Jerusalem tensions put Palestinian-Israeli issue under spotlight
London - Tensions between Palestinians and Israel over new — now cancelled — security measures at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque compound have shed light on the sensitive nature of control over the site.
Palestinian worshippers resumed prayers in al-Aqsa after Israel removed metal detectors and surveillance cameras, ending a boycott of prayers in the compound. For nearly two weeks, worshippers conducted prayers in the streets of East Jerusalem, amid mass protests and clashes with Israeli security forces.
Israel said the newly implemented measures were in response to the killing of two Israeli police officers on July 14 by three Palestinian assailants who allegedly smuggled weapons into the compound and attacked before being shot dead. Palestinians said the Israeli move is another attempt to consolidate control of the site, which is considered holy to both Muslims and Jews.
Israel began occupying East Jerusalem in 1967 and has declared the city as its undivided and eternal capital, a move rejected by international law. The United Nations views East Jerusalem as occupied territory and has said its fate should be decided in a peace settlement between Palestinians and Israel. Palestinians see East Jerusalem as the capital of their future independent state.
At the height of the tensions, Israeli forces killed six Palestinians and a Palestinian man killed three Israelis in the occupied West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called for the death penalty for the Palestinian, who was captured after the attack in Halamish settlement.
In neighbouring Jordan, King Abdullah II called on Netanyahu to ensure that an Israeli security guard who killed two Jordanians at the Israeli Embassy in Amman faces trial. Israel said the guard was protected by diplomatic immunity and acted in self-defence after a 16-year-old Jordanian attacked him with a screwdriver.
Palestinians inside East Jerusalem, who have long complained of Israeli discrimination, celebrated what they viewed as a victory after Israel backed down on its plans to enforce new security measures.
“Israel’s removal of its new security measures at al-Aqsa Mosque can be considered as a small victory for the Palestinians of occupied East Jerusalem,” said Iyad Barakat, a Palestinian writer in London. “It’s a win that shouldn’t be undermined. Of course, it’s far from the end of Israeli occupation but it remains a step in the right direction. It gives Palestinians hope.”
Clashes and protests, however, continued after Israel announced it would ban men under the age of 50 from Friday prayers at al-Aqsa Mosque and sent extra police to the site. Thousands of Palestinians massed for prayers inside and outside al-Aqsa Mosque. The compound area was largely calm following Friday prayers July 28 but clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli forces occurred in several areas in the occupied West Bank.
Inside Israel, Netanyahu was criticised over the lack of clarity in his decision-making and for giving in to right-wing pressure.
“Given his responsible conduct in the first hours following the attack, it’s puzzling how 24 hours later he committed such a grave error in the rushed decision last Saturday to install metal detectors at all the entrances to the compound,” wrote Barak Ravid in Haaretz. “After 24 hours in which he seemingly prevented an escalation, that decision reversed the trend and greatly exacerbated tensions, leading to the explosion which erupted over the weekend.”
Netanyahu’s backtracking was also denounced by right-wing members of his coalition government. “Every time the state of Israel folds in a strategic way we get hit with an intifada,” Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party, told Israel’s Army Radio.
Netanyahu’s call for the execution of the Palestinian attacker who killed three Israelis in the West Bank was viewed as an attempt to fend off criticism of weakness. The death penalty has been carried out only twice in Israel’s history, the last time in 1962.
The Israeli prime minister, however, is facing regional and international pressure, including from some allies, as his policies on Jerusalem inflamed public opinion in the region. The high level of sensitivity surrounding the holy sites prompted Israel’s foes and friends to distance themselves from Netanyahu’s new security measures.
UN Middle East envoy Nikolay Mladenov warned that the crisis risked “dragging both sides into the vortex of violence with the rest of the region.”
Turkey, which has diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv, accused Israel of “harming Jerusalem’s Islamic character.” Jordan, which has a peace treaty with Israel and is the official custodian of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, has been vocal in urging an end to Israel’s security measures on the al-Aqsa compound.
Saudi Arabia, which is among the Arab countries that Israel wants to normalise ties with, “stressed the need for the return of calm.” Its state news agency, SPA, reported that King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud contacted the US government to persuade Israel to reverse its decision on the mosque.
Under immense public pressure, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas suspended security coordination with Israel until tensions over al-Aqsa Mosque relent. The episode has put the Palestinian-Israeli conflict back under the spotlight, highlighting the need to find a peaceful resolution.