What The Hell Is Happening In Jerusalem (This Time)?

Clashes In East Jerusalem After Israeli Activist Shooting

For the first time in 14 years, Israeli authorities yesterday closed off the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary in the Old City of Jerusalem and prevented men under 50 from praying there this morning, out of fear of escalating tensions in the city amid whispers of a third intifada:

Palestinian leaders had called for a “day of rage” because of the closing on Thursday and the killing by Israeli forces of a Palestinian man suspected in the assassination attempt Wednesday night against Yehuda Glick. Mr. Glick is a right-wing activist who promoted increased Jewish access and prayer at the site, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. By midafternoon, Israel Radio reported that there were “riots” at several locations in the occupied West Bank, including Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem and the often-tense city of Hebron.

The situation remained mostly calm today but tensions remain high, and the situation could get worse before it gets better. Daniel Gordis describes the Israeli public’s reaction to the attempt on Glick’s life and the killing of the alleged shooter:

“How had he been found so quickly?” people wondered.

Then came the disturbing news that the gunman had worked in the restaurant located in the Begin Center. To complicate matters, it was soon reported he had ties to the Islamic Jihad, had attacked jailers while in an Israeli prison, had made a video in which he boasted of wanting to be a thorn in the throat of Zionists — and despite all that, was not under surveillance and was allowed to work in a place frequented by public figures. It was, popular mood quickly decided, a shocking security blunder. Blunder or not, the attack on an unarmed rabbi (who, though right wing, had advocated that Jews and Muslims pray together on the Temple Mount, a hugely significant site for both religions) in a supposedly safe place crossed an unspoken red line.

Anshel Pfeffer fears that Glick’s once-extreme views on the Temple Mount have gone mainstream, with predictably disastrous consequences:

Make no mistake, the campaign to reestablish a more permanent Jewish presence on Mount Moriah is dangerous. Their Judaism is one that exalts sacred stones and hallowed soil above human life, and threatens to take the Zionist endeavour down a dark alley where it was never intended to go. Many of those involved are blatantly trying to provoke exactly the kind of violent Muslim reaction that will lead to a downward spiral of bloodshed, that they believe will once and for all end any possibility of a territorial compromise between Israelis and Palestinians. That was the express intention of Yehuda Etzion and his Jewish underground, who tried in the early 1980s to blow up the mosques in the hope it would derail the Camp David Accords.

Elhanan Miller calls the low-level unrest that the city has seen over the past four months the “Jerusalem intifada”:

Sparked by the July 2 kidnapping and murder of Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir, apparently by Jewish extremists, the disturbances consist mainly of throwing stones and Molotov cocktails — haphazard activities reminiscent of the largely spontaneous First Intifada launched in late 1987 across the Israeli-controlled West Bank and Gaza. But the “Jerusalem Intifada” has its own unique characteristics, experts say. Namely, it has scarcely spread beyond the confines of the capital, and lacks the grassroots leadership that characterized the two previous Palestinian uprisings.

Talking to some experts on the conflict, Zack Beauchamp weighs the chances that the tensions will spiral out of control:

The situation is very bad. Even a slight provocation by either side could set off a wider conflict. But is this already a Third Intifada — another Palestinian mass uprising against Israel, like the First Intifada beginning in the late 1980s, and the far deadlier Second Intifada of the early 2000s? It’s tough to say. “Simmering tension/violence is not the same thing” as an intifada, [Brent] Sasley argues, “though it could well develop into [one].” Rather, he says, “what’s going on now feels more like a demonstration of frustration, rather than an uprising.”

Moreover, the pressure is largely concentrated in Jerusalem, and hasn’t yet spread to Gaza or the West Bank. “One of the reasons it’s getting out of hand is precisely because there’s no Palestinian Authority there to keep a lid on it,” [Matt] Duss writes. In his view, it’s easier for Palestinian security forces to contain popular outrage than for their Israeli counterparts to do the same. The PA stands “between the people and the occupation” in the West Bank, but not in Jerusalem.

But Keating doubts another genuine intifada is afoot, for a number of reasons:

The Palestinian leadership isn’t as united and the populace is less well armed than in 2000. Other Arab governments, distracted by a myriad of other crises, aren’t as focused on the Palestinian issue as they used to be. (Though the al-Aqsa closure is likely to irritate the government of Jordan, the official custodian of Jerusalem’s Muslim holy sites, which has been coming under increasing pressure over its relations with Israel.) There has also not been much enthusiasm among Palestinian leaders for another intifada given that the violence of the previous two didn’t do much to advance the cause.

Another big difference is that Abbas is president today, not Yasser Arafat. The Palestinian foreign minister has gone on record saying, “as long as [Abbas] is in charge, there will be no third Intifada.”

The unrest also comes at a moment when Israel is increasingly isolated on the world stage, facing a chill in its relationship with the US (e.g. chickenshitgate). Sweden’s decision to recognize a Palestinian state on Thursday has not gone over well in Jerusalem either. “Yet none of this,” Gregg Carlstrom laments, “has prompted new thinking”:

Netanyahu has nothing to offer the residents of Jerusalem beyond throwing an additional 1,000 police at the problem; Abbas is encouraging unrest that he has no means to control; and Hamas, keen to discuss anything other than the disastrous conditions in Gaza, held a rally in the strip earlier this month urging Jerusalemites to follow its “successful example” and revolt. All three parties are still acting as if the status quo of the past seven years remains intact. “It’s a deadlock everywhere,” said Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a Gaza-based political analyst. “Nobody is serious, not Hamas, not Fatah, not the Israelis. And it is making people more and more pessimistic … it’s an unsustainable situation.”