In the penultimate installment of her series, Jane Harries offers first hand account to counter the media’s association of East Jerusalem with violent mass movement.
Tensions around the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) in Jerusalem had already reached a critical point whilst we were in the area. On 14th July two Israeli police officers were killed at the holy site by three Israeli Arab gunmen, who later died in a shootout. But it was the reaction of the Israeli authorities to this event which really sparked off mass protests, in particular the installation of metal detectors around the entrance to the site. Palestinian worshippers refused to go through the detectors, and instead chose to pray en masse in the streets around the compound.
Although this was reported on the news here in the UK, there was little if no attempt to explain the significance of these events or the sensibilities surrounding them. In fact the snippets of news I heard on my return were astounding in their shallowness and by the fact that they were misleading – be this unwitting or otherwise. There was talk about ‘violent protests by Palestinians’ and ‘security’. UK citizens, well acquainted with the language and dialogue used around terrorist attacks, could be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that Palestinians are largely violent, whilst the Israelis have legitimate security concerns. Whilst not wishing to deny either that individual acts of violence happen on both sides and need to be condemned or that there are some security concerns in the area, I would like to offer a more in-depth analysis, backed up by reports of what really happened.
The old city of Jerusalem is of importance to all three Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam because of the religious sites which stand within its walls, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,the Western Wall and the Al-Aqsa mosque. The Dome of the Rock or the Temple Mount on which the Al-Aqsa mosque stands is particularly sensitive: tradition has it that it is from this place that Mohammed ascended into heaven. At the same time Jews believe that this is the place where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. The site is also sacred for Jews as this is the presumed location of both the first and the second Temples, the Western Wall being all that remains of the latter. Some Jews believe that more remains of the two Temples are to be found under the Dome of the Rock and archaeological excavations are ongoing, provoking fears among Muslims that the very foundations of the Al-Aqsa mosque could be threatened. This site is therefore in a way a microcosm of the larger Israeli- Palestinian conflict, in that it is in essence about ownership and the importance of the same piece of land to different religions and populations. Sensitivities around the Temple Mount also need to be understood as part of the wider political context. East Jerusalem, previously under the jurisdiction of Jordan, was occupied by Israel in 1967. Palestinians regard it as occupied territory (as do the UN) and the potential capital of a future Palestinian state, whereas for Zionists Jerusalem is the potential capital of a future Jewish-only state.
In practical terms an uneasy status quo is held in place between the Israeli authorities, who control security around the site and the Jordanian-controlled Jerusalem Waqf who control what happens at the site itself. (In Islamic law, a person may decide to donate a property and its revenues to the public for charitable or religious purposes. This property then becomes a waqf, or holding, in perpetuity). In a region where religion is of the utmost importance and where rival claims to land are so bound up with identity, it is of vital importance that the delicate balance between the Israeli authorities and the Waqf remains undisturbed. Evidence of what can ensue if this happens can be seen from recent history: the Second Intifada was sparked off by a visit by Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount in September 2000.
The main element that the media missed, however, was the overwhelming non-violent nature of the mass protests in East Jerusalem. Despite calls from the Palestinian leadership for a ‘day of rage’ worshippers gathered each day for mass prayers at the security cordons around the Old City, and maintained calm and dignity. There was very little violence. Another element that was barely commented on was the fact that Palestinian Christians joined in the mass protests, showing solidarity across religious divides. This is a reality that belies a narrative that would have us believe that the conflict in the region is in essence a religious one, between Jews and Muslims. Although religion plays an important role in the region, the crux of the conflict is in fact about the dominance of one society over another, about sovereignty, identity and human rights.
East Jerusalem has once again fallen out of the world news, and no doubt an uneasy status quo has been re-established since the removal of the metal detectors leading to the al-Aqsa mosque. However, the central imbalance and injustice between Palestinian and Israeli society remains, meaning that peace is at best precarious.