Temple Mount Tensions Rise, Amid PA Diplomatic Campaign
The Palestinian Authority has been waging a diplomatic campaign against Israel for the past two weeks over what it terms “provocations” on the Temple Mount.
At a closed briefing for foreign ambassadors last Tuesday, PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad warned that the situation on the mount could quickly deteriorate into a “loss of control” by the PA and asked them to submit official protests to Israel over its “provocations” there, a senior Israeli government official said.
That prompted Sweden, which holds the European Union’s rotating presidency, to ask Jerusalem to work to calm the situation during this week’s Jewish holidays.
While the PA has always conducted intensive diplomatic activity with regard to Jerusalem, it has previously focused on issues such as Israeli construction in East Jerusalem or the eviction of Palestinian families from homes in the city’s Arab neighborhoods. But following the clashes on the Temple Mount last Sunday, the eve of Yom Kippur, it began warning the international community about the possibility of a conflagration there.
According to reports that have reached Israel about Fayyad’s meeting with the ambassadors, the PA prime minister described last Sunday’s clashes as “an assault by extremist religious settlers on the Temple Mount compound” and said it was “a provocation planned in advance that was aimed at sabotaging the peace process and derailing [U.S.] President [Barack] Obama’s peace initiative.”
Warning that the situation on the mount was flammable and could swiftly deteriorate, he added, “I remind you that this is where the Al-Aqsa Intifada began, after [Ariel] Sharon’s visit” to the mount in September 2000. “The Palestinians’ popular response stems from the Israeli aggression, and we are liable to lose control over events.”
He therefore urged the ambassadors to protest to Israel and “demand a change in its behavior” on the mount.
Fayyad’s description of last Sunday’s events bears no resemblance to Israel’s version. According to senior Israeli officials, members of a right-wing Jewish organization did indeed declare their intent to ascend the mount on the morning of September 27, but police prevented them from even entering the Temple Mount compound.
Shortly thereafter, however, a group of French tourists – most of them Christians – came to the mount for a previously arranged tour, and hundreds of Palestinian worshipers, who had apparently been awaiting the right-wing activists, began hurling stones at them. Police responded with tear gas, and in the ensuing clashes, 30 people were wounded – half of them policemen and half Palestinians.
Nevertheless, Fayyad’s plea drew a swift response from the United States and many EU countries, all of which demanded explanations of last Sunday’s events from Israeli officials.
The United States was satisfied by Israel’s explanation and dropped the matter. However, several European countries – headed by Sweden, whose relationship with Israel has also been deteriorating – sent worried messages demanding that Israel work to calm the situation.
The tensions reached a peak last Tuesday, when the Palestinians told several foreign embassies that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intended to accompany right-wing activists to the East Jerusalem village of Silwan to dedicate a new tunnel.
In fact, Netanyahu was merely planning to treat his senior aides to dinner at a nearby restaurant – an event that was ultimately canceled due to a heavy work load. Nevertheless, both American officials in Washington and the U.S. Embassy in Israel contacted the Prime Minister’s Office to demand explanations for the alleged tunnel dedication, while senior officials in Sweden’s Foreign Ministry demanded similar explanations of Israel’s ambassador in Stockholm.
Possible new clashes
Police are now preparing for a possible new round of clashes today, when tens of thousands of Jewish worshippers are expected to come to the Western Wall to hear the traditional priestly blessing.
There were several violent incidents in the Old City Sunday, after the Islamic Movement urged Arab demonstrators to come to the Temple Mount to “defend Al-Aqsa [Mosque].”
In one incident, at about 10 A.M., Arabs from northern Israel and East Jerusalem began throwing stones and bottles at police on Motta Gur St., near the Old City’s Lions Gate. Two policemen were lightly wounded and five demonstrators were arrested.
Yesterday afternoon, Arabs threw stones and Molotov cocktails at a Border Police roadblock near the Shuafat refugee camp. The incident produced no casualties.
Also yesterday, police arrested the deputy head of the Islamic Movement, Sheikh Kamel Khatib, and Hatem Abdel Qader, who is in charge of Jerusalem for the PA’s ruling Fatah party, on suspicion of incitement to violence.
A court released them on bail on condition that they stay out of the Old City for 15 days.
This morning, police plan to restrict entry to the Temple Mount to Muslim worshipers aged 50 or older – a move that has in the past proven effective in preventing clashes on the mount. It will also bar Jews and tourists from entering the mount, to forestall friction with Muslim worshipers.
Thousands of policemen and border policemen will be stationed in the Old City and throughout both East and West Jerusalem to protect the tens of thousands of visitors who are expected to flock there today.