I wouldn’t blame you if you’ve missed this developing story in Israel/Palestine; after all, a lady and her boyfriend took a bicycle ride together yesterday, and we’re about to elect some new people to Congress so they can get plenty more nothing done, and there’s only so many (24) hours in a day to cover the news, you know? But anyway, after an Islamic Jihad terrorist (who has since been killed in an alleged gun battle with police) shot an activist rabbi, Yehuda Glick, on Wednesday, Israeli authorities yesterday decided to close all access to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, which is sacred to both Jews and Muslims. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called the site’s closure “a declaration of war” against the Palestinians, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for calm in the city one minute and then blamed Abbas for causing the crisis the next. The authorities later announced that the site would be reopened for the communal Friday prayer, but then said that Muslim men under the age of 50 would still be barred from entering, leaving plenty of potential for a violence. So far it seems that there have been clashes between police and protesters, but nobody has been killed.
What’s behind the crisis? Zack Beauchamp at Vox cites a couple of experts who say that there’s been an undercurrent of violence around East Jerusalem since well before this summer’s murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, which led eventually to Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. But the tension that underlies that violence, the attempt on Glick’s life, and the tension over closing the Temple Mount goes back almost 50 years, to the 1967 Six Day War. Prior to the war, the area, like all of East Jerusalem, belonged to Jordan, but Israel captured it during the war, along with the rest of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula (which they later gave back to Egypt). Nobody has figured out how to manage the competing faith claims on the site since then.
The Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif is fundamentally important to both faiths. For Jews, it’s the site of the First (Solomon’s) and Second (Herod’s) Temples — Herod’s for sure and most likely, although there’s scant archeological evidence for it, Solomon’s as well — as well as (allegedly) the site where Abraham bound Isaac for sacrifice and where God rested during the Creation, then where he gathered the dust he used to create Adam. Today it’s home to the Western Wall, parts of which are the only bits of the Second Temple that are still standing today and which is the holiest site in the modern Jewish faith. For Muslims, it’s the place where Muhammad touched down during his miraculous Night Journey, and from whence he journeyed on up to Heaven to speak to God directly. The Dome of the Rock, which was built around the turn of the 8th century by the Umayyads, supposedly sits over top of the Foundation Stone, which was both the stone upon which the Ark of the Covenant once sat and the precise spot from which Muhammad ascended. The Haram al-Sharif, which comprises the Dome of the Rock and the neighboring Al-Aqsa Mosque, is the third holiest site for Sunnis and also has high standing for Shiʿa, though the burial shrines for Ali and Husayn (at Najaf and Karbala in Iraq) may be considered somewhat more sacred. Maybe you’ve seen the movie Kingdom of Heaven? The scene toward the end when Balian threatens to destroy Jerusalem’s holy places in order to get Saladin to offer favorable terms of surrender is based on Islamic sources of their actual encounter. The fact that Balian’s threat (bluff?) seems to have worked, or at least that Muslim historians were comfortable portraying it that way, illustrates how much value the city has historically held for Muslims.
Of course, the political context in which the religious tensions play out has to do with who controls Jerusalem. Israel has always claimed the full city as its national capital, even when the eastern half was in the territory of another country, but the Palestinians insist that when (if?) there is a Palestinian state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem will be its capital. The 1947 UN resolution that created Israel and Palestine designated Jerusalem as corpus separatum, belonging to neither but instead under international rule, which is in fact still the normative position of the U.N., the U.S. State Department, the E.U., Russia, etc., though they all recognize Israel’s de facto control over at least the western half of the city. When the 1948 Arab-Israeli War began, however, both sides ignored the U.N. plan and seized the two halves of the city, Israel controlling the west and Jordan the east.
The potential for clashes over the holy site itself has been mitigated somewhat by a longstanding rabbinical prohibition against Jews setting foot on it. If you know your Bible, then you know that there were parts of the Temple complex that were absolutely forbidden for anyone other than maybe the High Priest to enter, and the prohibition’s logic has always been that Jews who go onto the Temple site run the risk of inadvertently stepping into one of those areas. That prohibition has been challenged and/or ignored by a growing number of Israelis who seem to be motivated less by fear of being struck down for stepping in the wrong place and more by the desire to stake a nationalist claim to East Jerusalem and everything, including the Temple Mount, in it, Palestinian/Muslim concerns be damned. That same sentiment is what drives Israeli government’s continued plans to build more Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem despite the tension and international condemnation such settlements inevitably provoke. Glick is one of the leaders of this movement to encourage more Jews to visit the Temple Mount, and was at one time the director of a group that is actively preparing for the construction of the prophesied Third Temple on the site, which explains (but does not excuse, let’s be clear) why he was targeted.
Obviously there’s no solution to the dispute over Jerusalem or the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in sight. The best that can be hoped for is to keep tensions to a minimum and avoid a full outbreak of violence, but even that may not be possible at this point. If you know the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you probably recall that the Second Intifada, in which around 1000 Israelis and as many as 3300 Palestinians were killed, began in 2000 when “Man of Peace” Ariel Sharon, then the leader of the Likud Party, provocatively visited the site accompanied by a large delegation and a squadron of riot police. The site also factored into the First Intifada, in the October 1990 Al Aqsa Massacre, when a group of Palestinians attacked Jews worshiping at the site and around 20 of them were killed by Israeli security forces. So it’s not out of bounds to ask if we’re seeing the beginning of a Third Intifada in the current situation, assuming that the Third Intifada hasn’t already begun.