To the abyss

Inflammatory rhetoric about the Temple Mount spouted by extremists is raising the specter of a religious war.

Gazans in Rafah celebrate the attack on a Jerusalem synagogue, November 18, 2014.‏ (photo credit: REUTERS)
Gazans in Rafah celebrate the attack on a Jerusalem synagogue, November 18, 2014.‏
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A DAY after the savage terror attack that killed five Israelis at a Jerusalem synagogue on November 18, the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee announced that “due to the aggravated security situation” it approved a government decree to temporarily forbid the import of fire crackers, which are used by Palestinian demonstrators in the street battles of Jerusalem against the Israel Police.
Had the circumstances not been so tragic, it might even have been amusing. Trying to douse the flames that have erupted in Jerusalem with a simple, bureaucratic measure is like trying to empty the sea with a spoon.
What is needed are calm heads, conciliatory statements and a sincere effort by all involved parties to contain the fire and prevent the already inflamed Israeli-Palestinian conflict from turning into a religious war between Jews and Muslims with the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif – the noble sanctuary in Arabic) at its core.
The Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) still refuses to define the violent events in Jerusalem, the West Bank and, occasionally, the rest of Israel, which since August has claimed the lives of 10 Israelis, as an uprising, or intifada. It prefers to label them “popular terror.”
Yet, since January 2014, 17 Israelis have been killed by Palestinian terrorists, a figure that is three times more than in 2013 and almost double that of 2012.
The explanation of Shin Bet analysts is that the violence is not orchestrated by any central body, such as the Palestinian Authority or the extremist Islamic groups of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. According to this analysis, the incidents are motivated and carried out by individuals with no organizational affiliation.
But they do have a religious dimension and are energized by the inflammatory rhetoric about the Temple Mount spouted by extremists and zealots on both sides.
Shi n Bet chief Yoram Cohen said as much when addressing the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on November 18, the day of the synagogue attack, much to the annoyance of right- wing politicians.
The barbaric attack against the synagogue is a case in point. The attack was initiated by Rasan Abu Jamal, a Palestinian from Jebel Mukaber, an urbanized dusty and bleak village on the outskirts of Jerusalem, which consecutive Israeli governments and the city fathers have insisted is and should be part and parcel of the eternal capital of the Jewish State.
ABU JAMAL, a 32-year-old father of three, was not a religious person. He rarely prayed or visited a mosque. Occasionally, he even had a sip of alcohol. All he wanted, said his father speaking to journalists, was to make a decent living to support his wife and children. He found a modest job at minimum wage at a grocery shop near the synagogue.
Yet, one day after hearing that Israeli politicians had visited the Temple Mount and reportedly wanted to change the Muslim-Jewish religious status quo on the site, he decided to act. No one told him to do so.
He purchased a gun, equipped himself with a butcher’s knife, recruited his 20-year-old cousin Uday Abu Jamal and, together, they decided to kill Jews during their morning prayer. Both were shot to death by police officers after slaughtering four rabbis. A Druse policeman, wounded in the shootout, later died in the hospital.
The religious turmoil connected to the Temple Mount is rooted in its history. According to Jewish tradition and the Bible, the Mount is identified with the site where God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his son. It was the site of the First and Second Jewish Temples. The latter was destroyed in 70 CE by the Romans after brutally suppressing a Jewish rebellion initiated by zealots.
In the second half of the 7th century, the Muslims conquered Jerusalem and built two mosques – al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock (the Mosque of Omar) with its golden dome. The Mount became the third most sacred site for Sunni Muslims after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
For centuries, Jewish custom forbade religious Jews from entering the site and possibly walking over sacred artifacts.
They were enjoined not to ascend the Mount until the arrival of the messiah and the construction of the Third Temple.
This state of affairs began to shift after the 1967 Six Day War when Israel seized the West Bank, including the Old City of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
While the rabbinical decrees have not changed, right-wing zealots identified with the Jewish settler movement Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) started to develop messianic aspirations. They found compliant rabbis who issued interpretations permitting Jews to visit and pray on the Mount.
Some 30 years ago, the Shin Bet unveiled a plot by a Jewish terrorist underground, originating in the Gush Emunim movement, which plotted to destroy the mosques on the Mount to encourage the coming of the messiah and enable the building of the Third Temple. Its members also planned to turn Israel into a monar - chy modeled on the biblical era.
Nonetheless, the sensitive Jewish- Muslim religious status quo on the Mount has been more or less maintained since 1967. It regulates that Muslims will be allowed uninterruptedly – with some exceptions during very tense periods – to pray at their mosques and for tourists to visit the site. Consecutive Israeli governments, realizing that a Jewish presence on the Mount is a recipe for trouble, have not allowed Jews to demonstratively visit and pray there.
However, the trickle of Jewish visits has increased in recent months. And, as if that was not enough to cause Palestinian ire, there are vociferous calls by cabinet ministers, not only from the Bayit Yehudi party, which represents the zealots’ sentiments, but also from the ruling Likud party, to change the status quo.
Such calls are a source of concern for Shin Bet chief Cohen. He recently appeared before the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee and stated that Jewish visits, in general, and But even the Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, not a left-wing liberal, recently lashed out at Jews who visit the Temple Mount, charging that they violate Jewish law and undermine the security situation. Yosef called the rabbis who sanction the visits “fourth-rate rabbis” and accused the right-wing activists and their rabbis of “inflaming the Arabs, who hate us, and pouring fuel on the fire.” He added that Jewish visits to the Mount must be stopped “so that the blood of the People of Israel may stop being spilled.”
A few days later, his brother, Rabbi David Yosef, who is a member of the Council of Torah sages of the Shas party, wrote to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging him to close the Mount to Jews.
BUT IT seems that the joint front of liberals, left wingers, orthodox clergy, and security chiefs does not impress the Ne - tanyahu cabinet dominated by right-wing parties. Their actions and declarations are influenced by the possibility that the coalition is short-lived and new elections loom on the horizon. They believe that slogans about “Jewish sovereignty” and “Jewish freedom of worship,” not to mention more radical expressions against Palestinians and Israeli Arabs bordering on racism, have a strong appeal to their constituents.
Right-wing politicians do not appear to be interested in trying to cool down the fraught atmosphere. Only occasionally do they, Netanyahu included, pay lip service to the need to “defuse the tension.”
Not that Palestinian leaders are innocent. Some of them, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, make irresponsible statements such as that “Jews defile” or “contaminate” Haram Al-Sharif. Cohen admitted that while Abbas has no interest in generating a third intifada and while he is not encouraging them to take up arms or instigate terrorism, declarations of that sort clearly incite and inflame tensions.
Since it first began over 100 years ago, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was seen as a national-territorial clash between the conflicting aspirations of two peoples.
The greatest danger is that it will also accumulate religious dimensions and metamorphose into a sectarian-religious war between Jews and the Muslim world.
There are already warning signs that this is happening. Apart from the Temple Mount hotspot and the terror attack at the synagogue, there are other flashpoints.
In the last two years, Jewish extremists have torched mosques; Palestinian and Jewish zealots have desecrated each other’s cemeteries. During soccer games, Arab and Jewish fans chant derogatory songs against the other side’s religious figures.
With every day that passes, it is becoming more and more difficult for leaders on both sides to restrain the upsurge in vio - lence. Still, it is not too late for them to rise to the occasion and reduce the tension.
One important path is to renew the deadlocked peace process. Without a ray of hope that, after all, there could be a bright future for Israeli Jews and Arabs and Palestinians under Israeli occupation, the Holy Land is heading into the abyss.