Jerusalem riots 248.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
It seemed as though the calm before a storm had descended on the capital's Muslim Quarter on Thursday afternoon, as shopkeepers peered wearily at passing police patrols while hawking their wares to tourists, and the streets and alleyways grew eerily quiet by dusk.
While Thursday passed without any of the violence that had flared-up daily this week in the east Jerusalem neighborhoods bordering the Old City, both police and young Muslim men said they were readying themselves for Friday's noontime prayer at al-Aksa Mosque - which traditionally draws the largest crowds of the week - and focusing on it as the next likely flash-point.
"We're going to throw everything we can find," said one young Arab man in the Old City who was reluctant to give his name. "Rocks, stones, whatever we can find. I'm telling you, dirbalak [watch out], be careful if you come around here tomorrow, because if they see a Jew, it could be dangerous."
Asked why tensions had boiled so high in recent days, the young man said the answer was simple - the rumors that have been flying around al-Aksa Mosque, predicting anything from an impending Israeli invasion to plans by "extremist Jewish elements" to begin building a synagogue nearby.
"The Jews have the Kotel and we have al-Aksa, and that's the way it should stay," the young man said. "Why do the Jews insist on coming up there? We don't try to go to the Kotel."
But others brushed off the current tensions as "just another plan by governments to stir the people up," as one Old City shopkeeper, Fathy, told The Jerusalem Post. He did concur, however, that Friday prayers would not go by quietly.
"Tomorrow there will probably some violence," he said, as he sat outside his shop on al-Wad Road, which winds along a number of entrances to the Temple Mount before hitting a security checkpoint leading to the Kotel.
"But the trouble won't be here," Fathy said, pointing to one of the alleyways that lead to al-Aksa. "Tomorrow this will be a city full of police and empty of prayers. Police will have the whole area closed off, and if there are 3,000 worshipers, there will be 15,000 police officers. The trouble will start outside [the Old City], in Wadi Joz, in Ras al-Amud, because that's where the young people are, and that's where the anger is."
Fathy dismissed the idea that the current unrest would lead to a larger uprising, or third intifada, as some Fatah officials and Palestinian clerics have said. "And the Fatah men who say so are just trying to stir the people up, to make them forget about Goldstone," he added, referring to the Palestinian Authority's recent decision to delay a UN Human Rights Council discussion of the report, which labeled the IDF guilty of war crimes during the Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip in January.
"The Palestinian people don't even consider the Jews our enemy anymore," Fathy said. "Our enemies are Mahmoud Abbas and his cronies."
Also on Thursday, UN Special Coordinator Robert Serry visited the Temple Mount, at the behest of the Wakf Islamic trust, and issued a statement calling on all sides to take steps toward calming the situation.
"Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has been very concerned at the recent clashes in Jerusalem, and I have been in contact with all sides in an effort to defuse tensions," Serry's statement read. "This holy city is important to both Israelis and Palestinians, and to people of three great faiths. Incitement from any quarter regarding holy sites, as well as provocative actions in east Jerusalem, do not serve the sanctity of the city or the cause of peace, and must stop."
Police were mostly mum regarding their plans to secure the area on Friday, but former Jerusalem police chief Cmdr. (ret.) Mickey Levy told the Post that security personnel would likely deploy in large numbers in and around the Temple Mount.
"Nobody knows exactly what's going to happen tomorrow, but I believe the Temple Mount will be quiet," Levy said. "And that's the most important part - to keep order on the mount. We had a lot of experience with this when I was commander, and keeping young men out of the compound, while it does cause some anger, is the most effective way to make sure the mount stays calm, because the older men are much less likely to become violent."
Men under 50 have been barred from entering the mount this week. Once young Muslim men were on the Temple Mount, Levy said, it was much more difficult to diffuse volatile situations.
"Outside of the Old City, however, I think there will be some rioting, including rock-throwing and even firebombs," he said. "The fact that many young Muslims will be arriving at the Temple Mount and will be turned away by police will add to this, but police are prepared for such a scenario."
However, Levy said, even if riots were to break out in the Arab neighborhoods surrounding the Old City, the violence would likely wane after a few hours.
"Palestinians in Jerusalem are not interested in a prolonged conflict," he said. "They are more interested in going about their daily lives and making a living."
"But the best way to deal with these situations is overwhelming force," Levy said. "Officers everywhere, helicopters in the air. Once you establish that police have been deployed in large numbers and have command of the situation, it dissuades many people from starting problems. This way, you can stop the riots before they even start."