Al-Aqsa/Temple Mount: Israeli-Palestinian conflict nerve center - opinion

It is this small piece of contested land that has the cosmic power to transform the political Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a religious conflict between Islam and Judaism.

Israeli police officers clash with arabs outside Damascus Gate in Jerusalem on April 22, 2021. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Israeli police officers clash with arabs outside Damascus Gate in Jerusalem on April 22, 2021.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
 Jerusalem will either be a city of peace that belongs to both Israelis and Palestinians or it will be the hell-fired clashing point of continuous cycles of violence and hatred. Jerusalem is a binational city, whether we like it or not. That will not change. Today, nearly 40% of Jerusalemites are Palestinians. Jerusalem will either be the place where we find the key to building a shared society or it will be the place where all hopes of peace die a long and painful death.
Al Aqsa/the Temple Mount is the central nervous system of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is also the nerve center of Jerusalem. When the central nerve is pinched unilaterally by one side or the other, it sends shock waves throughout the Israeli-Palestinian body. The current round of violence that we have seen, starting in Jerusalem and rippling down to the Negev-Gaza border, to the West Bank and maybe heading wider and deeper, began with a pinch of the central nerve. On April 13, Holocaust Remembrance Day, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi gave a speech at the Western Wall, just beneath al-Aqsa. 
During his speech, Israel made the unilateral decision to disconnect the loud speakers of the mosques above. Shortly after, on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan, someone foolishly gave the order to block the plaza in front of the Damascus Gate – the main entrance to the Old City through the Muslim Quarter that most Muslims use going to al-Aqsa. This is the nightly gathering point for celebration after the Iftar break-fast meal for the 30 nights of Ramadan. 
The nerve was pinched and the effect spread. Explaining the reason for the rocket attacks from Gaza to Israel, Hamas political activist Hamza Abu Shanab wrote, “The enemy was the one who ignited the fuse of the recent crisis by preventing Palestinians in Jerusalem from praying in al-Aqsa Mosque. What happened in the Gaza Strip cannot be separated from the popular clash of the youth in Jerusalem.” 
Regardless if this is not true from the Israeli perspective, this is how Palestinians see it.
For nearly 100 years, al-Aqsa/Temple Mount has been at the root cause of the most horrific intercommunal violence between Jews and Arabs. It is this small piece of contested land that has the cosmic power to transform the political Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a religious conflict between Islam and Judaism. That is not something we should want to see. In 1920, the Nebi Musa riots took place in and around the Old City of Jerusalem. Five Jews and four Arabs were killed, and several hundred were injured. The grand mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin Al-Husayni, used the issue of Al Aqsa/Temple Mount as a vehicle for his pan-Islamic campaign against Jews and Zionists. 
He demanded that the British authorities prohibit Jewish prayers at the Western Wall, which Muslims considered part of al-Aqsa. He and other Muslim leaders alleged that Jews were conspiring to destroy al-Aqsa mosques and rebuild the Temple. These allegations together with Jewish reactions also led to the bloody 1929 riots, which started at the Western Wall and spread throughout Palestine. It was at that time when the well-known slogan “al-Aqsa is in danger” was born. That slogan reappears every time there is any unilateral Israeli action on or around the compound.
After east Jerusalem was conquered by Israel in 1967, Moshe Dayan and the Israeli government understood the radioactive nature of the Temple Mount in its ability to spark attacks against Israel throughout the Muslim world, and determined that al-Aqsa should be administered by the Jordanian Wakf Islamic religious trust, and that Jewish prayer there would be prohibited. The edict on Jewish prayer issued by the Chief Rabbinate assisted in deterring Jews from trying to pray there. Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims around the world believed that al-Aqsa was in danger and that Israel would eventually destroy the mosques and rebuild the Temple.
On the morning of August 21, 1969, Denis Rohan, a Christian Australian citizen, started a fire in the Aqsa Mosque. The fire destroyed an intricately designed 12th-century minbar, or pulpit, known as the minbar of Saladin. The fire at al-Aqsa was the cause of great anger in the Muslim world, and demonstrations and riots occurred as far away as Kashmir. Palestinian officials alleged that the arson was carried out with the blessing of Israeli authorities and minimized the culpability of Rohan. Again, the slogan “al-Aqsa is in danger” appeared.
AT 10:30 A.M. on October 8, 1990, during the third year of the First Intifada, the “Aqsa Massacre” took place. The riots erupted following a decision by the Temple Mount Faithful to lay the cornerstone for the Temple. In the ensuing clashes between Palestinians and Israelis, 17 Palestinians died, more than 150 Palestinians were wounded by Israeli security forces, and more than 20 Israeli civilians and police were wounded by Palestinians. I sat in my office at 1 Nablus Road, directly across from the Damascus Gate. I heard explosions coming from the Old City and saw hundreds of Israeli soldiers and Palestinians screaming as they ran into the Old City. I heard loud chants over the next days shouting that al-Aqsa was in danger.
Six years later, in September 1996, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert officially opened the Western Wall tunnels. By the end of the week of violence, 11 Israeli soldiers and 69 Palestinians had been killed.
On September 28, 2000, Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon, provoking the prime minister’s willingness to negotiate Jerusalem at the failed July 2000 Camp David Summit, held a demonstrative visit to al-Aqsa/the Temple Mount. He was guarded by hundreds of Israeli security personnel. Following his visit, riots broke out at the scene and throughout the Old City. The riots spread quickly all over Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. On Friday, September 29, in Umm el-Fahm, a rally attended by more than 50,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel was led by the head of the Islamic Movement in Israel, Sheikh Raed Salah under the slogan “al-Aqsa is in danger.” This was the birth of the Second Intifada, also known as the Aqsa Intifada. More than 1,000 Israelis and more than 3,000 Palestinians were killed in this period.
In September 2015, we experienced the Aqsa “knife intifada.” Israel outlawed Palestinian-Israeli groups protesting against Jewish groups visiting the Temple Mount. Daily clashes continued for several days, as suspicion spread among Palestinians that Israel was attempting to change the status quo of the Mount by imposing age and gender restrictions on Muslim access while allowing entry to larger groups of Jewish activists.
Israeli writer Ittay Flescher wrote on Facebook: “Arabs make up 30% of the population in Acre, and 38% of the population in Jerusalem, yet the fabric of life between these two minority communities in two ancient cities is experienced very differently. On the International Day of Tolerance in 2016, the mayor of Acre, Shimon Lankri, was interviewed about the stabbing intifada at that time. He was asked why there were so many attacks in Jerusalem and the West Bank, yet not one attack in Acre. 
“He explained that one of the reasons there had been no stabbing attacks in Acre was because of the emphasis his city puts on equality for every person (something which is clearly absent in east Jerusalem and the West Bank which are highly segregated). Lankri talks about why he sends his son to learn Arabic and explicitly says the lack of violence in his city happened as a result of the fact that ‘we live in the same buildings, in mixed neighborhoods and shop in the same stores.’ He said that by working to make every day of the year a ‘Tolerance Day,’ everyone can benefit from the fruits of coexistence. Mayor Shimon Lankri is a member of the Likud, with Deputy Mayor Adham Jamal being a member of the Islamic Movement (Ra’am)”
Could this model of coexistence, political equality and mutual respect be the answer to stopping the violence in Jerusalem? Maybe yes, maybe no. In Jerusalem, the issue goes beyond the civility of the populations; it touches the raw nerve of religious beliefs and the deepest fears of both Jews and Muslims.
The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book, In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine, was published by Vanderbilt University Press.