Last Friday evening was Laylat al-Qadar, the last Friday of Ramadan – a night dedicated to special prayers and meditation. As in the last few years, it drew tens of thousands of worshipers to the Temple Mount – to Haram al-Sharif and al-Aksa Mosque.
According to Hisham, the taxi driver who drove me to the Old City the following Sunday morning, there were some 300,000 worshipers there. More official figures estimate 150,000.
“In any case,” says Ami Metav, formerly with the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), Jerusalem region, “we’re talking about an impressive number of people. Despite the tension that arose over the prior few days on the Mount [with Palestinians entrenching themselves in al-Aksa with a supply of stones and fireworks, and one person lightly wounded on June 28], it went on without even the tiniest disturbance, without any need for the police to interfere.”
Tension and friction in Jerusalem are almost a matter of routine, sometimes ending in bloodshed, other times controlled before reaching that stage. But in two particular locations, very different initiatives and activities have produced different results. While the eyes of the world are locked on Jerusalem in general and more precisely on the Temple Mount, nearby Mount Zion – which has just as many points of friction and tension among various religious factions – has managed to remain less chaotic most of the time.
One explanation is the fact that while Mount Zion has long been part of Israel proper, the Temple Mount was recaptured in 1967 during the Six Day War.
Another reason is that despite the tremendous potential for tourism and global interest, Mount Zion has never made it to the front lines of the violence, apart from sporadic incidents perpetrated by hooligans, mostly arson of Christian institutions. Although there is there a Muslim site – the Dajani Cemetery – the other parties involved are Jewish and Christian, with most of the city’s Christian community represented.
There are some obvious reasons why the situation is less explosive on Mount Zion than it is on the Temple Mount, even though both are highly significant sites for more than one religion. A source in the local security forces says that since the Christian sites on Mount Zion are mostly Catholic, it couldn’t be otherwise.
“The fact that they are Catholic sites means they belong to the Vatican. No official representing the State of Israel would want to reach a situation in which the Vatican’s interests would be harmed under our control. That’s out of the question,” he says.
And indeed, despite tough opposition by some Jewish religious, right-wing parties, the conflict between Jewish and Christian interests at King David’s Tomb – whose second story is recognized by Christians as the room in which the Last Supper was served to Jesus and his disciples (the Coenaculum), in a conflict that has reached some peaks over the last two years – nothing there can compare to the extent of the conflict experienced on the Temple Mount over the years.
As for the Greek Orthodox and Armenian sites there, while the former are rather hostile to Israeli sovereignty and the latter express no preference for either side, both avoid as much as possible calling for police intervention in cases of friction with Jewish factions on Mount Zion.
Despite repeated recommendations to do so, there is no official body responsible for keeping order on Mount Zion. For several years now, the Jerusalem Intercultural Center (JICC) there has acted as a sort of non-official volunteer agent between the parties.
“Since we are not officially on duty here,” explains center director Hagai Agmon-Snir, “our efforts to calm the situation in cases of dissent or to offer solutions to local conflicts between the parties operating here are welcome. After all, we are not identified with the authorities but we are neighbors, and we have learned to know each one of the parties.”
THE TEMPLE Mount is a totally different story. Comprising only 300 square meters of the one square kilometer of the entire Old City, the world remains focused on it. For Metav, a coordinator and facilitator for the municipality, the Jerusalem Development Authority and the East Jerusalem Development Company (PAMI), there is no corner or issue that is not familiar to him.
Metav’s daily routine takes place in the narrow streets of the Old City, wherever there is a need to listen, act, offer solutions to residents and, above all, mediate between the Arab residents and the authorities, which they avoid out of fear and lack of knowledge but also an unwillingness to “cooperate” with Israeli authorities. Infrastructure, heavy construction – nothing moves in the Old City without Metav’s being involved or at least notified.
“With regard to the Temple Mount, the situation is so fragile that at any moment things can just explode,” he concedes.
Metav recently published a book on the Old City in which one of the chapters centers on the Temple Mount.
“There is something basic that we have to understand,” he begins. “While for us, Israeli Jews, there is an understanding that protecting our country might also mean going to war and losing loved ones, for the Palestinians, saving al-Aksa or protecting it from any attempt – real or imagined – to fall into foreign hands is a good reason to die or to send one’s children to death.”
Metav adds that this is not a position of judgment but a conclusion he has reached based on facts and thousands of hours of conversations with Palestinians.
“They are incredibly sensitive to any act or step that might be interpreted as an attempt to harm their status on the Mount,” he says.
He is convinced that Jerusalem’s Palestinian sector is largely ripe for what he calls “a process of Israelization,” which he sees as irreversible. “But at the same time, this the best moment for those opposed to this move to try anything they can do to stop it – hence, the very tough reactions that are all converging on the situation on the Temple Mount.”
Metav says that what we’ve seen during last year’s High Holy Days compared to the situation during Passover this past April illustrate exactly what he is describing.
“I am not talking about our rights, but about the situation on the ground. Last Rosh Hashana and Succot, Jews were allowed to visit the Temple Mount; and since it was a holiday period, there were quite a few visitors. As a result, when Arabs arrived for their prayers, the police decided, in order to avoid any friction, to stop them and allow them to enter only a few hours later.
“For them it was clear: Sheikh Raed Salah Abu Shakra [leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, convicted among other things of funding Hamas and of assaulting a police officer] had been telling the truth. This meant al-Aksa was in danger and that the Israeli plan was to impose here what had been imposed in Hebron at the Cave of the Patriarchs – dividing the Mount area.
“This was the sign for many young adults, already incited by the imams, to launch the attacks [that kicked off a wave of Palestinian violence]. The stabbings and deaths began there.”
Asked to explain, if this is the case why police then allowed so many Jewish visitors on the Mount, Metav admits that while the police and security forces’ evaluations and recommendations are always entirely professional, the final decision is in the hands of those with the ultimate authority – the politicians, “who sometimes see a different picture.” This is a situation that does not exist on Mount Zion, where there is less political interest or impact.
“Look at what happened here this past Passover,” Metav points out. “The police didn’t impose any restriction on Arabs visiting the Mount, and as a result it all went as peacefully as possible.”
Metav clarifies that he is not suggesting that Jews should be prevented from visiting the Temple Mount, but that “these things should be done with the utmost sensitivity and caution. There is no other way to say it: It is a terribly explosive location.”
Inside the Old City, near Jaffa Gate, the newly renovated alleys and infrastructure spearheaded by the JDA and PAMI with Metav’s close involvement show what he has in mind when he talks about the need to listen to residents and provide solutions for them. Cleaning the little byways there has a wider impact than in any other place in the city; it simply means there is a possibility for some cooperation with the authorities, not just in obtaining basic services.
But all these aspects of daily life fall away as soon as al-Aksa Mosque is at stake.
“Take the cameras that King Abdullah of Jordan wanted to install on the Mount [in October 2015 for round-the-clock surveillance, in what was said to be an effort to calm tension],” continues Metav. “All the equipment had arrived here, sophisticated cameras; they were planned to be directly linked to a center in Jordan, and the Israel Police was permitted to get all the material filmed. But I was quite sure it would never happen. The worshipers adamantly refused to let anyone install them. I can understand them; it’s a severe breach of their religious privacy. And indeed, there is no indication that the cameras will be installed,” he says.
“So it’s all a matter of fragile equilibrium: Not to allow any riots or violence and, at the same time, to make it clear that there are no plans to change the situation – the famous status quo on the Mount,” concludes Metav.
BACK at Mount Zion, things are operating more on the basis of self-policed properties, with the Jerusalem Intercultural Center working with all groups – at the’ Diaspora Yeshiva and the Chamber of the Holocaust Museum; at Christian institutions such as Dormition Abbey and the Coenaculum in King David’s Tomb; and at Muslim sites such as the Dajani Cemetery.
As the JICC’s Agmon-Snir affirms, citing the example of King David’s Tomb, “Despite all these [potentially] explosive situations, we, all the parties involved, have managed to reach some kind of peaceful cooperation.
“Moreover, last week, for example, Hagihon planned a break in the water supply to the Mount. We, at the center, were the only ones aware of it, so coordinator Merav Horowitz informed all the parties [of all sectors] and forced Hagihon to inform everyone and take them into consideration. That’s how we work here.”