The al-Aqsa Mosque, a holy site for both Muslims and Jews and also a UNESCO World Heritage site, has seen daily demonstrations and confrontations between Israeli forces and Palestinians over the last few weeks.
The problem started on July 14 and led to Israel closing the site for Friday prayers. It was re-opened on the next Sunday with new measures of control, including metal detectors and additional cameras, at the compound’s entrances.
Palestinians interpreted this as interference with their religious freedom and refused to enter the compound until Israel removed the new measures. The move was seen as Israel trying to impose control by judaising the city.
Tensions raged after peaceful demonstrations were violently suppressed by Israeli forces, resulting in hundreds of injuries. Four Palestinians were also shot dead in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Trouble in the Holy Land
It has been the most contested piece of territory in the Holy Land since Israel occupied East Jerusalem, including the Old City, in 1967, along with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
This illegal Israeli control of East Jerusalem violated international law, which stipulates that an occupying power does not have rights of sovereignty in the territory it occupies. Some 400,000 Palestinians live in Jerusalem but they hold only permanent residency status, not citizenship, despite being born there.
In addition, of the three million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, only those over a certain age limit are allowed access to Jerusalem on Fridays, while others must apply for a hard-to-obtain permit from Israeli authorities.
Experts have described such measures as being a violation of the international legal principles related to freedom to worship.
Since 1967, Israel has also embarked on a quiet deportation of the city’s Palestinians by imposing difficult conditions for them to maintain their residency status.
In 2000, instability in the area was created when Israeli politician Ariel Sharon entered the holy site accompanied by some 1,000 Israeli police, deliberately reiterating Israeli claims to the contested area in light of then Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s US-brokered peace negotiations with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
This unleashed the Second Intifada, in which more than 3,000 Palestinians and some 1,000 Israelis were killed.
Two years of tension
Tensions have been simmering near al-Aqsa for the past two years. In 2015, clashes occurred after hundreds of Jews tried to enter the mosque complex to commemorate a Jewish holiday. A year later, protests also erupted after visits by Jewish settlers groups at the compound during the last 10 days of Ramadan, in contravention of tradition.
This was seen as a direct violation of the status quo.
Similarly, most recently in May, the Israeli cabinet also raised tensions when it held its weekly meeting in tunnels below al-Aqsa Mosque, on the 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, “to mark the liberation and unification of Jerusalem” — a move that infuriated Palestinians.
Fortunately for the general public, reason and good sense appear to have gained some ground since July 27. Palestinians have celebrated as new security installations — railings, gates, and scaffolding where cameras were previously mounted at the entrance of al-Aqsa Mosque compound — have been removed.
Israel knows that another round of fighting with Hamas, and heavy casualties among ordinary Palestinians, will further damage its own image
Two days earlier Israel had removed metal detectors from the entrance. For the first time in many years, occupied East Jerusalem was in the headlines because the Palestinians living there felt that none of the Palestinian representatives ever spoke for them.
The spike in violence triggered international alarm and prompted the United Nations Security Council to convene a meeting.
This was done because of apprehensions that the dangers on the ground could further escalate if the Muslim Palestinian population had to go through another cycle of Friday prayer without a resolution to this current crisis.
King Abdullah II of Jordan, the custodian of the al-Aqsa shrine, also took the right step by discussing the crisis with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, stressing the need to remove the security measures.
Behind closed doors
This latest bit of unrest has also revealed another dynamic which is apparently being carried out behind closed doors for some time. This has acquired significance because a humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Gaza after the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas, refused to finance essential services in that heat stricken coastal enclave.
This has left its population mostly destitute, and its aquifers increasingly polluted with sea water. In May, the International Committee of the Red Cross warned that Gaza was on the brink of “systemic collapse.”
Israel knows that another round of fighting with Hamas, and heavy casualties among ordinary Palestinians, will further damage its own image. They also realise that with deteriorating conditions, seeing no other options, desperate ordinary Palestinians might end up taking on the security fences set in place to keep those in Gaza in virtual detention.
This, in all probability, is beginning to persuade Israel, its patrons in Washington, and the Arab states, to desperately find a remedy.
Consequently, Cook is suggesting that secret talks are underway — known to be much-favoured by Israel — that could engineer the creation of a Palestinian state in Gaza and then pressure Egypt to allow it to expand into the neighbouring territory of northern Sinai.
Indications that such a Sinai plan is being considered at a high level have come from Ayoub Kara, a government minister and ally of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. According to this plan, not only would most of Gaza’s population end up in Sinai, but so too would potentially millions of Palestinian refugees.
This scenario would be acceptable to Israel as it clearly wants Gaza permanently separated from the West Bank. The plan will however require Cairo to accept a humiliating compromise of its sovereignty by surrendering territory in Sinai, possibly in a swap for Israeli land in the Negev. It would also undermine long-standing Arab demands that a Palestinian state be realised in historic Palestine.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador and Chief Information Commissioner of the Information Commission, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance, he can be reached at email@example.com.