Since the third week of October, Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank have been witnessing a growing confrontation between the Israeli security forces and the Palestinians. Trouble has been brewing in the city since the lynching of a 17-year-old Palestinian boy by Jewish extremists in Jerusalem in July. The unrest has spread to Israel proper, where the minority Palestinian citizens have been protesting against the government’s wilful policies of changing facts on the ground.
The violence escalated after the attempted assassination of Yehuda Glick, a prominent Jewish zealot in the forefront of the Zionist move to take control of one of the holiest Islamic sites, Al Aqsa mosque. Glick, who holds dual American-Israeli nationality, is well-funded and had been making frequent provocative visits to Al Aqsa mosque with his band of supporters.
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The right-wing Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu had tried to cross what Palestinians and the entire Muslim world considered as a red line. It tried to implement a stealthy plan to establish Jewish control of Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, the third most revered place of worship for Muslims. The mosque is situated in a 35-acre plot known as Al Haram al Sharif in Jerusalem Old City quarters. This is a place where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in harmony for centuries until the state of Israel was created. The worst massacres of Palestinians in the run-up to the creation of Israel occurred in areas around Jerusalem.
Zionist historians claim that a long lost city built by King David in ancient times lies buried in and around the compound in which the mosque is located. These historians talk about a mythical golden age of the Jews. Since the state of Israel was established, archaeologists have not been able to find anything of significance that attests to a prosperous age during the reigns of Old Testament Jewish kings like King David.
During the 1967 war, the chief Rabbi of the Israeli army, Shlomo Goren, urged the Israeli forces to blow up Al Aqsa mosque so that Jewish temples that had existed during the time of Jesus Christ could be rebuilt. Jewish temples that existed on the plot housing Al Aqsa mosque were destroyed by the Roman conquerors of present-day Palestine.
The violence which escalated in late October has claimed the lives of many Palestinians and Jews. Jewish settlers have set fire to mosques in the occupied West Bank. Enraged Palestinians have mowed down Israeli Jews in Jerusalem and surrounding areas with their cars in three widely reported incidents.
The Israeli media were quick to dub them as “suicide drivers”. The Israeli security forces had promptly shot and killed them. The man who tried to kill Glick was also eliminated in cold blood by the Israeli security forces during a raid on his family’s house in Jerusalem. The house was promptly demolished and the family evicted from the area.
The Israeli government has introduced a draft legislation that prescribes a 20-year prison term for Palestinian stone-throwers. After the recent spurt in violence, the Israeli Prime Minister threatened that Palestinians who are citizens of Israel would be stripped of citizenship if they participated in demonstrations. Palestinian anger has been further stoked by the brazen annexation of Palestinian land and the demolition of houses in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The mindless bloodletting in Gaza by the Israeli forces in the middle of the year will of course be etched in Palestinian consciousness for a long time. President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) described Israeli actions in Gaza as “genocidal”. A significant percentage of those killed in Gaza were women and children. According to the P.A., 73 mosques were destroyed and many more damaged by the Israeli forces in the 73-day Gaza war.
The Temple Mount, which is sacred to the Jews, was once situated in the area where Al Aqsa mosque has stood for centuries. After it captured Jerusalem in the 1967 war, Israel allowed Jews to pray at the Western Wall, situated at the ground level of the mosque. Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh, during his visit to Israel in the first week of November, was pictured wearing a Jewish skullcap and praying in front of the “Wailing Wall”, as the site is called by Jews.
This was at a time when strict curbs on entering the mosque were imposed on Muslims. For the first time since the 1967 war, the mosque was temporarily sealed off by the Israeli security forces on the orders of the Israeli Prime Minister. After that, for a short period, only Palestinian men above 50 and women over 40 were allowed to enter the mosque under strict Israeli security supervision. The restrictions have been lifted now.
Mahmoud Abbas had denounced Israel’s moves as “a declaration of war on the Palestinian people and its sacred places and on the Arab and Islamic nations”. Muslims have had the exclusive right to pray in the mosque. They believe that Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven from the site. Hamas has announced the formation of a “popular” army to defend Al Aqsa mosque.
Sovereignty of Al Aqsa
It was the threat by Jordan’s King Abdullah to scrap the 1994 peace treaty with Israel and a little arm-twisting from the Barack Obama administration that made Netanyahu modify his position slightly over the issue of sovereignty of the mosque. The mosque is being administered by a waqf board supervised by the Jordanian government under the treaty. King Abdullah warned that any attempt by Israel to change the centuries-old religious tradition that have been in vogue at Al Aqsa mosque would lead to severe diplomatic consequences for Israel. In the first week of November, Jordan withdrew its ambassador to Israel.
John Kerry, the United States Secretary of State, had to meet with the Israeli Prime Minister and the Jordanian King in the attempts at lowering tensions. Kerry said that Israel was committed to maintaining the status quo on Al Aqsa mosque. After an earlier visit to the region to cobble up a military alliance in the fight against the Islamic State (I.S.), Kerry had said that all the leaders he had met had underlined the importance of a durable peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians because “it was a cause for recruitment and of street anger and agitation”.
An unnamed senior U.S. official, according to a report in The Atlantic magazine, had described Netanyahu as a “chicken-shit” and a “coward” who was only interested in protecting himself from political defeat. American officials have been openly faulting him for failing to make peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world, especially at a time when the U.S. was engaged in a military campaign against radical Islamists in the region.
Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker revealed that Netanyahu was denied access to the State Department during the administration of George H.W. Bush for activities deemed as being against U.S. national interests. Netanyahu was working as a lobbyist for Israel in Washington at the time. In December, the Israeli Knesset is scheduled to vote on a motion calling for the partitioning of Al Aqsa mosque. Powerful right-wing parties that dominate the government want Israel to exercise forcefully its sovereignty over the mosque.
The status quo on the right to offer prayers was maintained by Israel until the middle of the last decade. It was only after the extreme right wing in Israel entered the political mainstream that the demands were made for equal access to Jews. Ariel Sharon, a Zionist hawk, who as the leader of the opposition, made a controversial visit to the compound around Al Aqsa mosque in 2000. His visit triggered the Al Aqsa intifada which lasted for five years. Thousands of Palestinians and hundreds of Israelis were killed in that uprising, known as the “second intifada”.
Since then many prominent right-wing Jewish leaders, including Ministers, have visited the compound housing Al Aqsa mosque. Jewish right-wingers have been demanding the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple on the site. Many of them have bought houses in the vicinity of the mosque. Pressure tactics and money power has been used to make Palestinian residents vacate their dwellings in the Old City.
The prominent Israeli commentator Gideon Levy is of the view that Jerusalem “has become the Israeli capital of apartheid”. He notes that from 1967 to 2013, Israel had revoked the residency of 14,309 Palestinians in Jerusalem without giving valid reasons. Even as the current phase of violence was raging, Netanyahu announced his plan to construct more settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank and separation barriers to further isolate the original Palestinian residents of the city.
Netanyahu has gone ahead with the plan, despite Israel’s main patron, the U.S., voicing its strong criticism. The U.S. State Department spokesman said in the first week of November that Washington considered Israeli settlement activity as “illegitimate” and that the Obama administration opposed “unilateral steps that prejudge the future of Jerusalem”.
All the same, it is business as usual in the patron-client relationship between the U.S. and Israel though in recent years it is the client country that has been dictating terms. In the first week of November, the two governments announced that they would jointly manufacture advanced fighter planes. Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon told the media that this was another illustration that the ties between the two countries “were bulletproof”, despite the statements coming out of Washington criticising Israel’s settlement policies and its reluctance to implement the two-state solution. Gideon Levy in his column said that the real “chicken-shit” was the Obama administration which continued to provide lethal arms, including F-35 fighters, to the apartheid state of Israel.
The religious Right in Israel now has a strong presence in the Cabinet. The extremist Jewish Home Party has three important posts in the Netanyahu Cabinet. Until a few years ago, only a few hundred Jews used to visit Al Aqsa compound every year. Last year, more than 8,500 Israeli Jews visited Al Aqsa compound escorted by the state security forces. Top Israeli leaders swear every other day that Jerusalem is Israel’s “eternal and indivisible” capital. The international community has never recognised Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem, the historic capital of Palestine.
According to reports in the Israeli media, the European Union has circulated draft proposals among member-countries recommending sanctions against Israel, if it put up more roadblocks against a two-state solution. In recent months, key E.U. members such as the United Kingdom and Sweden have recognised the state of Palestine. The P.A. has submitted a resolution to the United Nations Security Council calling for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and Palestinian statehood by 2017. It will be difficult for the U.S. to veto the resolution outright when it will be put to vote soon, given Israel’s complete isolation in the international arena on the issue.