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Why Jerusalem’s holiest site remains a flashpoint

Israel’s recent closure of Al-Aqsa Mosque raises fears of escalating confrontation in the holy city

Fearing dangerous clashes following an assassination attempt on a right-wing rabbi advocating for greater Israeli access to Jerusalem's most contested holy precinct, Israeli authorities on Thursday took the extraordinary step of restricting access to the site — the first such closure in 14 years. Although that ban was subsequently lifted ahead of Friday's Muslim prayers, the move underscored the rising danger of confrontation as the Israeli-Palestinian struggle over the city's futurecontinues to escalate. 

The holy esplanade, which Jews call the Temple Mount and which Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary, has been at the heart of tensions in the city since Israel occupied East Jerusalem in the war of June 1967. Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem is not internationally recognized, and the future status of the city has been one of the most intractable sticking points in the now dormant effort to negotiate a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. 

Under a longstanding agreement, Israeli authorities have restricted Jewish prayer at the site, something reserved for the Western Wall, which abuts the holy esplanade. That restriction has been challenged increasingly vocally by right-wing elements in Israel, for whom maintaining the delicate status quo on the holy site is unacceptable. Officially, Jordan is in control of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, dating back to the Hashemite Kingdom’s control of East Jerusalem prior to the 1967 war. But Israel retains ultimate security control on who is allowed to go in.

Thursday's closure of the entrance to Al-Aqsa, the third holiest site in Islam, was the first such blanket close since September 2000, when then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to the spot touched off a widespread Palestinian protest which is generally seen as the beginning the Second Intifada.

The site has long been a lightning rod for controversy. In 1984, members of the Jewish Underground, an extremist group, were apprehended before carrying a plan blow up the Al-Aqsa mosque — a provocation the Israeli authorities fear would trigger a potentially catastrophic backlash in the Islamic world. 

Especially in the period since Sharon's visit, Israeli authorities have more stringently monitored access to the area. “Since the onset of the Second Intifada, Muslim access to the Holy Esplanade has ebbed and flowed, although there is no doubt that it is more difficult today than it was in September 2000,” said an International Crisis Group (ICG) report discussing tensions in Jerusalem in 2012.

That situation remains largely unchanged, but this year has seen in an uptick in violence in the city as Palestinian communities push back against Israeli efforts to deepen control of the Jerusalem's occupied east. Al-Aqsa and its surrounds have been a focal point of that tension. One reason, according to the ICG, is that because “Palestinian collective activity in the city all but forbidden, it has become one of the few venues where Arabs can gather en masse and where they still exert some measure of control.”

Hundreds have been injured in clashes at the holy esplanade this year, a trend that coincided with this summer’s Gaza invasion and the murder of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir.

“This is a pivotal moment,” said Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli peace activist and expert on Jerusalem's local politics. Restrictions on access are “used by the Israeli authorities when they expect violence,” he said. Depending on how the situation plays out, a more calamitous escalation remains possible. 

If Thursday’s close was an “indication of the creeping prevention or the creeping isolation of Haram Al-Sharif [the Arabic name for the Noble Sanctuary]” to Muslim worshippers, Seidemann predicted a sharp increase in tensions and more violence. But the standoff could also be affected by wider dynamics.

“The current situation in Jerusalem sits on so many tectonic plates,” Seidemann said. Those include the recent surge in violent incidents between Israelis and Palestinians, the ongoing dispute over property in East Jerusalem between Israelis and Palestinians, and efforts from nationalist Jewish groups to exert more control over disputed parts of the city.

Jewish visits to the holy esplanade with Israel security escorts has become an increasingly common occurrence as right-wing Israeli nationalists press for a change to the status quo.

Yehuda Glick, the right-wing rabbi who narrowly escaped assassination — and whose suspected Palestinian assailant, Moataz Hejazi, Israeli police subsequently killed in shootout — was a prominent voice in the small but growing chorus of Israelis hoping to change access rules to the site.

One witness to the attack on Glick was Moshe Feiglin, a conservative legislator from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party, who is agitating for the rules to be changed. Feiglin has led multiple visits to the Noble Sanctuary this year.

By the end of Thursday, tensions had slightly dissipated. “I have ordered significant reinforcements, so that we can maintain both security in Jerusalem and the status quo in the holy places,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday, before adding that, “We must first of all lower the flames.”

Whether that conflagration can be prevent or merely delayed is unclear, but the fear that tensions have not yet abated was implicitly recognized by the Israeli security officials who announced the site’s re-opening for Friday prayer: Palestinians under the age of 50 would be barred, a common occurrence at a site where the threat of violence is presumed.

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