On Sunday night Muslim worshipers gathered near the Lion’s Gate entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem and prayed. They continued a low level protest through midnight. The Israeli police, who had been on high alert securing the old city since Friday’s terror attack, kept violence from breaking out. On Monday clashes erupted in Silwan and near Lions Gate where three people were wounded. Palestinian media claimed that Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian political leader, was among those hit by rubber bullets.
Each step of the way the protest against Jerusalem’s security measures has been choreographed and a campaign of incitement has been driven by local religious leaders. The fact that the three men who carried out the terror attack on Friday were citizens of Israel was unusual and initially prevented the Palestinian political leadership from jumping on the bandwagon to describe them as martyrs or heroes. They weren’t members of a Palestinian faction in the West Bank. In fact Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas sought to sooth tensions. But over the weekend when Israel kept the Temple Mount and access to Al-Aqsa mosque closed, the religious leaders in Jerusalem, led by the Wakf, began to press the issue. On Sunday metal detectors were installed at entrances to the Temple Mount.
“People will try entering in every possible way without going through the electronic devices,” Barghouti said earlier in the day Monday. His was only one of many statements claiming the metal detectors were “humiliating” and asserting that a campaign of mass public prayer would be held until they were removed. Latching on to the issue of the security is largely an attempt to create a “conspiracy” against Al-Aqsa where none exists, in order to fan flames and encourage young Palestinian men in Jerusalem and the West Bank that they must “defend al-Aqsa” or “save al-Aqsa.” This is a refrain that has been heard before going back to the 1920s and it has always been used to affect to create violence when there are tensions.
Palestinians who visit Jerusalem already pass through security on the way to the Temple Mount. Those who come from the West Bank already pass through metal detectors at the checkpoints. Jewish worshipers who go to the Kotel go through detectors. Muslims on Hajj to Saudi Arabia pass through security and metal detectors on the way, either at airports or in other modes of travel. So the issue is not really security. The Temple Mount always has Israeli police at its various gates. The issue is to create an issue out of a tragic terror attack on Friday. Instead of lowering tensions and allowing police to investigate the crime scene and open the area again, as happens in every city in the world, and would happen at any holy site where there was a murder, Palestinian local activists, especially centered in Jerusalem, have sought to exploit the terror attack to create a new round of violence.
These kinds of cycles of riot and repression are well known in Jerusalem. They exist throughout the year as low-level weekly protests percolate up in places like Silwan or Jebel Mukaber or Isawiya or elsewhere. Over the last ten years there have been serious riots in Israel’s capital and dozens of stabbing attacks. Former Hamas leader Khalid Meshal said that “Israeli occupation exploits the recent developments to Judaize Al-Aqsa” and his statement was tweeted in English by Hamas. Now youth are rioting in Isawiya and in Abu Dis, account to tweets in Arabic media.
The problem for Hamas and Fatah and other Palestinian movements is they don’t have deep roots in Jerusalem where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians live. Yet voices and local leaders want to use the terror attack to create a robust movement, based on religious anger. This attempts to bridge the gap between Arabs in Israel, Jerusalem residents and West Bank and Gaza. In essence this is the greater-Palestinian movement that some activists want to see and Al-Aqsa unites it. The symbol of the Dome of the Rock can be found in all these places, even on new mosques in the Negev built to resemble the Jerusalem landmarks.
Video also surfaced online Monday of Palestinian businessman Munib Masri visiting Jerusalem and being accosted by Palestinian youth as some shouted “Allahu Akbar.” This represents a deep challenge to authority and traditional leaders. It is a symbol of the leaderless but dangerous violence that can erupt in Jerusalem. Instead of trying to reduce this rudderless violence, there is an attempt to push it forward over the issue of the detectors. Those encouraging it, through social media and religious circles hope to get other Muslim countries, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere to pressure Israel. They would also emerge as heroes from it. If youth are harmed in violence, they also emerge as heroes, accompanying young men to hospital or worse.
Looking at this through the dangerous prism of how it has been choreographed and exploited, whether violence increases or does not, is an important lesson for the future, for Israel and Palestinian political leaders and for security forces in Jerusalem.