Israeli Police Entering Al-Aqsa Mosque Is a ‘Big Mistake,’ Expert Says
Israel is playing into Palestinian propaganda efforts; forces should focus on prevention instead
The Israeli police’s repeated entry into the Al-Aqsa Mosque is a “big mistake” that only serves to inflame tensions with the Muslim world and harm ties with regional partners, an expert in Arab affairs has warned.
Yitzhak Reiter, president of the Middle East and Islamic Studies Association of Israel, is an expert on Islamic, Middle Eastern, and Israeli studies. He previously served as deputy advisor on Arab Affairs for three Israeli Prime Ministers: Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, and Shimon Peres.
“Police should not storm the compound, particularly not in the mosque itself,” Reiter told The Media Line. “It was a big mistake. Police did it to safeguard Jewish visitors that [were about to visit]. For Israel, it would have been wiser to adapt and prevent the Jewish visits; it would have been less costly than what happened.”
Reiter was referring to an incident on Tuesday when Palestinians reportedly barricaded themselves in the mosque and sounded the rocket alert siren on the minaret’s loudspeakers ahead of planned Jewish visits to the compound. Police entered the mosque to disconnect the alert sound.
Police also entered the mosque during violent clashes on Friday morning, arresting 500 Palestinian rioters who were throwing rocks at Israeli security forces. Some 150 others were injured.
Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, also known as the Temple Mount, is Islam’s third holiest place and the holiest site in Judaism and is only partly open to non-Muslims for visits during certain hours. Because of its dual heritage, the compound has long been a flashpoint in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Recent tensions have coincided with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan as well as the Jewish holiday of Passover. Many Jews visit the Old City during the holiday, which began Friday night.
When police enter the mosque, Reiter explained, “youngsters who barricaded themselves in there take videos and publish them via social media and in Arab channels. Every Muslim watching sees a police officer coming in with shoes – which is prohibited inside the mosque – and using stun grenades in the third holiest place in Islam.”
Because it is such a sensitive site, even Palestinians who are unaffiliated with terrorist or extremist groups could easily be swayed by such images to go out and commit violent acts, he cautioned.
For these reasons, police should focus on preventive measures. For instance, to stop stone-throwers from harming Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall, which is located beneath Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, Israel could install a remotely activated barrier such as a fisherman’s net. This solution was considered in the past, according to Reiter, but the Israeli authorities ultimately decided against it out of fear of angering the Jordanian-controlled Waqf that administers the site.
“When the police have information that Muslims are going to go into the mosque at night, they should station themselves around the entrances of the Temple Mount to prevent every youngster from going in during the night,” he explained. “It should be prevented in advance.”
Which Status Quo?
Dr. Ronni Shaked, coordinator of the Middle East Unit at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, told The Media Line that the recent escalation at the Temple Mount is primarily caused by a growing number of Jewish visitors and that Israel must “go back to the status quo.”
Jews are barred from praying at the compound under the status quo agreement that has been in place since 1967, when Israel captured the Old City and east Jerusalem during the Six-Day War.
“Today the Palestinians have no hope for a political solution [to the conflict],” Shaked related. “They have just one symbol – a religious-national symbol – that’s united all the Palestinians and that’s the Al-Aqsa Mosque. They feel that they have something in their hands that’s very important and they have to keep it.”
Though visiting hours for non-Muslims are quite limited, thousands of Jews ascend the mount each month. In fact, 3,818 Jews visited since the start of the Passover holiday and on Wednesday alone, some 1,500 Jews toured the compound, according to local authorities. These numbers represent a record since 1967.
Keeping in line with a similar policy enacted last year, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Tuesday decided to ban any Jewish visits to the Temple Mount during the upcoming two remaining weeks of Ramadan.
“A holy place being used by two religions in one place is a disaster and is taboo,” Shaked asserted. “There is no way to divide a holy place.”
But according to Reiter, the notion of the status quo has evolved over time and there is no one definition.
“Everyone who talks has a different [idea] of what the status quo is,” Reiter said. “It is not a law; it is [a series] mutual arrangements that are being changed dynamically and sometimes even violated, particularly in the last five years.”
In 1967, Israel decided that the Jordanian-controlled Waqf would administer the site and that Israeli police would be responsible for the security of the site. Over the course of several decades, the Waqf and Israeli police also came to a number of different understandings in secret meetings that would shift things on the ground.
More significant changes occurred in 1996 when Israel unilaterally decided to create an opening to the Western Wall tunnels, a decision that infuriated Muslims. In response, the Waqf decided to stop cooperating with Israeli police, particularly in relation to public works on the compound.
“This marks what I call the beginning of the erosion of the status quo,” said Reiter, who has also written several books on the history of the Temple Mount.
The holy site was closed to non-Muslim visitors for three years after future prime minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to the area in 2000, which marked the start of the Second Intifada. In 2003, it was reopened.
“Following the Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip [in 2005], the religious Zionists adopted the Temple Mount as a core issue for their activities,” Reiter related. “For them, it became a new national target to gain more and more sovereign powers over the Temple Mount and to try to ascend frequently with growing numbers and to worship there.”
Religious Zionists also began to view the site differently after a change in Jewish law. Whereas most rabbis had previously said that no Jew should visit the Temple Mount because they could be in danger of transgressing the Holy of Holies, more and more Jewish leaders began to disagree with this ruling and pushed for their followers to go there.
“In the last five years, those visiting the Temple Mount can witness that there are more and more Jewish groups that – under the protection of Israeli police – are conducting prayers,” Reiter said. “When I was there a few months ago, I myself filmed a bar mitzvah ceremony.”
Muslims view such incidents as a threat and believe that Jews are seeking to take over part of the compound.
Nevertheless, Dr. Kobi Michael, former deputy director-general of the Strategic Affairs Ministry and a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), told The Media Line that Israel has made every effort to maintain the status quo.
Like Reiter, he argued that Palestinians were using the images of Israelis entering the mosque in order to stoke tensions.
“They know what effect these images make on other Palestinians who are not in the compound,” Michael said. “The Palestinian Authority and Hamas use this to escalate the situation and say that the Jews want to occupy Al-Aqsa. They use social networks in a very effective way.”
Michael, who is also the editor of the INSS’s Strategic Assessment journal, argued that the current wave of violence has been orchestrated by Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
“Nothing is surprising here. Everything is very well-composed, constructed, organized, in the sense that Hamas prepared everything from last May,” he said. “They prepared themselves for this Ramadan. Jerusalem is the optimal arena for them.”