With Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade — known to Jews as the Temple Mount and Palestinians as al-Haram al-Sharif – at the center of two bloody flare-ups in Jerusalem over two years, it is essential to prevent a third. The wave of stabbings and shootings of Israelis that began six months has waned, but with the approach of Passover, in the celebration of which the Esplanade figures prominently, there is a real risk of renewed clashes. Both Israel and Jordan, each with a role in controlling and policing the holy site, want to avoid them, but each is buffeted by countervailing pressures that easily could unravel the quiet understandings that have stabilized the site over the past six months.
Ostensibly the clash is over the Status Quo, the informal arrangement from the mid-nineteenth century that has regulated management of the Esplanade since Israel conquered it in 1967, that provides, in part, for exclusive Muslim worship at the site and access for all, including Jews. Israel and Jordan have both demonstrated support for this formula, but the growing number of religious Jews entering the site has pointed up a key difference between them: when violent protest ensues, whose rights take precedence? The right of Jews to access the site or the right of the vast majority of peaceful Muslims – or at least those Israel permits to visit Jerusalem – to pray?
However that question is resolved on any given day, the real issue is that Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians have widely divergent perspectives on the East Jerusalem. Since Israel in effect annexed East Jerusalem, its domestic law theoretically applies there, which leaves the government jumping through hoops to avoid implementing those provisions that conflict with the Status Quo. For Jerusalem’s Palestinians, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Jordan the Esplanade is occupied territory, pure and simple, and has to be defended from any Israeli attempt to alter its status.
The ambiguities were partly addressed by understandings reached in November 2014 between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jordan’s King Abdullah. Netanyahu committed to keep all Knesset members off the Esplanade; to refrain from imposing categorical age or gender limitations on Muslim access to the Esplanade; and to keep provocative Temple activists away from the site and limit the number of Temple activists permitted to enter per day. Abdullah, for his part, made a single, crucial commitment: to keep those Palestinian youth, who likely would turn out to be the next-day’s stone-throwers, from surreptitiously entering the compound under the guise of performing night prayer.
These commitments kept the relative calm at the site for some eight months until they were violated first by the ascension of Minister Uri Ariel in July 2015 (on 9 Av, a day commemorating the destruction of the Temple according to the Jewish calendar), and then again weeks later on the eve of the Jewish New Year when, as a preventive security measure, Israel announced categorical limitations on Muslim entry, triggering the attacks and protests that continue today.
Jerusalem’s stability depends on restoring and reinvigorating these understandings, but Netanyahu and Abdullah are caught between competing pressures. First, Netanyahu leads a government in which the Temple Mount agenda resonates powerfully, making it difficult to limit entry of Temple activists to the Temple Mount during the holiday. But second, curtailing Muslim access to the Holy Esplanade – chiefly via gender or age limitations — quickly leads to clashes at the site between Palestinian stone throwers and Israeli police. Any limiting of Muslim access is all the more potent during holidays like Passover, when larger than usual numbers of Jews ascend, exacerbating Muslim fears that Israel will “divide the mosque”, that is, give Jews their own prayer times and spaces. Once this cycle sets in, Abdullah and the Waqf, the Jordanian body that managed the Esplanade, find it difficult if not impossible to control worshippers.
In principle, the two leaders, wisely, have resolved to categorically forbid neither the entry of Muslims or Jews. They should respect their commitments; access to the Esplanade should be prohibited only to those who have already violated the site’s norms – be it a specific Palestinian stone thrower or a Jew violating the ban on non-Muslim prayer. This requires strong intelligence, disciplined Israeli police and Jordanian Waqf operations, and a strategic decision to pursue police action, even if intrusive, against individual – Jewish or Muslim – as opposed to categorical limitations of access on entire groups.
At some point, the parties might be able to take further measures to improve management of the site and address wider issues to the benefit of all. But that would require a negotiating process, which is unlikely to resume any time soon. In its absence, the rigorous application of the quiet understandings is the best bet for Israelis and Palestinians alike.