Last Friday, the US State Department issued a warning to American citizens, advising them to avoid Jerusalem's Old City for a week because of the large crowds expected to gather in the area during Succot.
"Political and religious tensions are expected to be high in the areas immediately adjacent to al-Aksa Mosque compound throughout this period," the statement read. "A large police presence in the area may provoke spontaneous violence in the form of civil unrest and police actions."
Indeed, over the weekend, conspiracy theories began to gain steam in east Jerusalem that an imminent invasion or "takeover" of the compound by Israeli security forces was afoot, in order to conduct Jewish rituals there or even to begin laying the groundwork for a synagogue on the site.
Police were following the rumors from the start, conducting patrols on the Temple Mount early Sunday morning. After discovering on the site a number of wheelbarrows laden with stones, and after calls issued by east Jerusalem clerics to come and "defend" the Temple Mount were heeded by hundreds of Arabs from east Jerusalem and the North, security officials closed down the entire compound.
Thus began a week fraught with tension and sporadic violence, which, by Thursday, had seen at least 75 arrested in connection with disturbances throughout east Jerusalem.
Unlike in previous popular uprisings, the civil unrest, while unwanted, was far from unexpected. Less than two weeks earlier, rioting had flared up on the Temple Mount during Yom Kippur - then also due to rumors of an imminent Jewish takeover of the holy site. In the days leading up to the twice-yearly Priestly Blessing at the Western Wall, which was set for last Monday, the police hoped for calm, but determined that should violence erupt, they would be prepared.
An influx of security forces was sent to secure the Old City, and the Temple Mount was reopened with a restriction that only men over the age of 50 and women would be permitted to enter. While the age restrictions turned various entrances to the Mount into points of friction throughout the week - mainly when groups of young Muslim men arrived before prayer services and demanded that police let them inside - no violence took place inside the walls of the Old City itself.
The Priestly Blessing went off without a hitch, and throngs of Jewish worshipers and Christian tourists packed the Old City's cobblestone alleyways and stairwells, even throughout the Muslim quarter, all week long. While police were on high alert, their presence alone seemed to be all that was needed.
Outside the Old City it was a different story, mainly in nearby neighborhoods like Ras al-Amud and Wadi Joz, where minor rioting continued sporadically. Stones, bottles and even firebombs were lobbed at security forces in various east Jerusalem neighborhoods, at one point culminating in an attack on a border policeman in the Shuafat refugee camp on Monday, in which the officer was stabbed in the neck.
THROUGHOUT THE week, Arab leaders did little to temper the hostilities, with some exacerbating the situation. On Wednesday, Arab MKs toured the Temple Mount and rehashed some of the very rumors that had set off the violence in the first place.
MK Jamal Zahalka, who heads the Balad party, told reporters on Wednesday that Israel was possibly "planning to build a synagogue" on the Temple Mount, and claimed that while al-Aksa Mosque had stood on the site for 1,400 years, Israeli excavations underneath it could endanger several Old City mosques "in the event of an earthquake."
MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List) echoed Zahalka's comments, calling Israel's presence at the mosque "a foreign, occupational presence." Tibi also warned that "the growing limitations placed on worshipers wishing to enter al-Aksa Mosque," in addition to the "expulsion of Palestinians from their homes, continued settlement construction" and, of course, "the political dead-end," could have dire consequences.
Hatem Abdel Kader, a senior Fatah official and former Palestinian Authority minister for Jerusalem affairs, told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday that those dire consequences could take the form of a "third intifada."
"Israel's decisions so far have been very dangerous," he said. "And if they don't want things to escalate, the Israelis should back away from this issue. If not, we are afraid that the situation could lead to an explosion - it could lead to a third intifada."
Enter Sheikh Raed Salah, the fiery head of the Islamic Movement's northern branch, who had seized on the recent unrest from the beginning to call on Arabs to martyr themselves for the sake of al-Aksa, if necessary.
Salah's incitement landed him in hot water later in the week, as he was arrested in Wadi Joz and banned from entering Jerusalem for 30 days. It was his words, not those of the politicians, that seemed to resonate most with Palestinians on the street.
"Who is Hatem Abdel Kader?" Muhammad Sanduka, a resident of Shuafat who owns a clothing store in the Old City's Arab Quarter, asked sardonically on Wednesday. "The most important point here is al-Aksa, and Raed Salah has been involved with the mosque for many years.
"But there are other problems too," he went on. "There is little work and we have many bills to pay. The police are constantly harassing us, and now, adding on to the tension that has always been there, the restrictions at the mosque could be a real problem."
Still, Sanduka said, "if there is going to be a third intifada, it won't be because some Fatah politicians say so. It will be because the people are fed up with the situation and refuse to allow the Israelis access to al-Aksa Mosque. The problems speak for themselves, and you can feel that."
Sanduka, who said he had been imprisoned during the first intifada for throwing rocks at soldiers, added that Israeli authorities were "very scared" of the prospect of east Jerusalemites engaging in a full-scale uprising, as they hold blue ID cards allowing them to move freely throughout the country.
"They are no longer scared of Gaza or the West Bank," Sanduka said. "Now it's the [east Jerusalem] Arabs from '67 and the [Israeli] Arabs from '48."
Others, however, expressed a desire for calm, not because of a sudden shift that had turned their favor toward Israel, but out of a weary memory of the second intifada, and the gains, or lack thereof, that resulted from it.
"People here are tired," said Raeed, a resident of Wadi Joz who spoke to the Post earlier in the week. "They're tired of violence, and they want to make a living. I think that 90 percent of the people in Wadi Joz would agree with me when I say that it's not worth it to resort to violence. What kind of chance do we stand against an army?"
However, Raeed did say that the pan-Arab armies of the 1960s and '70s would be needed if the Arabs were ever to "retake" Jerusalem.
"But that hasn't been spoken about for 30 years," he said. "The other Arabs have left us alone with Israel, and now we're suffering the consequences. If we have to go it alone, it will only lead to the same failures."
Still, security forces were taking no chances, and have remained on high alert since Sunday. While the violence has ebbed and flowed throughout the week, Friday prayers at al-Aksa were expected to draw large crowds, and it was unclear whether police would lift the age restrictions on worshipers beforehand.
Defense officials said this week that Friday morning prayers at the Temple Mount would be the "real test." If the prayers passed quietly, they concluded, the violence would die out.
If not, however, the US State Department's earlier warning of spontaneous violence and civil unrest may have been a foreshadowing of a potentially explosive future.
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