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.
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.