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The crumbling Status Quo at Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade

The surge in violence that began at Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade, and which has since spread across the rest of the West Bank and into Israel, has some observers warning about the possibility of a third intifada, or uprising. While such speculation may be premature, the INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP is concerned about the dangerous trajectory of events and calls attention to the need to robustly address the epicentre of the violence.

First published by the International Crisis Group.

Four Israelis have been killed in shooting and stabbing attacks in recent days, and four Palestinians have been killed, including a 13-year-old boy. Hundreds of Palestinians have been injured by live ammunition and tear gas as Israeli police attempted to quell unrest in the West Bank. In this Q&A, Crisis Group senior Israel/Palestine analyst Ofer Zalzberg discusses what’s behind the spike in violence and what steps could be taken to calm the situation.

Why has violence surged in Jerusalem over the last few weeks?

The Holy Esplanade – known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Al-Haram Al-Sharif – is again the epicentre of a violent escalation. Since the Jewish “high holidays” began in mid-September, Palestinian youths have been throwing stones and firecrackers at the Israeli police to prevent the entry of groups of religious Jews, who have been ascending the Esplanade with the intention of changing the current arrangements at the site. Palestinians, who have suffered the desecration of many mosques and holy sites since 1948, feel like they have seen this movie before and fear how it ends.

Israeli police have repeatedly burst into the holy site, including the Al-Aqsa Mosque itself, firing stun grenades and tear gas at protesters who had barricaded themselves in. The violence has reverberated across the city and beyond. In Jerusalem alone, three Israelis have been killed, along with two of their Palestinian assailants. In clashes across the West Bank, two Palestinians were killed and around 500 Palestinians have been injured, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent. Dozens of Israeli soldiers and police also have been injured. This week the clashes have ignited ethnic tensions and violence between Palestinians and Jews within Israel proper, including two attacks on members of Israel’s security forces. The violence could worsen, with Gaza potentially being dragged in as well. A few rockets have been fired at Israel from Gaza in the past week, although both Hamas and Israel may try to contain a new round of violence.

For Palestinians, the violence is a reaction to Israeli moves that violate what is known simply as the “Status Quo”. It’s important to realise that the Status Quo is not simply another way of saying “the current circumstances”; rather, it refers to a specific, yet unwritten, de-facto arrangement between Israel and Jordan – the Muslim custodian of the Esplanade. The Status Quo has kept the peace, more or less, since Israel seized Jerusalem’s Old City from Jordan in the 1967 war.

Crisis Group reported on the erosion of the Status Quo arrangement in June, and recommended action to shore it up. The Status Quo, crudely put, has Muslims administering the site while Israel polices it from the outside. But Palestinians feel, not without justification, that the reality at the Esplanade is shifting in ways unfavourable to them: Israel is further limiting their access while increasing that for Jews. Most recently, in what as far as I can recall is an unprecedented move, On Sunday the Israeli government issued a 48-hour ban on entry to the Old City for all Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, except those living and working in the Old City. For Palestinians of course, this is only the latest of the restrictions they have faced: from the 1967 war through to the mid-1980s, access to Jerusalem from the West Bank, Gaza and Israel was virtually unfettered. With the first intifada, which began in 1987, and especially the second intifada, beginning in 2000, access to Jerusalem, and therefore the Esplanade, from the occupied territories was severely constrained.

The basic problem is this: Israel, Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organisation all claim to support the Status Quo, but they do not have a shared sense of what it is or should be.

That’s been the case for a long time. What changed?

Israel shifted its access and policing policy at the Esplanade just before this year’s high holidays began in mid-September, bringing to an end the relatively restrained policy that had been in effect since November 2014, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and King Abdullah reached understandings to calm tensions then escalating at the site. Just before the high holidays, on 14 September, Israel resumed the highly detrimental practice of limiting access to Muslims below a certain age (40 during Rosh Hashanah and 50 during Sukkot) while non-Muslims, most notably religious Jews, were visiting the site. This reinforced the sense among Palestinians that the government is intent on dividing up the Esplanade’s visiting hours between Jews and Muslims.

Moreover, just before the holidays, Israel outlawed two non-profit organisations led by Palestinian-Israeli Islamists that support groups known as Al-Mourabitoun [“Guardians of Islamic holy places”]. The Arabic term can refer to any Muslim defending Palestinian territory, but, in this case, it means groups of activists who shout at Jewish religious visitors to deter them from ascending the Esplanade. Jews see this as harassment, Palestinians as defending the site.

At the same time, access for Jews was expanded. Free access to the site for non-Muslims, including for Jews, is part of the Status Quo, though it is crucial to note that the same de-facto arrangement also prohibits non-Muslim worship or religious rituals. This arrangement was made in deference to the centuries-old Muslim administration of the site, and due to the sensitivity of changing any aspect of that administration while under Israel military occupation without the explicit consent of all parties. In this light, Palestinians and Muslims see as a provocation the entry of religious Jews, including senior government officials, during Jewish holidays, in large groups, with the explicitly announced goal of changing the Status Quo agreement to allow Jewish prayer — not least because some of them have tried to pray.

Since the understandings of last year, religious Jewish Israeli ministers and Knesset members have not entered the site, but over the past month, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel and a group of young Likud activists have done so. This strengthened the impression among Palestinians that the Israeli establishment is trying to change the Status Quo. Social media has played a role; a YouTube clip went viral showing Ariel praying during his visit. Although the police stopped him, he was not removed from the site, as others have been when violating the Status Quo in such a manner.

Palestinian activism and politics, meanwhile, seems poised to take a turn toward the extreme as well. The Israeli police allegedly found, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, materials for making pipe bombs in Al-Aqsa Mosque. Moreover, Palestinian activists used inflammable liquids at the site, causing fires in and around it. Also, both President Mahmoud Abbas and King Abdullah have issued harsher condemnations of Israeli actions and intentions than they have in the past.

Why has the violence spread beyond the Esplanade?

The dynamic I described was in effect until the second day of Sukkot, on 28 September, when Israel altered its policing. The police increased their presence at the site, notably by stationing forces on the roof of the Al-Aqsa Mosque (also known as the Qibli Mosque, at the southern end of the Esplanade). This seems to have kept the stone-throwers out of the Esplanade itself; there has hardly been any violence there since then. But the violence hasn’t ended, it’s only moved – to just outside of the Esplanade, where those refused entry to the compound have gathered; to other parts of the Old City; to East Jerusalem; and to the West Bank.

Thus what the Israeli police see as a success carries a big risk. For Palestinians and Muslims, this “success” is another step in dividing the opening hours of the Esplanade between Muslims and Jews and in facilitating access for religious Jews for religious purposes. Rhetoric aside, there has been no strong reaction from Arab or Western governments, leaving many Palestinians feeling that extreme measures are their only option. The dispute at the holy site favours an ascendant Hamas, given the movement’s Islamist character and the perception that it is more willing than the seemingly impotent Palestinian Authority leadership to fight to defend Al-Aqsa. This is a double-edged sword, for Hamas and for everyone. If the movement feels compelled to reply with violence, Gaza could find itself back in a war with Israel, against its will. So far, it appears most of the attacks were by individuals – some unaffiliated, some with Islamic Jihad – who are trying to fill the vacuum. In what may be a notable exception, Israel argues that a Hamas cell, some of whose members were arrested, was behind the recent killing of two settlers. Hamas, however, has not claimed responsibility for the attack.

You said the November 2014 understandings calmed the last escalation. Why can’t everyone just take a step back and go back to that arrangement?

It would certainly be helpful. But positive elements aside, the understandings in and of themselves are insufficient because they were never clear. Indeed, the exact understandings were never published and remain confidential. According to the Israeli and Jordanian officials we speak with, the thrust of the understandings was that Israel would restrain Jewish activists seeking to change the Status Quo through legislative and grassroots activism, while Jordan would restrain Palestinian activists using violence to keep Jews out of the compound, primarily by preventing the entry of Palestinian youths prone to stone-throwing.

The understandings kept violence to a minimum for nearly a year. Since the announcement that these understandings had been reached, religious Jews were permitted to ascend in groups of no more than 15 (as opposed to 30 or even 50 in previous years); only a single such group was permitted to enter the Esplanade at a time; complex procedures for religious Jews made their entry even more cumbersome than the already stricter ones they usually go through; Jewish ministers and Knesset members were not allowed to enter; pretexts were found to keep prominent Temple activist Rabbi Yehuda Glick away from the site; and Knesset discussions on the matter halted.

Jordan, until the high holidays, seemingly assisted in preventing the entry of stone-throwers. The problem with the understandings, again according to our contacts with Israeli and Jordanian officials, is that they were based primarily on a general commitment to preventing an escalation – not on specific steps that each side would take or avoid to achieve calm. For Netanyahu, for example, stone throwing by young Palestinians justifies limiting the age of Muslims entering the Esplanade. Jordan’s King Abdullah, by contrast, considers age-based limitations illegitimate as a matter of principle because they violate the access rights of Muslims.

Both parties are quick to accuse the other of violating unwritten rules and, in return, feel free to disregard their own commitments. Specifically, the Waqf, an Islamic body affiliated with Jordan charged with administering the site, has flouted its responsibility to stop stone-throwers. Jordan, seeing Israel violate the Status Quo as well as the November 2014 understandings, apparently sees little reason to hold up its end of the deal when it considers that Israel has violated the Status Quo as well as the November 2014 understandings. Israel, in response, acted unilaterally when it placed security forces on the roof of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in September. Such action was unprecedented and deeply offensive to Palestinians and Muslims. Israel’s ensuing decision to close off the Old City to all Palestinians who do not reside or work there is having a similarly negative impact.

In the last two weeks, we have learned that mere understandings do not suffice. They are a band-aid that has proved unable to hold back the powerful dynamics buffeting the Status Quo. In Israel, the Temple’s centrality in political discourse is growing. Palestinians are increasingly convinced that Israel is intent on dividing up the Al-Aqsa Mosque, just as it did with the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron following an Israeli settler’s killing of 29 Palestinians praying in the mosque in 1994. Jordan is unwilling and probably unable to restrain Palestinian activism when Israel does not do its part to uphold the Status Quo.

On the most general level, it’s fair to say that Netanyahu remains committed to maintaining the non-Muslim prayer ban. And that King Abdullah remains committed to ensuring free access for all to the Esplanade. But there is a great gap between these two poles, wide enough to drive a new intifada through, or at least that’s what more and more Israelis and Palestinians think. The understandings can help at a time when there are few other tools, but everyone should be thinking beyond them to buttress the Status Quo itself.

How can the Status Quo be strengthened?

The two main imperatives are free access and maintaining the non-Muslim prayer ban. The cornerstone of a free-access-for-all policy should be the principle that if Palestinians (and other Muslims, to the extent they are willing to do so under Israeli control) can and do freely enter the site, the presence of religious Jews there will be less threatening. It is for this reason that Israel should relax restrictions on Muslims and Jordan should help expand access for non-Muslims. And for Palestinians not to feel that any visit by religious Jews brings the site a step closer to being divided, there has to be a strict application enforcement of the non-Muslim prayer ban – including after the fact, by prosecuting Temple activists who post videos online showing the rare occasions when they succeeded in uttering a prayer.

The main obstacle to implementing the understandings lies in agreeing not on ends but on means. In the absence of a more detailed set-up, we will likely continue to hear, as we have over the past week, both parties claiming to be adhering to the understandings and accusing the other of violating it. One option is for the parties, ideally with the help of an outside mediator, to quietly explore whether they can agree to a series of more detailed measures.

Every agreement, no matter how detailed, has ambiguities. Why do you think that, given the passions about this issue, a more detailed agreement won’t meet the same fate as the November 2014 understandings?

Of course, even a more detailed agreement won’t resolve the escalating crisis on its own. The entire Status Quo is rickety and has to be reinforced, not least politically. For the Waqf to be able to enforce order at the site, it would need to be empowered in a variety of ways. For instance, it could be helpful for Israel to publicly declare the importance of Jordan’s responsibility in managing the site as well as to permit the Waqf to exercise its role more fully. The Waqf might be allowed to carry out certain maintenance projects that have long been refused – such as establishing a modest fire station, refurbishing the ablution facilities, installing makeshift lavatories, and erecting additional prayer platforms. The Waqf could demonstrate some measure of control over the site, for instance by regulating the compound’s opening hours for Muslims, expelling Jews who try to pray, and regulating access for non-Muslim visitors to the two Islamic shrines on the Holy Esplanade.

A complementary way to signal to Palestinians that Israel does not seek exclusive control would be to give Palestinians in East Jerusalem a way to voice their needs with respect to the management of the site. Most East Jerusalem residents trust neither Israel nor Jordan. Integrating representatives of the city’s Arab neighbourhoods – and representatives of the Old City in particular – into the Waqf, or into a separate body working closely with it, could reduce local uncertainty. A modest option would be for the Waqf to set up a consultative body through which East Jerusalem representatives, perhaps one from each neighbourhood and a handful from the Old City, could inform the Waqf of their needs, and hear about the site’s management and offer ideas.

The recent violence demonstrates, once again, the problems that ensue when there is no effective Arab leadership in the city. This is not only the case for the city’s Palestinian residents. Israel too would benefit from an authentic, credible address to communicate with groups, like the aforementioned body, particularly at moments of crisis.

In return for empowering the Waqf, easing access restrictions on Muslims, and enabling East Jerusalem leaders to voice their population’s needs, the Israeli government could hope to secure free, undisturbed access for non-Muslims to the site and a sustained calm at the Esplanade. Right now, the domestic pressure on Netanyahu to stop Muslim activists from harassing visiting Jews is enormous, as is the pressure to enable religious Jews to access the site without longer waiting times than everyone else. And of course, it’s completely unacceptable in Israel that Jews should be kept away from the site by Palestinian stone-throwers. In this environment, Temple activists can easily mobilise public support. The government should undercut their public support by satisfying the public’s most pressing need for Jewish access, which after all is part of the Status Quo. The government should also distance itself from ardent Temple activism.

It would also help substantially if Palestinian, Jordanian and other Muslim leaders would refrain from publicly denying the ancient Temple’s existence and affirm that there is an existing and historic Jewish connection to the city.

Calm at the Esplanade is clearly crucial, but are these steps enough to head off what many think is turning into an intifada? How to set the parties on a more constructive path?

There are many other factors contributing to the escalation now. The Esplanade is only one and dealing with it alone will not suffice to correct the deep problems with the defunct peace process. That said, the Esplanade has unique currency on both sides of the conflict. The flip side of the danger of escalation at the Esplanade is that positive change there could reverberate more broadly than other isolated steps would. It’s a thin straw to clutch at given how desperate the situation has become, but if there is one place where an improvement could exert a powerful knock-on effect, the Esplanade is it. DM

Photo: Israeli border police work at the scene after an attack involving a Palestinian woman and Israeli man in the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel, 07 October 2015. According to Israeli police, the man was carrying a gun and shot the woman after she attacked him with a knife – both were hospitalized. There have been increasing clashes in recent weeks between Israelis and Palestinians amid a rift over the use of the flashpoint site called the Temple Mount by Jews and the Noble Sanctuary by Muslims, which lies in Jerusalem’s Old City. EPA/ABIR SULTAN.

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