Tension Mounts at the Temple Mount

Jewish Light Editorial

In Jerusalem, the city that houses some of the holiest sites in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, increasing violence by Palestinians against Israelis and efforts by Israel to contain the deadly crisis already have claimed the lives of at least three Israelis and three Palestinians.

The city is the site of  the Western Wall, the only remaining structural part of the Second Temple, which is under the control of the Israeli Ministry of Religion and the Chief Rabbinate. Adjacent to the Wall is the Temple Mount, the actual site of both the First and Second Temples, an area known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. Within the same cluster of holy structures are sites sacred to Christians, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, on the site of the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.

After the Six-Day War 50 years ago, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan wisely took steps to ensure that the status quo of jurisdiction over the Muslim and Christian sites would not change. Since the Israeli Defense Forces liberated the Old City in June 1967, calm has largely prevailed at the various sites, interrupted by periodic violence that sometimes exploded into chaos.

But after months of Palestinian stabbings of Israeli civilians, police and soldiers, many of them fatal, Israel took the precaution of installing metal detectors at entrances to the Al Aksa Mosque compound. The mosque is on the very location of the Second Temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.

On Monday, Israel decided to remove the metal detectors and replace them with “smart security checks” that include advanced technological equipment. But if the initial reaction to the detectors is any measure, the change may not quell the growing tension in the region.

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Instead of welcoming the metal detectors as a means of containing the terrorist attacks, extremist factions have used them as a pretext for fomenting violent rock-throwing confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli police and soldiers. Three teenage Palestinian protesters were fatally shot in clashes in and around Jerusalem. In apparent retaliation, three Israeli civilians were killed in what appeared to be a terrorist attack in a West Bank settlement.

The holy site was closed to Muslim worshippers by Israeli authorities who conducted searches. When Israel allowed prayers in the compound to resume, the Waqf, the Muslim entity that oversees the site, called for a boycott of prayers there until the metal detectors are removed. 

Meanwhile, Mahmoud Abbas, the highly ineffectual president of  the Palestinian Authority, characteristically reacted with a knee-jerk suspension of “all contact” with Israel to protest the initial placementof the metal detectors.  There has been no official indication that those critically important contacts will be resumed even after the removal of the metal detectors.  If Palestinian contacts  and cooperation with Israel on security coordination and financial transfers are not resumed, the consequences would indeed be serious and would primarily hurt the Palestinians themselves.

Even if the Abbas suspension of contact with Israel ends, it has only been  symbolic, and it has done nothing to defuse the crisis.  This is a time for statesmanship and negotiation, not empty rhetoric and feckless actions. Before things spiral totally out of control, the United States and its European allies should renew efforts to restart stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. 

Don’t let the path to a two-state solution shut down altogether.