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War on Al-Aqsa: what is the price of a Netanyahu victory?

Israel/Palestine
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On February 18, around 70 Israeli settlers guarded by police toured the Noble Sanctuary, the holy sites complex that houses the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock in the Old City in East Jerusalem. Their worship violated a decades old agreement between Israel and Jordan prohibiting Jewish prayer in the compound and marks a steady increase in attempts to erode the Jordanian based Islamic authority’s sovereignty over the area.

Later in the day the Israeli police prevented Muslim entry to religious grounds and clashed with Palestinians who attempted to remove a lock on a fence to the compound added by Israeli forces the week before. Israeli police arrested five Palestinians.

Israeli police also carried out the unusual step of shutting down Bab al-Rahma, or the Golden Gate, which leads to a section of the Al-Aqsa compound that has, itself, been shut down by the Israeli army since 2003. In response, daily Palestinian worshipers have packed the area flouting the closure. The expectation is that police could soon forcibly enter the compound and remove those packing the area by the gate.

The provocative decision to seal the gate last week was made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to a statement made by his office to Yisrael Hayom. Yet Haaretz reported days ago it was revealed that there is no active order to close the gate. The authorization ran out last September and was not renewed, despite the comments claiming otherwise from Netanyahu’s office.

The Noble Sanctuary is home to Islam’s third most holy site and the location of Judaism’s most holy site. The settler’s so-called tours to the compound by extremists Israelis are acts of aggression that violate the tenuous status quo at the Noble Sanctuary, with or without prayer. These provocative walks through the outdoor plaza always include a heavy armed presence of Israeli police, of which is a violation of Israel’s agreement to Jordanian sovereignty over the site. They are often led by Israeli politicians or radicals who have called for the destruction of the Al-Aqsa mosque, known as the Temple movement, a group that was virtually non-existent about a decade ago.

It is quite typical for Israeli politicians to carry out confrontational measures against Palestinians shortly before general elections are due. The nature of these measures is determined by the kind of political constituency that Israeli leaders aim to appease.

However, a war on Gaza, at least for now, is too risky an option for Netanyahu as it would take place too close to the April 9 elections date. Moreover, a botched Israeli attack on the Strip on November 11 caused Netanyahu a major embarrassment, forcing him to shelve the Gaza option for now.

That said, if the Israeli Prime Minister’s political standing grows too desperate in the coming weeks, a Gaza war may, once again, be placed on the table.

Palestinians Muslim worshippers attend Friday prayers at the Golden Gate in Al-Aqsa mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem, on February 22, 2019, after Jerusalem’s grand mufti reportedly opened a gate leading to the site which was previously closed by Israeli authorities. (Photo: Afif Amera/WAFA/APA Images)

Indeed, the political union between Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, which was declared on February 21, has certainly upped the ante for Netanyahu who has assumed that his election victory is a foretold conclusion.

Gantz and Lapid merged their two parties into one election list called Kahol Lavan (“Blue and White”), the single most serious electoral challenge for Netanyahu in years.

For the time being, Netanyahu has decided to appeal to the most messianic religious segments of Israeli society in order to keep his challengers at bay. This should come as no surprise as the religious, ultra-national far right has been backbone of the Israeli leader’s coalitions for a decade.

In fact, weeks before the Gantz and Lapid union, Netanyahu had taken several measures to show signs of goodwill towards his religious constituency.

One such overture was made on January 28, when Netanyahu ordered the Temporary International Presence in Hebron, or TIPH, to leave the occupied Palestinian city of Hebron, or al-Khalil in Arabic. In Hebron around 700 Israeli settlers have been a constant source of violence. Those in settlers in Hebron’s Old City, of whom a number are armed, live under the protection of a massive Israeli army contingency. Both settlers and soldiers have committed abuses against the Palestinian inhabitants of the city for many years.

A joint statement issued by several humanitarian organizations, including Oxfam, Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and Save the Children warned of the terrible fate awaiting the Palestinian community as a result of Netanyahu’s decision.

“Hundreds of civilians, including children, will see their safety put at risk by the withdrawal of international observers deployed in the city of Hebron,” the statement read.

True to form, attacks by settlers followed, as media and rights group reports point to a surge of violence against Palestinian civilians in the city.

By unleashing the wrath of settlers in Hebron, Netanyahu seemingly communicated to his supporters that he remains committed to their settlement project, an unworthy cause that violates international law and comes at the price of protracted human suffering.

Similarly, the Israeli decision to shut down the Golden Gate on February 19 can be viewed as a pre-calculated move, aimed at uniting the entirety of the Israeli right, including the most extremist of all religious and settler groups behind Netanyahu’s leadership in the coming elections.

In fact, a trend began a few weeks earlier. On January 9, the Palestinian Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs documented a sharp increase of Israeli violations, involving the Israeli army and Jewish settlers at holy Palestinian sites throughout the month of December. According to the Organization, over 100 such violations were reported, including 30 different incursions into Al-Aqsa itself, as reported by MEMO.

On January 7 another settler tour with armed police guards in the Al-Aqsa mosque compound involved more than the usual suspects, but was led by Israeli agriculture minister and a strong ally of Netanyahu, Uri Ariel.

This type of politically-motivated and highly militarized “visit” to the Al-Aqsa complex are reminiscent of the infamous visit by then then head of the right-wing Likud party Ariel Sharon in September 2000. At the time, Sharon wanted to increase his chances of becoming Israel’s next prime minister, and to ensure that his arch-rival (then, interestingly enough, the very Benjamin Netanyahu) did not win the Likud party nomination. The gambit worked. Sharon’s actions sparked the Second Palestinian Uprising (2000-05), leading to the deaths of thousands and, of course, securing his seat at the helm of Israeli politics for years.

Netanyahu, ever studious and resourceful, has, indeed, mastered the art of political manipulation as his predecessor did and, once again, Al-Aqsa is the platform for this sinister Israeli politicking.

Netanyahu’s recent decision to strike an alliance with Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) – the rebranded party of the extremist late Meir Kahane – further demonstrates how the current surge of violence around the holy Palestinian sites is a pre-calculated political move by Netanyahu and his government.  

The fact that Netanyahu would bring into his future coalition groups that are the ideological mutation of the Jewish Defense League – which is classified as “terrorist organization’’ by the FBI in 2001 – speaks volumes about the changing relationship between the U.S. and Israel. Thanks to Washington’s blind support of Israel, Netanyahu feels politically triumphant and invincible, even above U.S.’ own laws.

However, to achieve his pathetic dream of being Israel’s longest serving prime minister, Netanyahu should be wary of the bloody consequences that his reckless action is sure to yield. Indeed, Netanyahu may be provoking the kind of violence that is much bigger than his own ability to contain.

Al-Aqsa mosque has served not only as a religious symbol for Palestinians, but a national symbol as well, representing their coveted freedom and serving as a source of hope and unity over the course of generations.

While the blood of Palestinians is irrelevant in Netanyahu’s quest for political dominance, the international community should take immediate measures to prevent what could become an Israeli-induced bloodbath in the coming weeks.

Ramzy Baroud
About Ramzy Baroud

Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London, 2018). He earned a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, UCSB.

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2 Responses

  1. Mayhem
    Mayhem
    March 3, 2019, 6:20 pm

    “Israeli police also carried out the unusual step of shutting down Bab al-Rahma, or the Golden Gate”
    Why is this unusual when it has been closed since 2003 because the group managing the area had ties to Hamas and the Waqf was carrying out construction work Israel deemed illegal and which officials believe has led to the destruction of antiquities from periods of Jewish presence in the area?
    These Islamic officials are constantly champing at the bit to foment trouble.

  2. just
    just
    March 5, 2019, 9:19 am

    “These Islamic officials are constantly champing at the bit to foment trouble. …”

    Nope! Did you even read the article? It is Israel, Netanyahu, the illegal settlers, and the US that are always fomenting “trouble”. Actual incitement from these anti- Palestinian sources have always been the method to meet the goal of no peace, no justice, more suffering for the Palestinians ~ in and out of Israel. The crazy moves by Trump to shutter the PLO mission in DC, to cut funding for the Palestinians and UNWRA, to withdraw from the UNHRC, to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem and now to move the consulate to that embassy and have Squatter Friedman in control. Netanyahu kicked out the TIPH, allows Israeli police- protected illegal settlers to commit violence and Israeli ‘leaders’ to disrupt and violate the rules governing Al- Aqsa. He’s also withholding taxes~ again. Water and electricity are being withheld from the poor prisoners in Gaza. The ritual assassinations and maimings by the IOF at the protests is not a small thing, you know. Neither are the kidnappings of Palestinians in the middle of the night. Dr. Baroud explains much in the article, but obviously you cannot be bothered to read and comprehend.

    Perhaps you can attempt to comprehend this:

    “Electioneering on the Verge of Conflagration …

    In the State of Israel’s backyard, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, signs of a potential new uprising are increasing. The clashes at Bab al-Rahma in Jerusalem’s Old City and along the border with Gaza are the public expression of this volatile situation. But no less dangerous are the economic pressures; Israel halting tax transfers that make up an important part of the Palestinian Authority’s income; the freeze in American aid and the growing unemployment, which each day forces more young Palestinians into poverty.

    The Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet security service, which are closely monitoring these sparks, have already warned the security cabinet of the potential for a conflagration, and are urging the government to ease the conditions for employment in Israel and to release funds to reduce the growing tension. But facing these assessments and proposals is a governmental vacuum that is conducting a political campaign for its survival.

    Such a government, led by a prime minister and defense minister preoccupied with managing his legal entanglements and mobilizing his skills to defend himself against political, legal and media demons, may not notice the threat to state security or may ignore the warnings from the security professionals.

    Now that damaging the Palestinian economic infrastructure has become a political strategy of the right, and competition among the right-wing parties revolves around appeasing the settlers, Judaizing East Jerusalem and remaining “steadfast” against withdrawal from occupied territory, the serious implications of this strategy for state security make little impression on the decision makers. Even worse, the lack of confidence in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judgment raises suspicions that he may view a military flare-up as an electoral lifeline.

    A large-scale violent confrontation is not inevitable. Even without a comprehensive peace process, Israel has ways and means available to reduce the tension. Just as in contradiction to its previous principles, Israel has allowed Qatar to stream tens of millions of dollars into Gaza to calm the violent outbreaks, it can adopt the recommendations of security officials to increase the number of permits for Palestinians to work in Israel, facilitate the transfer of goods and building materials to Gaza, and aid in attracting investors to develop infrastructure in the West Bank.

    The IDF has made it clear it is ready for any war scenario and the chief of staff has ordered preparations made for a conflict with Gaza, but Israeli leaders must not deceive the public into thinking such a confrontation is unavoidable and trumpet the backing that U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration is giving Israel.

    The Israeli government must prove to the public it is taking the threat of a flare-up seriously and immediately use all civilian means at its disposal to dispel it.”

    https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/editorial/electioneering-on-the-verge-of-conflagration-1.6995585

    As in all of the Israeli massacres of Palestinians, it is Israel that will bear responsibility. Many all around the world are finally coming out of their somnolence and realizing the truth and their own governments’ complicity.

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