Nine years ago, after Ariel Sharon, then a candidate for prime minister, decided to visit the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, violent demonstrations erupted. The civil unrest spread to the West Bank, with Palestinians citing the visit to justify an unprecedented wave of violence that quickly became known as the second intifada.
In 2007, the Jerusalem Municipality and Israel Antiquities Authority began rebuilding the Mughrabi Gate, one of the main entrances to the Temple Mount, perched next to the Western Wall. While violence was minimal, the renovation work - which was immediately suspended - drew international condemnation and a Muslim outcry.
This week, violence again broke out on the Temple Mount. The difference was that in this case, there was no purported Israeli "instigation" - no Sharon visit or renovations at the Mughrabi Gate. Instead, this time around, the violence was believed to be the result of a politically motivated campaign launched by Sheikh Raed Salah, head of the Islamic Movement's northern branch.
The security establishment believes that Salah is the main inciter behind the violence in Jerusalem. Israeli assessments perceive his motives to be twofold: He wants to posit himself as the leader of the entire Islamic Movement in Israel, and he is hoping that the publicity he created for himself this week will get Arab countries to open their pockets and donate to his organization.
The wave of violence did not come as a surprise to the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), which is responsible for tracking radical elements in the Palestinian Authority and among Israeli Arabs. Several months ago, the agency warned the government that Salah and the Islamic Movement were planning to use Jewish visits to the Temple Mount to spark a fresh round of violence and increase tensions between Israel and the PA.
Salah is well known to Israeli intelligence agencies. In 2003, he was arrested on suspicion of raising millions of dollars for Hamas. He was released two years later in a deal that barred him from traveling abroad and required him to check in with a parole officer on a monthly basis.
In 2007 - two years after his release - Salah and the Islamic Movement in Umm el-Fahm launched the "Al-Aksa in Danger" campaign. Designed to fill the absence of a controversial trigger like Sharon's visit or the Mughrabi renovations, the campaign has garnered support by protesting routine visits by Jews - visits which do not include prayer - to the Mount.
The fear in the IDF is that the violence around Jerusalem will spread to other parts of Israel and the West Bank, particularly in light of Hamas's attempts to escalate the situation with vehement rhetoric out of Gaza.
The Shin Bet has already noted a slight increase in terror attacks in the West Bank and Jerusalem during September, While the IDF and Shin Bet are reluctant to attribute the increase in incidents to a new popular uprising, continued Temple Mount violence could set things off.
The IDF Central Command has already drawn up plans in the event that the disturbances spread into Palestinian towns and cities, and defense officials said this week that the "real test" would be Friday morning at Muslim prayers on the Temple Mount.
"It depends a lot on what happens Friday," one official said. "If people are injured on Friday then the violence may escalate, but if things are quiet, then the violence may subside."
THE VIOLENCE in Jerusalem, defense officials stressed, was part of a larger political battle being fought between Fatah and Hamas over control of east Jerusalem neighborhoods in the event of a final peace agreement with Israel. While Hamas is forbidden to maintain a presence in Jerusalem, Salah and the Islamic Movement, the Shin Bet believes, have been serving as the terror group's front in the capital.
In 2007, the Shin Bet announced that it had foiled a Hamas attempt to take control of the Temple Mount. A year-long investigation by the agency uncovered Hamas efforts to dominate religious institutions on the site and to recruit Arabs in east Jerusalem.
Hamas, the investigation revealed, had invested millions of shekels in Jerusalem charities and religious institutions, as well as in construction on the Temple Mount, in an effort to bolster its presence and standing in the capital. One example was a large donation the Islamic group made to enlarge a library and several prayer halls in Solomon's Stables, as well as for the renovation of a public restroom on the holy site.
The Hamas activities on the Mount were coordinated with the Islamic Movement and included organizing events during Ramadan such as large-scale post-fast meals, with the purpose of recruiting support for Hamas and giving the organization a foothold on the site.
Hamas's attempts to gain that foothold have not been ignored by the PA, which views the situation as a battle over control of the future capital of an independent Palestinian state, if and when one is established.
But the PA has also had a hand in stoking the violence this past week. At a cabinet meeting on Monday, the PA government condemned what it called attempts by "radical Israeli settlers" to enter al-Aksa Mosque to hold prayer services. That same day, PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad convened a meeting with a group of foreign ambassadors and described the clashes as a "religious settler offensive on the Temple Mount."
Several months ago, Fayad appointed himself PA minister for Jerusalem affairs in place of the outgoing minister, who quit in protest of PA policy that he said was ignoring Jerusalem. At the time, Israel interpreted the move as Fayad's way of signaling just how important Jerusalem was for the Palestinian cause and the role it would play in a future state.
In one of his first moves in the position, Fayad announced that he was allocating NIS 50 million to bolster the PA's presence in Jerusalem by sponsoring cultural, religious and social activities in the city.
PA security personnel also operate inside the city in civilian clothes, and according to one well-informed observer, they have set up a small police force in the city alongside the Jerusalem Police. In some known cases, the IDF arrested some of the PA policemen who were operating illegally in Jerusalem.
By most assessments, the odds of the Jerusalem violence spreading and turning into a third intifada are slim. A combination of almost-daily IDF operations in the West Bank, the construction of the security barrier and the deployment in several West Bank cities of US-trained Palestinian battalions make it very difficult for Hamas or Islamic Jihad to lift their heads above the ground.
But that doesn't mean that they won't try.
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