Is Israel transforming the Palestinian issue into religious conflict?

Palestinians stress that their struggle is only political and aims to end Israel’s military occupation and has never been or will be a conflict against Judaism.
Saturday 17/08/2019
Palestinians run for cover from sound grenades fired by Israeli security forces outside the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, August 11. (AFP)
Playing on religion. Palestinians run for cover from sound grenades fired by Israeli security forces outside the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, August 11. (AFP)

This year’s Eid al-Adha feast, the festival of sacrifice, saw the largest Israeli settlers’ attempt to storm al-Aqsa Mosque since 2003. More than 1,500 Jewish settlers gathered in the alleyways leading to the gates of the sacred mosque and were protected by Israeli soldiers.

To counter this, about 100,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites, including those who live in Israel — the Green Line areas of 1948 — as well as residents from the occupied West Bank gathered to protect the shrine, one of Islam’s holiest sites.

Soon after the Eid prayer finished, dozens of Muslims worshippers were injured by rubber bullets and attacks with batons and tear gas while some were arrested when the occupation forces tried to empty the courtyards of the compound of what Israel refers to as the Temple Mount, to allow Jewish settlers to pray at the Islamic site.

The Muslim feast day coincided with the Jewish fasting holiday Tisha B’av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, which Jews say marks the destruction of the two biblical-era temples that once existed in Jerusalem.

However, no trace has been discovered under al-Aqsa Mosque. Endless excavation and historical projects underneath the Islamic site for the past 52 years have not uncovered any trace of the so-called Solomon’s Temple.

The Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, known as Islamic Religious Endowments, issued a fatwa to delay the morning prayer of Eid al-Adha one hour to 7.30am, temporarily closed the mosques surrounding the holy site and postponed the sacrifice of animals to the second day, to assemble as many Muslims as possible to foil the settlers’ attempts to storm the mosque.

The systematic provocations by hundreds of heavily armed settlers and Israeli occupation forces have not stopped since the occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967. Extremist Jewish organisations, known widely as Temple Mount groups, regularly organise massive visits and encourage raids on al-Aqsa. The groups’ goal is to build the Third Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and reinstitute the practice of ritual sacrifice.

Ahmed Saeed al-Tamimi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s executive committee and head of the Human Rights and Civil Society Department, said such provocations will drag the region into violence because of the tensions that pervade the occupied Palestinian territories and continued pressure of the Israeli occupation and settlers.

Israel is fuelling religious factors for conflict. Tensions in Jerusalem have increased in recent years. The Trump administration recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and has given Tel Aviv a free hand to Judaise the city, wipe away its Arab identity, change its demographics through house demolitions, evictions and revoking the residency of its Palestinian residents while making life for Palestinians miserable to force them to leave and abandon their properties.

The site has long been a flashpoint for Israeli-Palestinian violence. Israel controls who enters the site and has attempted many times to change its status to give Jews frequent access to visit and pray at al-Shareef Islamic compound. This is despite having the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, as the main prayer site for followers of the Jewish faith.

The structure forms part of a larger wall that surrounds the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa  Mosque.

Jews and Muslims have frequently disputed control of the wall and, often, access to it.

“It is not possible to impose facts by force or by changing the status quo. Israel has to remember that the second intifada was erupted after Ariel Sharon’s desecration of al-Aqsa Mosque in September 2000,” said Basim Naeem, a member of the international relations office of Hamas.

Director-General of the Jerusalem International Foundation Yasin Hammoud said Palestinian Jerusalemites won the battle of consciousness by defending al-Aqsa and repelling the settler storming attempt.

Light condemnations were expressed, with the Arab parliament stating its rejection of repeated attacks and stressing that storming of al-Aqsa courtyards on the first day of Eid was a provocative act.

“We hold the Israeli government responsible for such attacks and its consequences. We call on the international community to intervene immediately and take legal and humanitarian responsibility to face these repeated Israeli attacks,” said Arab parliament Speaker Masha’al al-Salmi.

Jordan, which has a historical role in administrating al-Aqsa Mosque, also condemned the provocations. It has had custodianship of Jerusalem holy sites, both Muslim and Christian, since 1967. Intermittent violence at the Temple Mount between Israelis and Palestinians evolves into diplomatic disputes between Israel and Jordan. Part of Israel’s aim is to end Jordan’s role and spiritual sovereignty on the sacred sites.

There are several factors that give Israel a free hand to change the status of Jerusalem.

First: the increased pace of normalisation between Israel and some Arab countries on both the official and popular levels.
Second: the weakening of the Palestinian Authority under pressure of US sanctions due to its rejection of US President Donald Trump’s decisions concerning Jerusalem and his so-called peace process.

Third: Trump’s supportive stance towards Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s policies.

Fourth: Israeli politicians and right-wing movements’ use of provocations to serve their election campaigns.

Fifth: the turmoil destabilising the Arab world.

Sixth: the rise of Christian Zionism religious rhetoric, as followers of this trend say the gathering of the Jews in Israel is a prerequisite for the second coming of Jesus and that Christians should actively support a Jewish return to the land of Israel.
Palestinians stress that their struggle is only political and aims to end Israel’s military occupation and has never been or will be a conflict against Judaism.

If support for and solidarity with the Palestinian people continue, it is not because Palestinians are Muslim or Christian but because they have a just cause.

The question is: Does Israel think it has something to gain by transforming the 7-decade old political conflict into a religious confrontation?