Analysis: Israel attempts to soothe Temple Mount tensions

Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Jerusalem is quiet but tense after further clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police at the Temple Mount/ Al-Aqsa Mosque complex on Friday. The tensions – a frequent feature of Ramadan in the city, exacerbated this year by the confluence of Passover and Easter – have been long anticipated, but have taken place against a backdrop of a bloody month of terror attacks and renewed rocket fire from Gaza and across Israel’s northern border.

What happened

  • Palestinian extremists – some waving the flag of terror group Hamas – threw rocks and fireworks at the Temple Mount/ Al-Aqsa Mosque complex on Friday.
  • A young Palestinian man was severely injured in clashes with police, while a female police officer was hospitalised after being hit in the face by a rock thrown at her.
  • After order was restored, evening prayers, reportedly attended by 100,000 people, took place without incident.
  • While Hamas is believed to have increased its efforts to stoke tensions at a holy site sacred to both Muslims and Jews, the Waqf, a Jordanian-appointed council that oversees Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, attempted to prevent Palestinians from attacking police on Friday.
  • Israel last week banned a march by Jewish nationalists from Jerusalem flashpoints and foreign minister Yair Lapid reiterated the government’s intention to maintain the Temple Mount/ Al-Aqsa status quo as part of attempts to decrease tensions. The government is also attempting to prevent a repeat of last year’s events, when clashes in Jerusalem sparked an 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
  • Foreign minister Yair Lapid called on Sunday for media to “put things into proportion”. “There have been 200 to 300 extremists sent by Hamas and Islamic Jihad to incite riots. But just yesterday, 95,000 worshipers came to the Temple Mount to hold a holy ceremony, and to hold it in peace,” he told journalists at a briefing.
  • Labor leader Merav Michaeli urged a political agreement with the Palestinians, which would encompass the role of the holy sites. “I would like to reduce to a minimum anything that causes violence or hardships in the Temple Mount,” Michaeli, who serves as transport minister, said yesterday.
  • On Sunday night, a rocket was fired across Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. It exploded in open ground, causing no injuries or damage. Over the past week, six rockets have been fired by Gazan terror groups into southern Israel.

Tension in the Holy City

Friday’s violence replicated that seen at the Al-Aqsa Mosque the previous week. In an apparently premeditated move Palestinians rioters barricaded themselves inside the mosque with a stockpile of rocks and fireworks, some of which were hurled at police. Israeli police entered the mosque compound to arrest those responsible. Calm was restored later that afternoon, with prayers for 50,000 Muslim worshippers taking place without incident. Further skirmishes occurred at the compound last week as Israeli police responded to rocks and Molotov cocktails being thrown from within the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The firebombs reportedly caused small fires in the mosque, which were extinguished before greater damage was done. Palestinians rioters also attacked buses outside the Old City as a number of Passover-related events drew thousands of Jews to the Western Wall. Windows were smashed wounding passengers, and Jews in prayer shawls attacked on their way to the wall.

The political fallout

The Islamist Ra’am party has temporarily frozen its participation in both the governing coalition and the Knesset. The move is largely symbolic – it has been coordinated with prime minister Naftali Bennett and Lapid and the Knesset is in recess until 9 May – and is reportedly aimed at easing pressure on the Arab-Israeli party. However, the freeze comes at a difficult time for the government, which lost its wafer-thin majority following a defection to the opposition by a member of Bennett’s Yamina party earlier this month.

Efforts to calm …

The Israeli government has made a number of moves to defuse tensions in Jerusalem, an effort which began weeks ago with high-levels talks with both the Palestinian Authority and neighbouring Jordan. In early April, Israel and the PA agreed to maintain security coordination throughout Ramadan.

  • Last week, Israel announced it was banning non-Muslims from visiting the Temple Mount until the end of Ramadan, next week. Right-wing MKs accused the government of “caving to terror”.
  • The ban, which has been imposed by Israeli governments in the past, reflects the Jewish state’s commitment to maintaining the Temple Mount/ Al-Aqsa Mosque status quo which has been in place since 1967.
  • On Sunday, Lapid stated categorically: “Muslims pray on the Temple Mount, non-Muslims visit. There is no change. There will be no change. We have no plans to divide the Temple Mount between religions. We call on Muslim moderates, on Muslim states, to act against this fake news, and to work together with us to ensure our common interest: preservation of the Status Quo and calming the situation.”
  • The government further enraged Israeli hardliners on Wednesday by preventing an unauthorised “flag march” by nationalists from processing through the Old City’s Muslim Quarter. Police blocked roads to the Damascus Gate as a march led by far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir approached.
  • Israel’s approach eventually won praise from the United Arab Emirates during a call between Lapid and foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The Emirati foreign minister “expressed his appreciation for Israeli efforts to calm the situation and expressed understanding for the on-the-ground difficulties that Israel faces,” according to an Israeli Foreign Ministry statement.
  • Days before, however, Israeli diplomats in Jordan and some other Arab capitals were called in and rebuked for supposedly engaging in “practices that violate the sanctity of Al-Aqsa Mosque”, an apparent reference to the attempts by police to stop rioting on the compound. An emergency meeting of regional Arab states held in Amman on Thursday accused Israel of “a blatant provocation to the feelings of Muslims”.
  • The UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process Tor Wennesland struck a more balanced note when he urged: “All efforts to lower tensions should be encouraged, while provocations, spreading of misinformation and incitement to violence should be categorically rejected. Leaders on all sides have a responsibility to reduce tensions, create the conditions for calm and ensure the status quo at the Holy Sites is protected.”

… and to incite

In his remarks on Sunday Lapid also accused terror groups of “hijacking the Al-Aqsa Mosque in order to create an outbreak of violence in Jerusalem, and from there, a violent conflict across the country”. Israeli officials believe Hamas is likely behind many of the events of recent weeks.

  • Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh thanked Russia for its support after he spoke with foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. According to the Palestinian Shehab news agency, Lavrov attacked what he termed Israel’s excessive use of force against civilians in Jerusalem.
  • Amid mounting tensions, Hamas declared “our finger is on the trigger” while a fellow terror group backed by Iran, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, flaunted the “tunnel city” it has constructed under southern Gaza.
  • In comments which were viewed by Israel as largely for domestic consumption and a reflection of King Abdullah’s absence in Germany following back surgery, Jordan’s prime minister, Bisher Al-Khasawneh, backed Palestinian attacks against Israeli police, saying: “I salute every Palestinian and every official in the Waqf [the Islamic religious authorities who manage the Al-Aqsa Mosque] who hurls stones at the Zionists.”
  • Similarly, Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List party, called on Israeli Arab police to abandon their roles and “throw the weapons in their faces”.
  • Palestinian social media was awash with instances of incitement to violence, including the spreading of rumours, such as allegations that Jews were planning to carry out animal sacrifices in the compound or otherwise “violate” Al-Aqsa. Palestinian state media also aired a sermon last week by an imam which called for Allah to “delight us with the extermination of the tyrannical Jews”.
  • The family of a 15-year-old Arab Israeli girl who committed a stabbing attack in Haifa last weekend blamed online videos for inciting her actions.

Israel stays its hand as rockets fly

Six rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip in the last week, four of which exploded inside Israel. However, there has thus far been no repeat of the large-scale violence on the border seen last May following tensions in Jerusalem.

  • The rocket attack last Monday, aimed at Kibbutz Kissufim, was the first in six months. In response, the Israel Air Force attacked military targets in Gaza, including a Hamas weapons workshop, having first fired a warning shot to ensure the site was empty. On Wednesday, a rocket – containing hundreds of ball bearings – caused slight damage after landing in the southern city of Sderot.
  • On Friday, three rockets were fired from Gaza at southern Israel. Rather than responding with air strikes, Israel closed its border with the coastal enclave thus preventing those with work permits from entering the Jewish state. The measure, which was in place for two days, was lifted on Tuesday but was aimed at putting economic pressure on Hamas to stop the rocket attacks.
  • Over the past year, Israel has expanded the number of work permits for Gazans, as well as approving infrastructure and reconstruction projects. The government had been planning to double the number of work permits open to citizens of Gaza, but said on Sunday it may need to “reexamine this decision carefully”.
  • A rocket, launched about 20km from the border, was fired from Lebanon towards the northern Israeli town of Shlomi on Sunday night.
  • In a statement, the IDF said it had attacked targets in Lebanon close to the rocket launch area. There are believed to have been no casualties in Lebanon and Palestinian terror groups, most likely Hamas, are thought to have been responsible for the attack.
  • On Monday, police seized 100 grenades and two rifles which had been smuggled across the Lebanese border. Israeli officials have previously warned that Hezbollah is attempting to arm Arab Israelis in order to stoke violence between Jews and Arabs.

A month of terror

Fourteen people have been murdered in Israel in a series of deadly attacks over the past month. Stabbings, vehicle-rammings and shootings have brought terror to Beersheba, Hadera, Bnei Brak and Tel Aviv. Lapid said on Sunday that, since the start of 2022, the IDF has prevented 126 significant terror attacks. On Monday, Shin Bet revealed it had cracked a West Bank terror cell directed by PIJ operatives in Gaza.

What happens next

The government will hope that its actions last week will ease tensions as Ramadan heads to a conclusion on Sunday evening. However, its breathing space may be limited with Israel’s Independence Day and the Palestinians’ Nakba Day occurring at the end of next week.