Two weeks in July: Jerusalem tensions, Israel and the Palestinians

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

ON FRIDAY July 14th I awoke, hungover and tired, with news that there had been a terror attack in the Old City. It had all the marks of an important attack, the kind that leads to clashes and disputes and a crises. Initial reports said it happened near the Temple Mount and there were casualties among the police. Video online showed several of the perpetrators being shot on the Temple Mount while struggling with police. These are the kinds of images that lead to immediate tensions because of the holy site. Israel police closed off the Old City on July 14 and installed metal detectors.

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One of the gates to the Temple Mount closed (July 14)

I went to Damascus Gate as fast as I could by train to see what was happening. I walked into the Old City, and through Lion’s Gate where there was a press conference, and then back to Salah a-Din Street where mass prayer protests had begun.

My first article ‘Closures around Old City aim to ease tensions (July 14, The Jerusalem Post),’ tried to capture the scene and the methods used by the police to control potential violence from escalating. “This is the kind of terrorist incident Israel and especially the Jerusalem area always fears will be the spark that ignites mass riots and a cycle of violence that leads to more conflict,” I wrote. I noted the number of terror attacks in the past three years in the Old City. “After Friday’s attack the police were quick to cordon off the entire Old City with checkpoints that prevented access to worshipers and tourists alike. At Damascus Gate they extended the cordon to the nearby streets so that by noon the Muslims who came to pray ended up doing so in streets several hundred meters from the Old City.”

My second article looked (‘The campaign to exploit’ The Jerusalem Post July 17) at the attempt by Palestinians to exploit the attacks and use it for political gain. “Each step of the way the demonstrations against security measures in Jerusalem seem to have been choreographed in a campaign led by local Palestinian religious leaders and activists. Those pushing the protests have chosen Lions’ Gate as their center of activism because that is where the attack took place. Damascus Gate, where most Muslim worshipers usually enter the Old City for Friday prayers, has not been a center of protest, although that could change,” I wrote. By Sunday the Wakf had told worshippers not to return to pray unless the metal detectors were removed. Israel also closed many of the gates to the Temple Mount. A center of protest began around Lion’s Gate and the Gate of the Tribes to the Temple Mount.

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Israel police patrol the Old City July 19 (Seth J. Frantzman)

On July 19th I also wrote about Arabic media (‘Save al-Aqsa campaign,’ The Jerusalem Post July 19) response to the attack and closures and metal detectors. The narrative of Israel or Jews “defiling” the Temple Mount and the need to “save Al-Aqsa.” Some sites tried to “show there are disputes within Israel. It claims Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is consulting advisers about removing the metal detectors.”

I also looked at how other countries (‘From Mecca to Rome,’ The Jerusalem Post July 19) protect holy sites and whether metal detectors are normal or usual. In fact many countries do use upgraded security. “What unites the use of layers of security from Jerusalem to the Vatican and Mecca is the threat from terrorism, specifically Islamist extremist terrorism that has targeted shrines and pilgrims from India to Europe. In the last decade security has increased dramatically, including metal detectors but mostly in the use of cameras and deployment of armed soldiers and police. This is often to protect the worshipers or the site from attack. In the case of the Temple Mount the Wakf argues that it doesn’t want the security, unlike other holy sites or festivals that have sought security for protection.”

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Medical volunteers wait next to the police cordon at Lion’s Gate July 20 (Seth J. Frantzman)

I began keeping a timeline that we updated throughout the crises.

After visiting the Old City on July 21st and spending time with the worshippers I wrote about ‘Mass protests care out unique civil disobedience,’ examining the preachers and how the prayer protest is a unique aspect of this campaign. “The combination of protests and mass prayer that have come to the precipice of rioting every night for a week since the terrorist attack on July 14, and orchestrated attempts to keep violence from spilling over have become hallmarks of a unique civil disobedience in response to the addition of metal detectors at gates to the Temple Mount and compound around al-Aksa Mosque,” I wrote.

On July 23 my column was devoted to looking at how Israel has bungled the strategic thinking necessary for dealing with a religious conflict over the Temple Mount. It was playing backgammon, not chess. I also examined how Turkey had waded into the dispute, condemning Israel. After an Israeli security guard was stabbed in Amman and two men killed in the struggle, I looked at diplomatic crises in the past between Israel and Arab states.

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Muslim women in the Old City on July 21 (Seth J. Frantzman)

But what about Israel’s secret allies in the Middle East, the attempt over the years to find common cause with the Gulf and Saudi Arabia? Was this at risk in the crises? How long would Saudi remain silent? On July 25 I wrote an analysis of this topic ‘Did Netanyahu forget secret regional allies (The Jerusalem Post, July 25).’ The piece noted: “Israel police may be correct that from a security point of view, they are logical. But from a larger strategic point of view, thinking in terms of the regional architecture, the known tensions that result may eventually harm Israel’s relations. Netanyahu cannot at one and the same time claim to be opening up a regional alliance against Iran and extremism, and at the same time, play the narrow game in Jerusalem of being tactically right but strategically wrong.”

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A boy readies water to sprinkle on worshippers on July 26 (Seth J. Frantzman)

On Wednesday July 26, even with the metal detectors removed, the Palestinian prayer campaign continued (‘Temple Mount Boycott continues,’ The Jerusalem Post, July 26). They demanded removal of security cameras and other changes to the “status quo.” With it all wrapping up on July 27th, even though 100 were injured in clashes as Palestinians returned to Al-Aqsa, I wrote a column looking back. “The sense is that Israel, which is very powerful militarily, was defeated by mass civil disobedience. That may lead to victory celebrations by our enemies in the near term, and it could lead to more combustible situations later. It could also lead to a belief that civil disobedience can get Israel to change its policies. It doesn’t seem that it has led to any kind of peace or dialogue,” the column noted. This was a rudderless, leaderless explosion of spontaneous religious prayer-protest. Hizb ut-Tahrir played as much of a role as the Wakf and the Palestinian leadership. This is the reason I recently reviewed a new biography of Mahmud Abbas and called him the “Hamlet of the Palestinians.” The unity in religious and national anger over violations to the Temple Mount shows how devoid the street is of leaders. Chants even condemned Abbas and the King of Jordan.

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Men gather for prayers on Friday July 28th (Seth J. Frantzman)

With the close of two weeks, a third intifada did not emerge. Israel closed the Old City to men under 50 on July 28th and hundreds gathered outside. Clashes ensued in parts of East Jerusalem. However a synagogue was attacked in Turkey and the killings in Jordan leave Israel without diplomats in Amman. The question is if something was learned by either side.

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