Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar were lightly wounded today during a riot which broke out near the Al-Aksa mosque, referred to by Jews as the Temple Mount. They were released from Hadassah Hospital after treatment for bruises and, for Ms. Omar, a wound from a fall which required five stitches. After their release from the hospital, Ms. Tlaib told the press that the events of the day demonstrated Israel’s “total disregard for human rights,” while Ms. Omar made clear that the choice of the Israelis to prevent Palestinians from praying at one of their holiest sites underscored the absurdity of referring to Israel as “the only democracy in the Middle East.”
Against the warnings of Israeli security forces, the congresswomen had arrived at the highly contested flashpoint in the company of officials from the Palestinian Authority. Although the Israeli officials had no objection to the congresswomen, both Muslim, praying at the Al-Aksa mosque, they also stated that they would prevent the Palestinian officials from accompanying the congresswomen into the sacred area. Although the congresswomen had refused to meet directly with Israeli officials, the Israelis had made clear to the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem that the presence of Palestinian officials on the Temple Mount during the visit would constitute an unacceptable assertion of political sovereignty over the area revered by both Muslims and Jews. Ambassador David Friedman confirmed that the Israeli position had been made clear to Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Omar. (In response to the stated Israeli policy, officials from the U.N. and the European Union had firmly reiterated their view that the Israeli presence in Arab East Jerusalem was in violation of international law.)
After a short but tense confrontation with the Palestinian officials, protests began, quickly followed by escalating violence. Israeli police attempted to physically block the Palestinian politicians from entering the compound. Pushing and shoving led to verbal altercations and then rocks being thrown at the Israeli police, who responded with tear gas and eventually rubber bullets. One Palestinian was killed, dozens were injured, 3 seriously, while two Israeli police officers were stabbed. As night fell, there was concern that unrest could lead to violence all over the West Bank. “The Third Intifada has begun,” said Palestinian spokesperson Hanan Ashrawi, who had been coordinating the visit of the two congresswomen, “and it is the Israelis who started it. The occupation must end.”
There are differing accounts of how the violence began. The Palestinians claim that the Israelis began firing tear gas without provocation, and when the Palestinians attempted to throw back the tear gas canisters, the Israelis opened fire. “They were shooting wildly in every direction. They don’t understand that we are prepared to die for Al-Aksa,” said one Palestinian, apparently in his twenties, who refused to give his name for fear of reprisal. The Israeli military authorities, on the other hand, noting the speed with which Palestinian Authority press releases were distributed to the media, claimed that the Palestinians had intentionally used the visit of the American officials as “political theater” and the riot had been planned well in advance.
Similar events had taken place in the sacred compound several weeks before the visit by the American politicians. When asked why, in light of this, he had not foreseen the danger of such a provocative confrontation, Prime Minister Netanyahu said, “The responsibility is mine. I was given warnings by my security personnel, but I was fearful of a firestorm of criticism by American politicians, and by significant portions of the American Jewish community, if I did not allow them to come. I did not want Israel’s standing as a vibrant democracy to be undermined”
In Washington, Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, the other two members of the so-called “quartet,” introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives condemning Israel for senseless violence and anti-Muslim bias. “It is unbelievable that a country that considers itself our ally could treat American officials with such contempt and brutality.”
Their views were echoed by Senator Sanders, as well as a number of other Democratic presidential candidates, and J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami. Senator Cory Booker could not be reached for comment. The Reform and Conservative Movements, as well as AIPAC, called for calm, while Morton Klein, of the ZOA, and the Orthodox Young Israel movement, expressed support for Israel’s “difficult position.”