Politics Sparks Religious Conflict in Jerusalem

Arabs revere it as the "Noble Sanctuary." Jews revere it as
the "Temple
Mount." Everyone worries
about it -- or should worry about it -- as a potential flashpoint for renewed
violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

It's actually not much more than a hill, but it's the highest
point in the old city of Jerusalem. In biblical times, the Judeans built
a sanctuary atop it to the god YHWH. The Romans destroyed that structure. When
Muslims conquered Jerusalem centuries later they built two
structures of their own on the hill -- the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa
mosque -- which remains two of Islam's most sacred sites.

Right now, the most important fact to know about the hill is
that major clashes occurred there this October between Palestinians and the
Israeli police force. Though there were relatively few injuries, Israelis and
Palestinians who support the peace process worry that more such incidents could
kill off the already fragile chances for a negotiated peace. As Israel's most respected
newspaper, Ha'aretz, recently editorialized, "the Temple Mount is behaving like an active,
simmering volcano; the timing of its next major eruption is impossible to

Ha'aretz explained the
source of the trouble to its mostly-Jewish readers this way: "There have been repeated rumors among
Palestinians that Jewish extremists are planning on harming the holy site. No
such attempt has been made." The Jewish Telegraphic Agency
also reported that "the rumors have proven to be
unfounded." The
Post agreed. Attributing the trouble to Muslim
charges of "Israeli plots to damage them or let Jews pray in the
compound," the Post added: "There was no evidence to support either claim." Period.

But the reality is rather more complex, as other news reports
explained. According to
The New York
"Israeli police chief, David Cohen, said the disturbances were precipitated by
calls from right-wing Jewish activists and an Islamist group." More
specifically, the widely-read Israeli website
Ynetnews.com reported that, "according to police, there was ... a call
on Jews by extreme-right elements to arrive at the

That last point is the crux of the matter for Palestinian
Muslims. Though there has been no
overt attempt yet by Jews to harm the Muslim holy sites, there is a growing
effort by Jewish extremists to stake some claim to what they call the Temple Mount.

More than a decade ago, a fringe right-wing
group brought a cornerstone for a new Jewish temple to the Temple Mount. Though their movement
has continued to
grow, it is
still quite small. But now there is
a larger movement calling for Jews to pray and observe religious rituals on the
Mount, with some seeing it as a step toward rebuilding the Jewish Temple. A
"publicist for far-right organizations" told commentator Gershon
"hundreds of Jews have been visiting the site weekly, usually in organized

In early October, just before the Jews' highest holy day, Yom Kippur, notices were
posted announcing that Jews planned to visit the Temple Mount on the eve of the holiday. "The police knew about this," said Sheikh Azzam
Al-Khatib, the head of the Waqf (the Muslim organization that supervises the
holy sites). He warned the Israeli authorities not to open the Temple Mount to Jewish worshipers. When the
police let a group of tourists into the compound, Muslims began hurling stones
at them, apparently assuming that these were the Jewish worshippers making good
on their promise to gain access to the site for religious observances.

At the same time, Israeli police were imposing restrictions
on Muslims
wanting to pray in Al-Aqsa mosque.

After the most recent disturbances, a gathering of right-wing
Jews, led by what Ha'aretz called "top religious Zionist leaders," called for
"Jewish ascent to the Temple Mount. It's hard to remember when was the
last time Israel saw such a unity between its
religious Zionist leaders." Five members of the Knesset and other conservative
political leaders joined the gathering too.

Rabbi Yaakov Medan told the crowd to "keep coming to the Temple Mount. ... And I'm not talking about a few
people here. I'm talking about hundreds and thousands. "
Hillel Weiss of Bar Ilan
demanded that the Jewish Temple "must be built now. The
mosques do not have to be destroyed in order for us to do this." But many
Muslims, including Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, doubt the assurance that the mosques would

Rabbi Yuval Sherlo says that the religious rightists demand "equality at
the least" between Jews and Arabs on the sacred hill. "At the least"? Those are understandably
frightening words for Palestinians, who have seen Israel
encroach upon their land and their rights, more and more, for decades now.

Feeding their doubt is the latest call from the Rabbinical
Council of Judea and Samaria for the Temple Mount to be permanently closed to Arabs. A
statement by the council accused the Arabs of
"turning the most holy place to the Jewish people into a base of terror and
violence" -- a sharp reminder that, although the conflict is
sparked by conflicting claims to a sacred site, and the immediate participants
on both sides may well be moved by religious concerns, it would be a mistake to
write it off as just a matter of religious fanaticism. It's mainly about

There is
nothing in Orthodox Judaism that necessarily mandates laying claim to any rights
on the Temple
Mount. On the contrary,
Orthodox Jews have traditionally stayed away from the Mount, fearing that they
would violate the purity laws that have governed the site since biblical
times. Even now, many Orthodox
rabbis are critical of the move to bring Jews back to the site for religious

And it's no
coincidence that so many of the rabbis who support the return to the Temple Mount are
associated with the Jewish West Bank settlements. They see the Obama
administration's call for stopping all settlement expansion and creating a
Palestinian state as a direct threat to their whole enterprise. Laying claim to
the Temple
Mount is just one part of a
much larger strategy to resist the changes they

The connection
between settlements and this Temple Mount movement is not lost on
Palestinians. The movement is largely ignored by Israeli news sources,
because most Israeli Jews consider it a fringe (many would say lunatic fringe)
movement. But there was a time when the idea of putting Jewish settlements in
the West Bank was also just a lunatic fringe
idea. Had Palestinians organized powerfully to resist that idea before the first
groundbreaking for the first settlement, the whole Israeli-Palestinian situation
might be radically different -- perhaps radically better -- today.

From the Palestinian vantage point,
stout resistance before the first concrete actions occur is simply common sense
-- not necessarily for reasons of religious devotion, but because they can see
how the Temple Mount has become, for some Jews, a prime symbol of nationalistic
pride and self-assertion.

On the
Palestinian side, too, this seemingly religious issue is part of an essentially
secular nationalistic conflict. Muslim leaders' calls to resist Jewish
encroachment are being echoed by the secular authorities of the Palestinian
Authority, all members of the avowedly secular Fatah party.

According to
one report , PA prime
Salam Fayyad has called the Jewish movement "a provocation planned in advance
that was aimed at sabotaging the peace process and derailing President Obama's
peace initiative."

The Ha'aretz editorial agreed that
there are political motives at work: "The Israeli government views these events
as just another competitive front between Israel and the
Palestinians. [It] views strengthening the Jewish hold on the
Mount and its environs as a
political and diplomatic objective." And that "is likely to foment a
violent outburst which will ignite the entire Middle

As if to back up these
charges of Jewish political motivation, Rabbi Medan told the right-wing Jewish
gathering that he recently met with a "top defense official" and discussed the
sparse presence of Jews in the Temple Mount.
The defense
official "spoke of the significance of Jews ascending the Temple Mount, and said
that he already got us permits to ascend. 'Where are you?,' he asked. He sees
this as an existential struggle, and believes we must recruit more people."

On both sides, then, a
powerful set of religious symbols and groups of sincerely (some would say
fanatically) religious people are caught up in a larger conflict that is
essentially between two competing secular nationalisms. As Gershon Gorenberg
wrote, "when a fire begins at the Mount, it
is always fueled by wider issues. Right now those issues include continued
Palestinian disappointment with American diplomacy and Palestinian Authority
President Mahmud Abbas's precipitous loss of public

It seems
clear that both sides are focusing on this religious symbolism in response to
the Obama administration's call for an end to settlement expansion and rapid
movement toward a final-status, two-state agreement.

The sparks
that have ignited October's clash, and could (here religious people may want to
say "God forbid") set off much more serious conflict in the months ahead, were
originally lit in the White House. Obama's words have raised and then dashed
hopes among Palestinians, while they have raised fears that are as high as ever
among right-wing Jewish Israelis.

"When diplomacy appears deadlocked, the chances of violence
rise, and Jerusalem's most holy space is always available
as a pretext," Gorenberg rightly observes. "If Netanyahu, Abbas and Obama are
looking for a practical way to avoid a new blow-up in Jerusalem, they need to
restore faith in peace negotiations as an alternative."

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