A new report by International Crisis Group (ICG) on Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound confirms that the primary trigger for unrest in the city in September 2015 was the Israeli authorities’ violations of an agreement reached with Jordan the previous year.
According to ICG, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised King Abdullah in November 2014, following an earlier outbreak of unrest, that he would keep all Knesset members out of the compound, as well as “refrain from categorical age or gender limitations on Muslim access”, and “keep provocative activists from the site and limit religious Jewish groups permitted to enter.”
In September 2015, however, “three days before the Jewish New Year”, Israeli authorities “reinstate[d] the age and gender limitations on access [for Muslim worshippers]” that “Netanyahu had pledged to stop” – despite the Israeli police’s “assessment that it could prompt major clashes.”
In addition, as narrated by ICG, “Israel also banned two non-profits organising Islamic activists (murabitoun) at the site.” These measures were seen by Palestinians “as a prelude to ‘dividing Al-Aqsa’, by which they mean allowing Jews to pray at the site, with their own, unique times or spaces to do so, after centuries of exclusive Muslim worship.”
In other words, as the ICG report puts it, “it seemed that the previous Arab protests and the promises Israel had made to Abdullah had been for naught: thousands of Palestinians were again prevented every Friday from reaching the Holy Esplanade, while Jews circulated freely. It seemed that Israel was again trying to reduce the number of Muslims worshippers.”
ICG explains key context for the tensions at Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, and in doing so, undermines the claims by Israeli officials and others that Palestinian concerns over the site are fanciful or baseless ‘incitement’.
As the Israeli political conversation increasingly emphasises Jewish identity, and religious Zionists strengthen within both its governing coalitions and the ruling Likud Party, Temple activists advocating expanded Jewish rights on the Esplanade gain more traction among the Jewish public.
The organisation also notes “Palestinian fears that Israel plans to divide the holy site, as it did Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque in 1994 after centuries of Muslim-only worship and control.”
I cited these same two factors, the activities and political strength of right-wing Jewish extremists, as well as the Hebron precedent, in an article I wrote at the time. In a subsequent piece, I cited Israeli police data showing how the status quo at the compound was already changing through restrictions on access for Muslim worshippers and the number of visits by Jewish activists to the compound.
The International Crisis Group report is further evidence that the Israeli government’s attacks on Palestinian ‘incitement’ were intended to mask the entirely predictable consequences of actions taken by those same authorities.
According to ICG, the current “relative calm” is threatened by Temple activists who “are challenging restrictions on them”, and the determination of “East Jerusalem’s young Palestinians” to oppose such activism. “Any erosion of Israel’s restraint, real or rumoured,” the group concludes, “is all but certain to provoke a response.”
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