THE LEVANT – This combustible city at the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been edging toward a new conflagration, with politicians on both sides stoking religious fervor over an ancient Jerusalem shrine sacred to Muslims and Jews.
After months of escalating violence, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday made his clearest attempt yet to cool tempers, saying he won’t allow changes to a long-standing ban on Jewish worship at the Muslim-run site, despite such demands from ultranationalists in his coalition.
Netanyahu’s reassurances to Muslims came just days after the religious feud over the Old City shrine, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount, threatened to spin out of control.
Israel closed the compound for a day last week, a rare move, after a Palestinian shot and wounded a prominent activist who has campaigned for more Jewish access to the site.
Angered by the closure, Jordan, the custodian of the mosque compound, warned it might seek diplomatic sanctions unless Israel halts what a Jordanian official said were “repeated violations” at the site. The U.S. has urged Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to show restraint.
Feuding over the Old City compound has sparked violence in the past, and both Netanyahu and Abbas seem leery of a new round.
“It is very easy to ignite a religious fire, but much harder to extinguish it,” Netanyahu told his Cabinet Sunday.
It remains unclear to what extent Netanyahu is willing to clash with coalition members lobbying for a greater Jewish presence at the shrine, the holiest in Judaism as the site of former biblical temples. There’s growing buzz about early elections, and hardline parties are Netanyahu’s natural allies.
On Saturday evening, Housing Minister Uri Ariel of the Jewish Home party, a key coalition partner, ignored appeals to tone down the rhetoric. At a rally for Yehuda Glick, the rabbi wounded by the Palestinian gunman last week, Ariel was quoted as saying that “the status quo on the Temple Mount will change.”
Under that status quo, Muslim authorities reporting to Jordan continued to administer the site, home to the Al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques, after east Jerusalem’s capture by Israel in 1967. Jews were allowed to visit, but not to pray there.
Abbas also called for calm. “We hope that this quiet will happen and that the status quo … at the Al-Aqsa Mosque will be preserved,” he said at a meeting of Palestine Liberation Organization members Sunday.
Last month, Abbas urged Palestinians to defend Al-Aqsa “by any means.” Israel lambasted this as a call to violence and accused Abbas of incitement, though in Sunday’s remarks Netanyahu largely blamed the Jerusalem unrest on Islamic extremists.
Abbas has said repeatedly he would not allow another Palestinian uprising to erupt. His security forces have broken up Al-Aqsa solidarity marches in the West Bank that were organized by his rival, the Islamic militant group Hamas.
Abbas suspects Hamas is trying to stir up unrest over the issue in an attempt to weaken him, his aides have said. Al-Aqsa is Islam’s third-holiest site, after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
The wrangling over the shrine comes at a time when a negotiated solution for Jerusalem, claimed by Israelis and Palestinians as a capital, is out of reach. U.S.-led peace talks collapsed earlier this year, and there’s not enough common ground between the sides to warrant resumption.
Netanyahu rejects any withdrawal from east Jerusalem – the area sought by the Palestinians as the capital of a future state. Instead, the Israeli leader is promoting construction for Jews in east Jerusalem, including an announcement last week that plans for more than 1,000 new settlement apartments there would move forward.
Meanwhile, discontent is growing among the city’s Palestinians who complain of longstanding discrimination and fear Israel is marginalizing them further with its accelerated settlement drive.
“It will come to a point where it’s either us or them in the city,” said Fathi Jaber, a Palestinian merchant who sells religious trinkets in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, across from a Jewish settler enclave.
The surge in clashes between Palestinian stone-throwers and Israeli riot police has revived speculation – mainly in the Israeli media – that another Palestinian uprising might erupt, following two attempts since the 1980s to shake off Israeli occupation through protests and armed attacks.
On tense days, the Jerusalem shrine looks like a fortress, ringed by hundreds of Israeli troops with helmets and shields who seal access roads and restrict entrance.
In near-daily confrontations in Arab neighborhoods, teens and young men burn tires or throw stones and firecrackers from the cover of overturned garbage containers, drawing tear gas volleys from riot police.
Police have stepped up security in those areas, with Netanyahu saying Sunday he ordered “massive reinforcements” to quell the violence. Also Sunday, Israel approved an amendment to the penal code that would enforce tougher punishment – up to 20 years in prison – for Palestinians who throw rocks at cars.
Some 900 Palestinians have been arrested since the start of riots in east Jerusalem this summer, with at least 300 indictments served, police said Sunday. About 100 arrests were made since the latest round of clashes, after a Palestinian motorist rammed his car into a train station on Oct. 22, killing two people.
In one such clash over the weekend, tear gas engulfed the Abu Tor neighborhood, home to Moataz Hijazi, a 32-year-old Arab waiter who attacked Glick. Hijazi, later killed in a shootout with police, was trying to defend Al-Aqsa and is considered a hero by the community, said his brother Oday, 28.
“It was something that made people proud,” he said. He spoke in a large tent where the family received a steady stream of mourners, many coughing from the tear gas fired by police at nearby stone-throwers.
Palestinian officials said Abbas sent a condolence letter to the family Sunday in which he wrote that “martyr Moataz was killed defending the rights of our people and their holy shrine.”
In Israel, Jewish access to the Temple Mount has turned from a fringe issue into a mainstream idea.
After 1967, most rabbis considered Jewish prayer at the Temple Mount a sacrilege. But since the 1990s, nationalist clerics have been pressing for an increased Jewish presence, triggering angry reactions by Muslims who argue the site is exclusively theirs.
Over the past 15 years, the number of Jewish visitors has increased significantly, Muslim officials say. Israeli police put the number of Jewish visitors at 20 to 30 a day, along with some 2,000 tourists.
Jews touring the mount are often greeted by defiant chants of “Allahu Akbar,” Arabic for “God is Great,” and occasionally by rocks. Police have clashed with Arab stone-throwers at the site, firing tear gas and stun grenades. At times of tension, younger male Muslims are barred from the shrine.
Hatem Abdel Kader, an activist in Abbas’ Fatah movement, said Jerusalem’s Palestinians feel abandoned and that an uprising in the city would likely be spontaneous. “If there will be an uprising, it will not wait for permission from anyone,” he said.