05.05.2022 Author: Viktor Mikhin

Tensions Flare in the Palestinian-Israeli Relations


The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has reaffirmed its commitment and support for the rights of the Palestinian people to sovereignty over their occupied land. The OIC member states held an extraordinary meeting in Jeddah on April 25 and called for coordinated efforts to protect Quds (Jerusalem) and its holy sites from “crimes committed by the Israeli military.” The OIC member states stressed that the Holy Quds and the Al-Aqsa Mosque are a red line for the Islamic Ummah and without liberating it from the “occupation of the Zionist Israeli regime” security and stability in the region will not be achieved.  The Israeli military aggression against the Palestinian people and the illegal actions of the “Zionist regime in the city with the aim of taking full control over it and trying to change the historical and legal situation in Quds and the Al-Aqsa Mosque” were condemned. In the statement, the OIC member states said that the “Zionist regime of Israel” should be held accountable for any consequences of the aggression and illegal actions of the occupiers in Quds, including the attempt to divide the Al-Aqsa Mosque, demanded an immediate end to the dangerous and illegal actions.

Since April 15, the Israeli army and police have been carrying out brutal daily raids on al-Haram al-Sharif (Al-Aqsa Mosque) in East Jerusalem. Under the pretext of providing protection against provocative “visits” by thousands of illegal Jewish settlers and right-wing fanatics, the Israeli army injured hundreds of Palestinians, including journalists, and arrested hundreds more. Palestinians understand that the ongoing attacks on the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound have a deeper political and strategic meaning for Israel than previous raids. The mosque has taken on added significance in recent years, especially after the Palestinian uprising of last May, mass protests, clashes and the Israeli war in Gaza, which the Palestinians tellingly refer to as Operation Saif Al-Quds (Sword of Jerusalem).

When Israeli security forces used combat drones to drop tear gas on tens of thousands of Muslim worshippers in al-Haram al-Sharif, it was “yet another sign of the Israeli government’s failed policies,” noted Egypt’s Al-Ahram. The use of drones to control the huge crowds on the third Friday of Ramadan has even been criticized by the Israeli media. By targeting what Israel called “provocateurs,” Israeli security forces demonstrated a racist policy against all things Palestinian and Muslim, the media claimed.

But the use of drones shows a much bigger problem. When dealing with large crowds of protesters, a two-tiered approach is usually used. One should stay away from any confrontations that might further exacerbate the situation, and at the same time try to find ways to communicate or solve the problems that the protesters are trying to raise with their actions.  However, such an approach does not seem to exist in the Israeli narrative when it comes to al-Haram al-Sharif. The compound, which occupies about 35 acres in the Old City of Jerusalem, has been a Muslim shrine for more than 1,200 years (excluding the 88-year period of Crusader rule). Every authority that ruled Jerusalem respected the Islamic shrine and allowed Muslims to offer their prayers. No one has ever questioned this issue.  During the Ottoman period, which lasted 400 years, Sultan Ottoman III regulated relations with the nine shared holy sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem through the designation of a status quo pact. This agreement, which was reached because of the conflict over the Church of the Holy Sepulchre between the Orthodox and the Franciscans, has been a reference point for the holy sites since it was adopted in 1757. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the agreement was respected under the British mandate by the Jordanians and even during the early years of the Israeli occupation.  However, the shift in Israeli policy to the right and the failure of the Oslo Accords to provide clear representation for the 350,000 Palestinians of Jerusalem left a gap that was abused by Israel. Instead of talking peacefully and resolving contentious issues with the Palestinians, the Israelis have resorted to a scorched earth policy against the Palestinian population. Any action or event that had a hint of connection with the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah was banned. Even a children’s puppet festival, funded by Scandinavians through the Palestinian Ministry of Culture, has been outlawed.

It should be recalled that historically al-Haram al-Sharif, the noble sanctuary, has always been at the center of popular struggle in Palestine, as well as a major issue in Israeli politics. The sanctuary, located in the Old City, is considered one of the holiest places in Islam, as it is mentioned in the Holy Quran and hadiths – sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. The compound contains several historic mosques, including Al-Aqsa, and 17 gates, as well as other important Islamic sites. For the Palestinians, Al-Aqsa has grown in importance because of the Israeli occupation, which has attacked Palestinian mosques, churches and other holy sites over the years. For example, during the 2014 Israeli war in the besieged Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs reported that 203 mosques were damaged by Israeli bombs and 73 were completely destroyed.

Therefore, Palestinian Muslims as well as Christians consider Al-Aqsa, the sanctuary and other Muslim and Christian sites in Jerusalem, a red line that Israel must not cross. On April 15, the second Friday of Ramadan, the mosque’s famous stained glass windows were smashed and the furniture inside was left broken. Israelis feel increasingly confident behind the protection they receive from the military and influential Israeli politicians. Many of the raids on al-Haram al-Sharif are led by far-right Knesset member Itamar Ben-Gvir, Likud politician Glick and former government minister Uri Ariel.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is no doubt using the raids as a way of keeping rebellious far-right and religious voters in check. The sudden resignation of Idit Silman, a member of Yamin’s right-wing party, made Bennett even more desperate in his attempts to breathe life into his rather weak factional coalition. Once the leader of the Yesha Council, an umbrella organization representing residents of illegal settlements in the West Bank, Bennett came to power on a wave of religious fanatics, whether in Israel or the occupied territories. Losing the support of the settlers could cost him his post.

Bennett’s behavior is consistent with that of previous Israeli leaders who escalated the violence in Al-Aqsa to distract from their political problems or to appeal to Israel’s powerful constituency of right-wing and religious extremists. In September 2000, Ariel Sharon raided the compound with thousands of Israeli soldiers, police and sympathizers. He did it to provoke a Palestinian response and overthrow the government of his sworn enemy, Ehud Barak. Sharon succeeded, but at a high cost, as his “visit” unleashed the five-year Second Intifada, also known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada.  In 2017, thousands of Palestinians protested Israel’s attempt to install security cameras at the entrances to the shrine. This measure was also an attempt by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to appease his right-wing supporters. But massive protests in Jerusalem and subsequent Palestinian unity forced Israel to cancel its plans.

This time, however, the Palestinians fear that Israel wants more than just provocation. It plans to “impose a temporal and spatial separation of the Al-Aqsa Mosque,” according to Adnan Ghaith, the Palestinian Authority’s top representative in East Jerusalem. It is this phrase — “temporal and spatial separation” — that many Palestinians use, fearing a repeat of the Ibrahimi Mosque scenario.  After the 1994 murder of 29 worshippers by the Jewish extremist Baruch Goldstein and subsequent deaths at the hands of the Israeli army at the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron, the Israeli authorities divided the mosque. They allocated a large area to Jewish settlers, limiting access to Palestinians, who are only allowed to pray at certain times. This is what the Palestinians mean by temporal and spatial separation, which has been at the heart of Israel’s strategy for many years.

However, Bennett must proceed with caution. Palestinians are more united today in their resistance and awareness of Israel’s plans than ever before. An important component of this unity is the Palestinian citizens of Israel, who are now advocating a political course similar to that of the Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In fact, many of Al-Aqsa’s defenders come from these very communities. If Israel continues its provocations, it risks another Palestinian uprising like the one that began in East Jerusalem last May. Appealing to right-wing voters by attacking, humiliating and provoking Palestinians is no longer an easy task, as it has often been. As the Sword of Jerusalem campaign has shown, the Palestinians are now able to respond in a united manner and, despite their limited means, even put pressure on Israel to change its policies. Mr Bennett, notes Al-Ahram, should bear this in mind before he commits any more violent provocations against the Palestinians, because these are new times and it is high time for the Israeli government to change its policies.

Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

Please select digest to download: