Jerusalem, the holy city sacred to the three Abrahamic and monotheist faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is threatening to ignite once more.
Israeli settlers and their extremist allies have been stoking tensions throughout the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, with a campaign of incitement inside occupied Arab East Jerusalem ahead of new evictions of Palestinian families. They have also been stirring trouble at religious sites such as al-Aqsa mosque.
Israel is risking its security. These far-right provocations provided the perfect excuse for Hamas, the Islamist politico-military group that controls the Gaza Strip, to fire hundreds of rockets into Israel, eliciting scores of air strikes in response — with the risk of a re-ignition of the Gaza wars of 2009, 2012 and 2014.
Al-Aqsa mosque is in a religious sanctuary in the heart of Jerusalem, known to Muslims as the Haram ash-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, and to Jews as Temple Mount. It also houses the Dome of the Rock, from which in Islamic tradition the Prophet Mohammed made a journey to heaven, and the Western Wall, sacred to Jews as the surviving structure from the Second Temple and its Holy of Holies, begun by Herod the Great and destroyed by the Romans in 70CE.
Israel seized East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 six-day war, annexing and gradually colonising its Arab quarters. But successive governments have usually preserved the religious status quo in the 36-acre compound, treating it with the care due a ticking bomb. Jordan’s Hashemite royal family, by tradition and treaty, is the custodian of Muslim and Christian holy places in Jerusalem.
Trifling with the rival traditions of deeply emotive holiness in the holy city, which have collided across the millennia, always risks igniting a rocket-fuelled clash of politico-religious identity. Yet that is what is happening. Israeli riot police stormed the al-Aqsa compound on Monday, attacking stone-throwing protesters with rubber-tipped bullets and stun grenades, spraying tear gas and putrid “skunk water”. About 600 Palestinians, including worshippers inside the mosque, have been injured in Jerusalem’s clashes since Friday.
In the weeks leading up to this eruption, passions boiled ahead of an Israeli Supreme Court judgment on the eviction of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, a middle-class area of Arab East Jerusalem.
Most of the world does not recognise Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem. This is the latest thrust in a four-decades-long campaign by Israeli settlers to clear the areas in and around the old city of Palestinian families who have lived there for generations. Aside from evictions, they are being driven out by a panoply of zoning and residence laws, building restrictions and the bulldozing of Palestinian properties.
But now there is a political vacuum. Benjamin Netanyahu, the five-term premier on trial for corruption, has been unable to form a government despite his embrace of the religious and extreme right. Mahmoud Abbas, president of the increasingly irrelevant and corrupt Palestinian Authority that has quasi-municipal powers over 40 per cent of the occupied West Bank, has again deferred what would have been the first elections since 2006 — which Hamas won. Extremists are running riot.
Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the far-right Jewish Power party and a Netanyahu ally, tweeted that “it is time to liberate the Temple Mount and Jerusalem, and show them who owns the house once and for all”.
Ben-Gvir’s behaviour recalls that of Ariel Sharon, the late prime minister and settlers champion, chaperoned past the Haram ash-Sharif towards Temple Mount in September 2000 by hundreds of Israeli riot police. That lit the powder trail to a second Palestinian uprising, known as the al-Aqsa intifada.
The riot police inside the holy sanctuary this week cross a dangerous line. A conflict ostensibly over land is acquiring menacing religious overtones that encourage a collision of irreducible identities in a region with no shortage of fanatics.
Former president Donald Trump emboldened the Israeli right on Jerusalem by moving the US embassy there. And Netanyahu, to try to stay in power, has courted overtly racist anti-Arab groups determined to take control of the Haram ash-Sharif.
Stirring unrest in the holy city weakens Israel’s credentials. As a strategy to enlarge the occupation and install more settlers it forecloses on the possibility of a Palestinian state and forces Palestinians to struggle for equal rights inside a Greater Israel, undermining Israel’s legitimacy in world opinion.
It also puts at risk Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbours, as well as Muslims worldwide. There have been protests from Turkey to Jordan, as well as in Arab towns and cities inside Israel. Relations with Jordan are at rock-bottom. Jordan, along with Egypt, was part of the first wave of “normalisation” with Israel, through their respective peace treaties of 1994 and 1979.
But the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, pioneers of last year’s so-called Abraham Accords with Israel, are now loud in protest at events in the city of Abrahamic faiths. In Jerusalem, Israel is risking its second wave of detente with the Arabs.