Battle for Control in East Jerusalem
As more Arab governments normalize relations with Israel, their governments are intensifying the fight for control over Islamic holy sites in the city
During a stroll inside Jerusalem’s Old City, or a drive around the Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, one cannot help but notice Turkish flags hanging outside shops and atop homes, as well as the affinity and warm welcome extended to Turkish tourists visiting the holy city.
Another sign of the rising Turkish influence among Palestinians is the availability and abundance of Turkish goods in markets in east Jerusalem and throughout the Palestinian territories.
The Turkish presence in east Jerusalem is highly visible. This not only worries Israel, but also is a source of concern for the so-called moderate Arab states, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to champion the Palestinian cause, adding to Ankara’s rising popularity among Palestinians.
Turkey, Jordan and the Arab countries that have normalized relations with Israel in recent months are all working around each other in order to position themselves to strike a deal with Israel for control over Jerusalem’s Muslim holy sites. The country that gains control of the holy sites upgrades its position in the Muslim world.
The holy sites, most notably the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in east Jerusalem, currently are under the custodianship of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan through the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf. This is enshrined in the peace treaty signed in 1994 between Israel and Jordan.
In the last few years, a large number of Turkish visitors to east Jerusalem have come with the main goal of praying at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) operates in east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, pumping millions of dollars into aid, relief and charity projects. The agency said in a statement to The Media Line that the main focus of its projects is humanitarian and restoring Islamic sites.
Ahmed al-Burai, an Istanbul-based Middle East analyst and lecturer at Istanbul Aydin University, told The Media Line that it is important for Turkey to have a presence in Jerusalem.
“In principle, Turkey considers the Palestinian cause one of its main missions in the Middle East, and especially after the arrival of the current ruling AK Party (Justice and Development party) and President Erdogan, the Palestinian cause is at the forefront of its main priorities,” Burai said.
He says that no one should doubt the intentions of Turkish activities in the city, which are meant to preserve Jerusalem’s Islamic identity and to help the city’s Palestinian residents.
Observers say that Turkey has historical claims to guardianship of the holy sites, and that Erdogan has ulterior motives, such as dreams of reviving the Ottoman Caliphate.
“For Turkey it’s a comprehensive issue, particularly Jerusalem is very essential as one of the sacred sites for Muslims, and because of the Caliphate and the legacy of the Ottoman Empire,” Burai said. “Turkey has a commitment toward Jerusalem. That’s why they are sending groups there, whether in terms of education, endowments to support the people of Jerusalem and to preserve the heritage of the Ottoman Empire, and to keep their presence there and to not give a chance to the occupation to erase the Muslim legacy in the city,” he said, highlighting his concern about the Judaization of sites in Jerusalem.
The leadership in Ankara attributes great importance to all territories where Ottomans once ruled. However, given the religious importance of Jerusalem and its significance for political Islam, this presence is becoming even more meaningful when compared to other regions
Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, a researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line that Turkey sees itself as the successor state of the Ottoman Empire.
“The leadership in Ankara attributes great importance to all territories where Ottomans once ruled. However, given the religious importance of Jerusalem and its significance for political Islam, this presence is becoming even more meaningful when compared to other regions,” he said.
Yanarocak added that the recent rapprochement between Israel and some Arab governments has diminished Ankara’s role.
“Recently Turkey’s above-mentioned monopoly of having the only normal relationship with Israel faded away with the Abraham Accords. Especially the opening of the Saudi airspace to Israeli and foreign planes flying to Israel,” he said.
Jordan has for some time been suspicious of Turkey’s activities in east Jerusalem, and specifically those around the Noble Sanctuary of Al-Aqsa Mosque, arguing that it threatens the Hashemite guardianship of Muslim holy sites in the city.
Twenty-six years after the signing of their landmark peace treaty, Jordan’s relations with Israel remain rocky. The Wadi Araba Treaty, which was signed on Oct. 26, 1994, formally ended decades of war between the two neighbors. Jordanian academic Dr. Labib Kamhawi says that Jordan’s role in the city is at risk of being changed.
Kamhawi told The Media Line that the Hashemite guardianship of Jerusalem’s Islamic and Christian sites derives its existence from the Wadi Araba agreement between Jordan and Israel.
“This agreement indicated in one of its clauses that Israel emphasizes the role of Hashemi in the custody of the holy sites. This means that the basis for the legitimacy of this speech is based on Israel and not from Islam, or that it is a religious guardianship based on religious factors,” he said.
This is the danger, says Kamhawi, which is what worries Jordan and its monarchy regarding the Israeli-Saudi rapprochement, and the normalization agreements between Israel and the UAE, and Israel and Morocco.
“Israel agreed that guardianship of the holy places be a right for Jordan, which it can withdraw from Jordan according to its interests. It all depends on political interests,” said Kamhawi.
The issue of Jerusalem is one of the most difficult aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel annexed the city after the 1967 war, a move never recognized by the international community.
“The issue of custodianship is sensitive for the Hashemites because it touches on their religious legitimacy,” according to Kamhawi.
But it’s getting crowded, after the normalization deals between Israel and several Arab states, with experts pointing out that Jordan has more countries competing with it over management of Islamic sites in the holy city.
Even Saudi Arabia, which has not normalized relations with Israel, has its eye on controlling Islamic sites in the city. Following its normalization deal with Israel, Morocco also joined a group of Arab states that wants to claim control of Jerusalem’s Islamic sites.
“Morocco has a special gate in Jerusalem called the Moroccan gate, as a country and as people they have strong ties to the city,” said Burai.
King Mohammed VI of Morocco is head of the Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Committee, formed in 1975, and its chair was assigned to the then-King of Morocco, Hassan II. After his death in 1999 this was passed to his son, King Mohammed VI.
“The Moroccan king calls himself the Commander of the Faithful as well since these religious titles gives these kings divine legitimacy to continue their rule. They say that their judgment has a religious character, and they should not be questioned,” according to Burai.
Criticism also is targeted against the United Arab Emirates, not only for establishing diplomatic ties with Israel, but also for what many Palestinians describe as “suspicious” activities in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Sheikh Kamal Khatib, deputy leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel, told The Media Line that the UAE has an old role in “tampering with the rights of Palestinians and Muslims in Al-Quds Al-Sharif,” the Arabic term for Jerusalem.
Khatib is a harsh critic of the Emirates who accuses Mohammad Dahlan, a rival to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas who was forced out of the West Bank in 2011 because of a fallout with Abbas, of assisting the Emirates in making real estate deals in east Jerusalem.
“Since 2014, we have noticed and witnessed Emirati-Israeli meetings in Jerusalem, with a clear goal of buying and seizing homes in Jerusalem. The money arrived through the Arab Bank east Jerusalem neighborhood branch, and the money came from the UAE, and there is a direct role for Dahlan in this matter,” he said.
Dahlan is an adviser to the UAE crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and has been rumored to have played a role in making the UAE-Israel normalization deal a reality.
Khatib claims that the money Dahlan sends goes toward purchasing Palestinian homes in east Jerusalem under false pretenses.
“The offers consist of buying houses for Emirati businessmen under the pretext of investing, allegedly to build small hotels to receive Muslim visitors who visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Later, the homeowners were surprised that these homes were sold to settlement associations and not to Emirati investors,” he said.
“The UAE is a stabbing the Palestinian cause in the back,” said Khatib.
We must look at the positive side of normalization. I believe that it is in the interest of the Palestinian people now to find countries like the Emirates that have diplomatic relations with Israel
Samer Singlawi, a resident of east Jerusalem and president of the Jerusalem Reconstruction Fund, calls accusations against the UAE unfounded.
“I do not see anything suspicious about the role of the Emirates in Jerusalem. This is an illusion,” he said.
He told The Media Line that Palestinians should embrace their Arab brethren.
“We must look at the positive side of normalization. I believe that it is in the interest of the Palestinian people now to find countries like the Emirates that have diplomatic relations with Israel,” he said.
Singlawi says the UAE does not receive financial aid from the United States, which enables it to makes decisions independent of any financial pressure.
“Its conditions differ from Egypt and Jordan, and it has a strong economy, which gives it independence” in decision making, he said of the first two Arab countries to strike peace deals with Israel, and which both receive US aid.
Singlawi questions Turkey’s involvement in the city.
“I really do not see that Turkey offers anything to Jerusalem and its Palestinian residents. Where are the big projects, where are the huge housing projects? There is nothing. Erdogan raises the slogan of Jerusalem, and so do the Iranians. Does this help us on the ground? No,” he said.
While the Arab countries are fighting among themselves over who should control the Islamic holy sites, Jerusalem remains under the control of their enemy, Israel
Khatib, of the Islamic Movement in Israel, disagrees, saying that: “Turkey works and helps restore homes and shops in Jerusalem. Where are the UAE projects? They invested millions of dollars in a sports club in Jerusalem that is hostile to the Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims.”
Kamhawi, the Jordanian academic, argues that the conflict over management of Jerusalem’s Muslim sites boils down to either a Saudi-Jordanian conflict, or an Arab-Turkish conflict.
“I do not think that the UAE has any ambitions to obtain religious tutelage in Jerusalem. Saudi Arabia is possible because of the family dispute between the Saudi family and the Hashemite family. The title of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, for example, is more important than the title of King because this gives him religious legitimacy,” he said.
Relations between Israel and Turkey are cold at best, but Erdogan told reporters this week that Turkey “would have liked to bring our ties [with Israel] to a better point.”
“If there were no issues at the top level [in Israel], our ties could have been very different,” Erdogan said, apparently blaming Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for the strained relations between the countries.
Israel’s “Palestine policy is our red line… [Israel’s] merciless acts are unacceptable,” he also said.
Turkey criticized the Abraham Accords, which led to Israel establishing diplomatic relations with four Arab countries.
Turkey has repeatedly criticized the Arabs for their ‘weak’ support of Jerusalem.
Burai says Turkey’s involvement in the city is a result of the other Arab governments ignoring their responsibility toward the holy city.
“The most important thing for Turkey is they have to fill the vacuum that the Muslim countries are abandoning the Palestinians,” he said.
“Here lies the great farce: While the Arab countries are fighting among themselves over who should control the Islamic holy sites, Jerusalem remains under the control of their enemy, Israel,” Burai concluded.