Questions of security and sovereignty between Israelis and Palestinians have once again come to a deadly collision—this time at one of the holiest sites in Judaism and Islam.
JERUSALEM—Israelis and Palestinians are on the cusp of another round of violence, this time over metal detectors. The long-running conflict has seen many episodes of unrest, but none perhaps as avoidable as this most recent one.
The proximate cause was a terror attack perpetrated on July 14 by three Arab Israeli citizens at the entrance to the most sensitive site in this most sensitive of cities: the Haram ash-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) compound, site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest place of worship—which Jews refer to as the Temple Mount, site of the biblical Jewish Temple. Two Israeli policemen were killed in the shooting attack, prompting Israeli authorities to install metal detectors at the compound’s various entrances to stop the smuggling in of guns and other weapons.
This step was met with fierce opposition not just by Palestinian leaders but by a wide swath of the Arab and Muslim world, who viewed the new security measures as a violation of long-standing agreements over how the holy site was governed. Local worshippers refused to use the metal detectors, choosing instead to pray on the streets outside the compound.
International efforts to broker a compromise agreement last week, reportedly involving Saudi Arabia, Jared Kushner, and Jordan (which helps administer the site) all failed. This may be partly attributable to the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbaswere abroad—the former lecturing European leaders about Muslim immigration and tech innovation, the latter to discuss a non-existent peace process with the Chinese government. Both leaders returned home on the eve of a looming showdown to a house already on fire.
Muslim leaders in Jerusalem had called for mass demonstrations at Al-Aqsa during Friday prayers; the Israeli cabinet, in a late-night session, refused to remove the metal detectors.
“We reject totally the cabinet’s decision to keep the metal detectors at the entrance to the Holy Sanctuary,” Sheikh Mustafa Tawil, head of Jerusalem’s Sharia Council, told reporters that morning. “This is a place totally sanctified, ruled, governed, and administered by the Muslim worshippers and Palestinians.”
On the Israeli side, the metal detectors are now a matter of “national pride” and “deterrence,” as one prominent columnist put it, not to give in to threats of incipient violence.
No matter that the cabinet had sided with the National Police, against the advice of both the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Shin Bet (the vaunted domestic intelligence service) who recommended removing the metal detectors. No matter, too, that the only minister with real security bona fides—retired IDF Gen. Yoav Galant—voted against the majority of his cabinet colleagues, saying later that with respect to capacity, it was “impossible to move tens of thousands of people, especially those who aren’t interested and raising provocations, through these gates at a reasonable time period for entry to prayers.”
Ultimately, a major Israeli police operation on the day of the planned demonstrations successfully averted mass unrest in the streets of East Jerusalem. The overwhelming police presence, roadblocks, targeted arrests, age limits on worshippers granted entry to the holy site, and, unprecedentedly, checkpoints on the highways into Jerusalem to stop Arab Israelis from joining the protests, had apparently done the trick.
Yet three Palestinians were killed in follow-up clashes with Israeli forces in Jerusalem and the West Bank, which was then followed by a brutal terror attack later in the night in a West Bank settlement that claimed the lives of three Israelis. In a final message on his Facebook page, the knife-wielding attacker, a 19-year-old Palestinian from a neighboring village, made his motivations clear.
“They desecrate the Al-Aqsa mosque and we are asleep, it’s a disgrace that we sit idly by,” he wrote.
The Israeli government and police, it seemed, had won a fleeting tactical battle over the metal detectors, but were in danger of losing the wider strategic war. Abbas, responding to overwhelming public sentiment, suspended ties with Israel over the weekend—including, most ominously, security coordination between the Palestinian Authority’s security forces and Israel.
Palestinian leaders, moreover, have rejected any compromise agreements that have been floated, such as replacing the metal detectors with handheld wands or advanced cameras.
For its part, the Israeli establishment has been riven with recriminations over who exactly was responsible for the metal detector decision in the first place, how the decision was made, and what was now required to avoid a wider conflagration. Yet politically there seems to be less introspection, and less mood for compromise—especially from Netanyahu’s rightwing base. Three dead Israeli civilians haven’t increased the government’s appetite for taking steps perceived to “reward” violence.
Netanyahu himself rejected the Al-Aqsa connection, declaring that the terror attack was an act committed by a “wild beast incited by Jew-hatred.” Other Israeli politicians, including from the opposition, have also drawn a direct line between Palestinian incitement and the recent unrest. Repeated Israeli government assurances that there will be no change to the “status quo” over how the holy site is governed have done little to allay Palestinian fears.
Crises in and about Al-Aqsa have in the past led to serious bouts of Israeli-Palestinian violence, most recently in late 2015. As anyone who has spent time in Palestinian homes and offices can attest, visages of Jerusalem, the golden Dome of the Rock, and Al-Aqsa are ubiquitous. Jerusalem is “like playing with nuclear weapons,” Jibril Rajoub, a senior Palestinian official, told The Daily Beast earlier this year.
This sentiment was echoed over the weekend by Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit, who said “Jerusalem is a red line that cannot be crossed.” One unnamed Israeli security official already warned that the events of the past week were “a strategic event that crosses beyond the boundaries of Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. This is at present a Muslim-wide event” that could have regional implications. Late Sunday night, an Israeli security officer was seriously injured in a suspected terror attack at the Israeli embassy in Amman, Jordan; two local men were reported killed as well.
It’s tough to find a better metaphor for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than this latest saga involving metal detectors. For Israelis, it was all about ensuring security in the aftermath of a fatal terror attack, and one, they were at pains to stress, common to holy sites all around the world—no matter that the step may have been both impractical and counterproductive.
For Palestinians, it was all about asserting sovereignty over a site rife with national and religious import—no matter that this sovereignty is heavily qualified by overall Israeli rule over Jerusalem.
As of this writing, the Trump administration is reportedly attempting to broker a deal that will help lower tensions, with U.S. presidential envoy Jason Greenblatt expected in the region on Monday. A similar crisis in 2014 was effectively defused by then Secretary of State John Kerry. Compromise will be difficult for both sides.
The Palestinian leadership has demanded nothing less than a full Israeli reversal; Al Aqsa has remained largely empty, and Muslim worshipers are still praying on the streets, clashing sporadically with Israeli police. The Israeli Right has maintained a hard line as well. “We are a sovereign Jewish state in the Land of Israel, surrounded by an ocean of radical Islam,” Education Minister Naftali Bennett, of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, wrote to his Facebook followers. “We can defeat terrorism… never give in.”
Most worrisome going forward is the suspension of security coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, a move liable to truly escalate matters on the ground. It remains to be seen how far-reaching this Palestinian decision will be. Both sides are already posturing publicly, claiming the other has more to lose from the severing of such ties. But taken to its possible conclusion, it will leave Israel with even less security, and Palestinians with even less autonomy (if not sovereignty) than they already have. As one Israeli analyst put it, sometimes it’s better to be smart than right.
*Neri Zilber is research associate at the Rubin Center, focusing on Middle East politics and culture. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.