July 24th 2017
ON July 14th a gun battle took place outside the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Three Israeli-Arab citizens opened fire on police. Two Israeli police officers were killed, along with the three attackers. The shootout has led to a diplomatic crisis between Israel, the Palestinians and Jordan.
After it, the Israeli government ordered a 48-hour closure of the Haram al-Sharif compound, known to Israelis as the Temple Mount. Israeli police put up metal-detectors near the entrances. The Israeli government says these measures are necessary to keep people safe. However, to the Palestinians, who contest Israel’s control of East Jerusalem, the extra security is a symbol of oppression. They have refused to enter the mosques through the detectors. In clashes with Israeli forces in Jerusalem, four Palestinian demonstrators have been killed. On July 21st a Palestinian entered a home on a West Bank settlement and stabbed to death three Israelis during their Sabbath meal. On his Facebook page he had written: “They desecrate the al-Aqsa Mosque and we are asleep.”
A similar wave of violence broke out in September 2015 over Palestinian claims of Israeli encroachment on the holy site. It lasted for around six months. The commanders of the Israeli Army and the Shin Bet security service have already recommended that their government remove the metal-detectors to defuse tensions. But Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and most of his cabinet do not want to be seen to capitulate to violence or appear unwilling to enforce Israel’s claim to sovereignty over all Jerusalem. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, announced that the Palestinian Authority would cut off all ties with Israel. However, it is unlikely that he will suspend security co-ordination, the most crucial area.
The al-Aqsa showdown is raising tensions throughout the Muslim world. In Turkey, angry crowds surrounded a synagogue in Istanbul. In Amman, an Israeli embassy guard was attacked with a screwdriver. The guard drew his gun, killing the assailant and a second Jordanian civilian. Israel is demanding that its wounded guard be allowed to return home, but the Jordanians insist that he will first be questioned by police.
Mr Netanyahu, Mr Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah are anxious to de-escalate the situation. Israel relies on the Palestinian Authority to help keep the West Bank calm. Mr Abbas needs Israel’s assistance to preserve his rule and prevent a takeover of the West Bank by the Islamist group Hamas. Likewise, Israel supplies Jordan with water, and security co-operation against the so-called Islamic State. And Jordan keeps Israel’s eastern border quiet. But all three leaders are being pushed by their angry public to take hardline positions. In past crises, American diplomats have helped to find face-saving solutions. So far, it does not seem that the Trump administration has the expertise, political capital or will to do so. Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law, is supposed to be handling the brief, but he is preoccupied by a Congressional probe into what exactly went on between the Trump campaign and representatives of the Russian government.
Efraim Halevy, a former chief of Mossad, who back in the 1990s often went to Amman to smooth things over with the Jordanians, blames the Netanyahu government for “throwing in the sovereignty issue over Jerusalem. This is the worst thing you can do in such a situation. King Abdullah now has to show he’s not Israel’s stooge and needs a solution in which he doesn’t lose face.” The problem will probably be solved, and the tension ebb over the next few days; but the next crisis over al-Aqsa will be just around the corner.