The Talmud, a canon of Jewish civil and ceremonial law, asserts that “Ten measures of beauty descended to the world, nine were taken by Jerusalem.”
But what if God wanted to do even more to ensure that Jerusalem would always remain the center of attention? In a bit of dark humor heard often around Jerusalem, the answer is that God would make a single site holy to both Jews and Muslims and let them figure it out until the end of days.
It is therefore no surprise that Jerusalem’s latest crisis revolved around that single plateau that Jews revere as the Temple Mount and Muslims venerate as the Noble Sanctuary.
The latest eruption seems to be over, but its legacy is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.
Late last week, Israel agreed to remove all traces of the metal detectors it had installed two weeks earlier, after three Arab-Israeli gunmen killed two Israeli police officers guarding the sacred site. The security measures ignited fierce protests from Muslims wanting to attend daily prayers at the al-Aqsa mosque.
But even as the compound returns to a reassuring and calm routine, the showdown has recalibrated Israel’s assessment of Palestinians’ ability to disrupt daily life, Palestinian protest tactics and the Arab world’s attitudes toward the Palestinian quest for statehood.
“This was a model for how you can get your rights via non-violent protest,” Ahmad Mustafa Sublaban, chief researcher at the Ir Amim NGO, said of the thousands who clogged the streets to pray because they refused to pass through the added Israeli security measures. “The central question now is whether this model will exist only for al-Aqsa or whether it will spread to political matters and issues related to the Israeli occupation.”
Both Israelis and Palestinians agree that Benjamin Netanyahu mishandled the crisis. The Israeli prime minister disregarded the advice of his intelligence chiefs, who had cautioned him that Palestinians would perceive the additional screening as a change in the site’s status; polls indicate he alienated the majority of Israelis for subsequently “capitulating” to Arab demands for their removal.
Ebullient Palestinians, who are relishing their rare victory in a battle of wills with Israel, consider Netanyahu’s failure to anticipate the magnitude of their response a welcome gift.
Mahmoud Muna, a well-known East Jerusalem bookseller, chuckles, “We should be sending letters to Netanyahu to thank him for how he managed to reinvent Palestinian society at its most beautiful.”
Overall, the sustained demonstrations against Israel’s deployment of the metal detectors unified the fractured Palestinian political arena, with Palestinian Christians joining the protests in front of the mosque. “The Palestinian cause needs all Palestinians,” said Nidal Aboud, a Christian man who became a symbol of religious co-existence after social media video showed him reading his Bible amid Muslims performing Friday prayers.
No less importantly, the successful sit-ins re-ignited the Arab world’s interest in the Palestinian claim for statehood. That interest has been flagging of late: In the summer of 2014, at the nadir of the Gaza War, Arab states pledged the Palestinians $5.4 billion in aid. By year’s end a mere $100 million was delivered.
But while these countries may be cavalier about Palestinians’ yearning for a sovereign state, the entire Muslim world is united in its devotion to al-Aqsa, the site from which Mohammed is said to have risen to heaven.
Jordan’s King Abdullah, who has administrative and religious authority over the compound, tweeted jubilantly that “through common stand with our Palestinian brethren, we secured reopening of Al Aqsa Mosque in its entirety.” Saudi Arabia, one of the countries that failed to fulfill its pledges to Palestinians, tried to muscle in on the Jordanian monarch’s credit for solving the strife by announcing that King Salman had been in contact with the United States and other world powers to defuse tensions at the mosque. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan risked a diplomatic rift with Israel when he called on Turks to rally because “Israeli soldiers carelessly pollute the grounds of Al-Aqsa with their combat boots.”
Meanwhile, the win is already inspiring a new assertiveness among Jerusalem’s Palestinian population.
Tuesday was the Jewish mourning day of Tisha B’Av, the date that commemorates the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. Over 1,300 Israeli Jews made their way to the Temple Mount under heavy police escort. No Israeli minister denounced them for incitement, but Muslims were outraged.
At midday, the Palestinian outlet al-Quds (Jerusalem) tweeted that “468 Jewish settlers protected by occupying forces stormed Al-Aqsa Mosque on the anniversary of their so-called ‘destroyed’ Temple.”
By evening, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Al-Safadi said “the numbers of extremists taking over Al-Aqsa is at an all-time high not seen since that start of Israeli occupation in 1967.”
Speaking at an Organization of Islamic Cooperation foreign ministers’ conference in Turkey, he said, “The crisis is over, but many more and far more dangerous crises will erupt as a result of continued Israeli violations.”
Anwar Ben Badis, a Hebrew University professor of Aramaic linguistics and an expert on al-Aqsa, says Palestinians “are pursued by fear over the future” of the mosque. “Secular Palestinians, Christians, the whole of society saw itself as the guardian of al-Aqsa,” he says, “not for religious reasons, but because the Jewish state wants to confiscate it.”
Most Israelis have no interest in taking over the Temple Mount, but a loud minority of right-wingers with representation in Netanyahu’s cabinet talk openly of tearing down its mosques. Some of the Jewish worshipers there on Tuesday wore T-shirts showing cranes destroying al-Aqsa and the iconic golden cupola of the Dome of the Rock in order to build a new Temple.
It is to them, the provocateurs, that Ben Badis replies “it’s a political act to resist, in order to safeguard the homeland.” It’s a resistance, and a vigilance, that is here to stay.