Analysis: The campaign to exploit Jerusalem terror and fan new round of violence

Is a campaign being waged by some Palestinian politicians and local activists to encourage protests that could result in more dangerous clashes?

July 18, 2017 11:35
4 minute read.
A Palestinian argues with an Israeli border police officer during scuffles that erupted after Palest

A Palestinian argues with an Israeli border police officer during scuffles that erupted after Palestinians held prayers just outside Jerusalem's Old City in protest over the installation of metal detectors placed at an entrance to the Temple Mount, July 17, 2017. . (photo credit: REUTERS)

There have been protests in Jerusalem every day since the terrorist attack on Friday next to the Lions’ Gate entrance to the Old City. On Sunday and Monday night Muslims gathered near the nearby entrance to the Temple Mount and prayed. They continued a low level protest through midnight. The police, who had been on high alert securing the Old City since Friday’s attack, kept violence from breaking out.

On Monday clashes erupted in the Silwan neighborhood and near Lions’ Gate where three people were wounded. Palestinian media claimed that Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and of the PLO Central Council, was among those hit by rubber bullets.

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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.

The fact that the three men who carried out the terrorist attack on Friday were citizens of Israel was unusual and initially prevented the Palestinian political leadership from jumping on the bandwagon to describe them as martyrs or heroes. They weren’t members of a Palestinian faction in the West Bank. In fact Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas sought to sooth tensions.

But over the weekend when Israel kept the Temple Mount and access to al-Aksa Mosque closed, the religious leaders in Jerusalem, led by the Wakf Islamic trust, began to press the issue. On Sunday police installed metal detectors at the entrances to the Temple Mount.

“People will try entering in every possible way without going through the electronic devices,” Barghouti said earlier in the day Monday. His was only one of many statements claiming the metal detectors were “humiliating” and asserting that a campaign of mass public prayer would be held until they were removed. Latching on to the issue of the security is largely an attempt to create a “conspiracy” against al-Aksa where none exists, in order to fan flames and encourage young Muslim men in Jerusalem and the West Bank that they must “defend al-Aksa” or “save al-Aksa.” This is a refrain that has been heard before going back to the 1920s and it has always been used to affect to create violence when there are tensions.

Palestinians who visit Jerusalem already pass through security on the way to the Temple Mount. Those who come from the West Bank already pass through metal detectors at the checkpoints. Jewish worshipers who go to the Kotel go through detectors. Muslims on Hajj to Saudi Arabia pass through security and metal detectors on the way, either at airports or in other modes of travel. So the issue is not really security. The Temple Mount always has Israeli police at its various gates.

The protest is designed to stoke tensions after a tragic terrorist attack on Friday.

Instead of lowering the flames and allowing police to investigate the crime scene and open the area again, as happens in every city in the world, and would happen at any holy site where there was a murder, Palestinian local activists, especially centered in Jerusalem, have sought to exploit the terrorist attack in a combustible city and could create a new round of violence.

These kinds of cycles of riot and repression are well known in Jerusalem. They exist throughout the year as low-level weekly protests percolate up in neighborhoods like Silwan or Jebl Mukaber or Isawiya or elsewhere.

Over the past 10 years there have been serious riots in Israel’s capital and dozens of stabbing attacks. These grow out of smaller events that become symbols around which protests gather.

Former Hamas leader Khalid Mashaal said that the “Israeli occupation exploits the recent developments to Judaize al-Aksa,” and his statement was tweeted in English by Hamas. Now youth are rioting in Isawiya and in Abu Dis.

The problem for Hamas and Fatah and other Palestinian movements is they don’t have deep roots in Jerusalem where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians live. Yet voices and local leaders want to use the terrorist attack to create a robust movement, based on religious anger. This attempts to bridge the gap between Arabs in Israel, Jerusalem residents, and the West Bank and Gaza. In essence this is the Greater-Palestinian movement that some activists want to see, and al-Aksa unites it. The symbol of the Dome of the Rock can be found in all these places, even on new mosques in the Negev built to resemble the Jerusalem landmarks.

Video also surfaced online Monday of Palestinian businessman Munib al-Masri visiting Jerusalem and being accosted by Muslim youth as some shouted “Allahu akbar.” This represents a deep challenge to authority and traditional leaders. It is a symbol of the leaderless but dangerous violence that can erupt in Jerusalem. Instead of trying to reduce this rudderless violence, there is an attempt to push it forward over the issue of the metal detectors. Those encouraging it through social media and religious circles hope to get Muslim countries, such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia to pressure Israel. If youth are harmed in violence, those encouraging it emerge as heroes, accompanying young men to hospital or worse.

Looking at this through the dangerous prism of how it has been choreographed and exploited, whether violence increases or does not, teaches an important lesson for the future, for Israel and Palestinian political leaders and for security forces in Jerusalem.

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