with a goat). The violence was also spurred by anger over the Israeli government’s refusal to ban Jews from the Temple Mount—who are only allowed to visit for a few hours each morning anyway—for the entirety of Ramadan. In other words, the backlash right now to alleged Israeli defilement of al-Aqsa is because of a careful and limited Israeli response to actual physical attacks by Palestinians originating from al-Aqsa.
Ahead of Ramadan, the Israeli government decided not to impose restrictions that it had in the past, such as closing off the Damascus Gate steps, limiting access to the Old City, or even imposing a closure on the West Bank for the entirety of Passover. Instead, the government expanded the number of entry permits it granted to West Bank Palestinians in order to enable them to go to al-Aqsa and expanded the permit entry hours, and did not reverse these measures even after the terrorist attacks in Bnei Brak and Tel Aviv. Not only that, but despite that Jews visiting the site does not actually do anything to impinge on the rights of Muslims, Jews will be restricted from the Temple Mount entirely during the last ten days of Ramadan. This stands in stark contrast to last year, when the series of moves that kicked off tensions was the erection of barriers at Damascus Gate and the cutting of the loudspeaker wires at al-Aqsa, which then snowballed with the Sheikh Jarrah eviction hearing and culminated in Hamas rockets from Gaza. Of course, the best way to ensure that next year’s Ramadan looks more like last year’s Ramadan with restrictions and closures is to turn the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif into a staging ground for unprovoked attacks on Jews in Jerusalem and then to criticize Israel for violating the sanctity of the holy site.
The Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif is a potent symbol for both sides that goes way beyond religion. There is a reason that secular Israelis who personally have no interest in praying at the Western Wall nonetheless view the Temple Mount as a symbol of Israeli sovereignty and the capture of the Old City in 1967 as the fulfillment of a Zionist project that was incomplete with the state’s establishment in 1948. There is a reason that secular Palestinian Authority officials who don’t pray once, let alone five times, daily have pictures of al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock prominently hanging in their offices and conference rooms. For Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif is a powerful totem for nationalist and political sentiment in addition to religious fervor, and it serves as one of the few unifying elements around which everyone on all sides can coalesce. Anyone—either those living in the crucible of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or those watching from the outside—who suggests that one side has a monopoly on the symbolism and emotion of the site or legitimates efforts to claim the site exclusively is contributing to the problem and guaranteeing future clashes and heightened brinksmanship.
I am not suggesting that the status quo on the site, in which Muslims pray and Jews visit, be overturned. The status quo is deeply unfair and discriminatorily restrictive, but there are plenty of things in life that are deeply unfair while still being necessary due to the real-world consequences of changing them. In a perfect world, al-Aqsa itself would remain a spot exclusively for Muslim worship, while somewhere on the Temple Mount plaza would be a spot where Jews could do the same, but this is not a perfect world. Nevertheless, restrictions on one side are not the same thing as granting an exclusive right to the other side. Acting as if Palestinians rightfully own the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif while Israeli Jews are foreign interlopers who are trying to claim something to which they have no rightful connection is shameful, and when the site transforms into a driver of war rather than peace, that attitude is the driving reason why.