By Harry Hagopian
28 July 2017
The metal detectors at the entrance to the al-Aqsa Mosque compound were no more than the latest hurdle on a long and bumpy road. And in a sense, their removal was also part of a deal struck by HM King Abdullah II with PM Benjamin Netanyahu for the return of Israeli embassy officials to Jerusalem following the Israeli embassy "incident" in Amman, in which an Israeli embassy security guard shot dead two Jordanian citizens.
But this was not the first such hurdle, and it was not merely about airport-style machines either. I am long enough in the tooth to remember the Six-Day War of 1967 when Israeli Jews exclaimed triumphantly that they would finally pray at the Temple Mount.
Since those days, this walled territory of 35 acres (or 144 dunams) that is known interchangeably as the Noble Sanctuary (al-Haram al-Sharif) or al-Aqsa compound, has been the scene of many ugly events and challenging standoffs.
Remember 1969 when al-Qabali Mosque was set on fire, or Black Monday in 1990 when 20 Palestinians were killed in the al-Aqsa Massacre? Remember also the 63 people who died in 1996 during the protests over the opening of a new tunnel by the Israelis under the Western Wall? Or the second Intifada in 2000 that was set off in part by Ariel Sharon prancing around on the compound? Since then, confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli settlers protected by Israeli forces have led to an escalation of violence in both Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
In fact, what Israel has been doing over many long years is pursuing its political aims of encroaching on Palestinian lands through religious prisms. It is simple: appropriate the lands on the basis of a political ideology and then claim that they are being taken for religious purposes. In fact, Israel has mooted a similar concept of sharing this Noble Sanctuary by Jews and Muslims.
It has suggested time-sharing and space-sharing whereby Muslims and Jews would enter the al-Aqsa Mosque compound for prayer at separate times. In so doing, it has used the arrangements at the Ibrahimi Mosque (known to Jews as the Cave of Patriarchs) in Hebron as a future template for Jerusalem. In Hebron, for instance, Jews enjoy the use of 60 percent of the mosque while Muslims have 40 percent only.
Consequently, Jewish religious settlers have been fighting to seize those rights on religious grounds and government officials have encouraged them for political reasons. Only this week, al-Resalah newspaper reported Bezalel Smotrich from the Jewish Home party calling for the building of a synagogue inside the al-Aqsa Mosque courtyard.
It is a heady mix when religion and politics coalesce in such an inflammatory manner. And the outcome is that any opening is grabbed to introduce new realities on the ground. After all, has this not been the case all along with illegal settlements?
The metal detectors, in their own right, are one small factor. But viewed more broadly, they become a tool for the gradual control of Palestinian territory in such a way that it does not jolt Arab and Muslim sensibilities let alone ruffle the international community - including the EU. And any enhancement in the rights of Israeli Jews would ineluctably lead to a reduction in the rights of Palestinian Muslims - until such day as Muslims in Palestine and elsewhere wake up to the fact that the arrangements of Hebron had been cloned in Jerusalem too.
But there was a difference. In the past, the Arab and Muslim worlds have defended the rights of Palestinians to this third holiest site for Islam. From Saudi Arabia to Morocco, and from Egypt to Jordan, these countries had used their moral and political stature to impede the unfurling of such predatory designs.
Following the Arab uprisings of 2010-2011 though, the political topography of the region has changed noticeably - in some cases subtly and in others more bluntly. These days, the Arab masses are far too busy with their own Sisyphean struggles against the despotism of their rulers to clamour for Palestinian rights. In fact, Palestine nowadays garners more support outside the Arab World than inside it.
Few are the Arab governments that still support Palestinian rights - be they for self-determination or for movement and worship. Indeed, new alliances are clearly being forged, and new enmities are also being honed: Israel is more of a strategic ally with whom to share intelligence than to fight over holy sites and peoples' usurped rights. With Iran the arch-nemesis of some Arab leaders, the enemy of my enemy becomes my friend.
This is why it pains me to watch the so-called Anti-Terror Quartet expending so much theatrics blockading Qatar - one of their own - and castigating it for actions that are no different from those of its accusers. Would it not be better if they invested their time, energy and money defending Arab rights that are being pilfered stealthily but progressively?
Political mistakes have often tended to come back and haunt Arab leaders: I hope this will not be the case here too.
Harry Hagopian is a London-based international lawyer, political adviser and ecumenical consultant on the MENA region. He is also a second-track negotiator and works closely with European institutions.