Jerusalem's Old City and the Temple Mount.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Islamist violence and incitement on the Temple Mount plaza over the past months has inspired the recent spate of terrorist attacks in Jerusalem.
This is unsurprising. Traditionally, the battle for the Holy City has been associated in the public mind with the epicenter of the Arab-Israeli conflict. However, intra-Muslim warfare and Islamic State’s destruction of Muslim holy sites across Syria and Iraq have changed the context of the Muslim struggle for control of Jerusalem’s Muslim holy shrines. Islamist incitement against Jordanian custodianship and ongoing attempts by the Palestinian Authority to exercise influence and control threaten the stability of the Temple Mount plaza. They also underscore the importance of deepening Israeli- Jordanian cooperation and bolstering the delicate status quo in Jerusalem that has defied the ruthless Islamist campaign to destroy holy sites across the Middle East region.
Competition between Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and Salafist groups provides context in the bloody intra-Muslim fight across the Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood’s focus on recovering Jerusalem and all other “Muslim lands” versus Saudi Arabia’s fear of losing religious and political primacy to the Muslim Brotherhood groups has resulted in growing tensions over influence over and control of the Aksa Mosque compound. The Saudis’ political rejection of MB power projection in Jerusalem and the Saudi and Gulf states’ rejection of PA (Fatah) insistence that the Arab League recognize Palestinian demands in Jerusalem, including a past resolution to donate $500 million to Palestinian coffers, keep tensions simmering.
The Brotherhood’s 100-year-old political warfare campaign, branded as “Al Aksa is in danger” referring to Jerusalem’s Al Aksa Mosque, is a good example of its attempt to unite the Arab revolutions across the Middle East under the Al Aksa banner.
Middle East observers may remember that over nearly 100 years MB leaders and ideological supporters such as Haj Amin al-Husseini, and over the past several decades the MB-affiliated Northern Islamic Movement under Sheikh Raid Salah mobilized tens of thousands of Palestinians to flood the Temple Mount compound and “Protect Al Aksa from the Jews,” sparking the second intifada. However, Muslim clerics and supporters from the Salafist-affiliated Hizb ut-Tahrir (Islamic Liberation Party) have also clashed with other Muslim groups, including Wakf administration officials, further destabilizing the Temple Mount Plaza.
While Islam expert Harold Rhode has pointed out that Muslim cleric Ibn Taymiyya, the ideological and historical grandfather of Wahhabist Islam, rejected Jerusalem’s significance for Muslims, at least one Salafist affiliate has targeted Jerusalem’s Muslim shrines.
Journalist Khaled Abu Toameh reminds us in a recent Gatestone Institute brief that only weeks ago, “a mob” of Arab men belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir humiliated and expelled Sheikh Ahmed Helayel, the chief Islamic judge of Jordan, who had led a Jordanian delegation to worship at the Aksa Mosque.
Violent actions by Hamas, Hizb ut-Tahrir and others have long served as a revolutionary rallying cry undermining Jordanian and Israeli attempts to maintain Jerusalem’s delicate yet secure status quo.
Former PLO chairman Yasser Arafat ignited Jerusalem in the 1990s when he dispatched Palestinian agents to the Old City where they engaged in a decade of murder, kidnapping and extortion of Jerusalem’s Arab residents and fomented unrest on the Temple Mount Plaza. His subversive actions in Jerusalem that culminated in the second intifada forced Jerusalem police to retake control of the plaza no fewer than 13 times between 2000 and 2002 alone. Arab security authorities at the time said some Arab leaders feared Arafat’s exploitation of Al Aksa for his own “revolutionary” designs was intended not only to destroy Israel but also to ignite the Arab and Islamic masses throughout the region to overthrow other dictatorships and monarchies.
More recently, the PA has maneuvered more subtly to attempt to increase its influence and control. The PA has taken steps recently to flood the Aksa Mosque compound with Muslim tourists which has sparked tensions with Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb ut-Tahrir activists as an act of “normalization.” The PA is the weak player in the struggle over Jerusalem’s Muslim shrines.
The PA’s minister of religion was nearly lynched by Islamist activists during a recent visit to the plaza.
Ongoing flare-ups over competing Arab and Muslim agitation and restiveness underscore the importance of Israeli’s security role and close cooperation with the Hashemite Kingdom to maintain calm and stability on he Temple Mount Plaza. Jordan’s King Abdullah II, believed to be the 43rd generation of direct descendants of the Prophet Mohammed, is determined to fulfill his historic role as the custodian of the Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem. This was a key point of agreement between former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Abdullah’s father king Hussein, enshrined in the 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan.
The Jordanians have said that only the Hashemites and no other Arab or Muslim group, including the Palestinians, will exercise power or control over Al Aksa or the other Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem.
Israel’s security role as the sovereign power is essential.
But maintaining the delicate half-century status quo requires both sides to exercise wisdom, sensitivity and restraint, particularly to confront current security challenges. This means that Israel may have to restrain its full exercise of sovereign rights regarding group worship on the mount while the Jordanians must cooperate fully to allow the Jewish people to visit the ancient holy site freely and without condition, while respecting the Muslim Holy shrines. Only Israeli security measures together with active and mutually respectful Israeli-Jordanian cooperation can prevent the destruction that IS and other radical Islamic groups are raining upon Muslim shrines and other holy sites throughout the Middle East.The author is the project director, Political Warfare, and a Fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is author of the JCPA’s 2015 book, Unmasking BDS: Radical Roots, Extremist Ends.