Many people will have been following the escalating, and now hopefully deescalating, tensions at Temple Mount (or Haram Al-Sharif,) in Jerusalem over the last two weeks.
Few people though will have had the privilege of visiting this unique spot, which is as spiritual as it is controversial. I take British political visitors on study tours to Israel and the West Bank so I am lucky enough to have been there half a dozen times. Every time is memorable.
It is an exquisitely beautiful place, consisting of a huge plaza with shady trees and fountains, with the Al-Aqsa Mosque at its southern end and the stunning golden-roofed architecture of the Dome of the Rock at the north.
It is of profound but contested religious, archaeological and historical significance for Jews, Muslims and Christians. Here, the bible tells us Abraham offered to sacrifice his son Isaac. The two Jewish temples stood here, containing the Holy of Holies and the Ark of the Covenant, until destroyed by the Romans. Jews now pray outside the Temple Mount’s Western Wall, the last remaining part of their structure. Scenes from the life of Christ in the New Testament took place here. Sunni Muslims consider it their third-holiest site because they believe Mohammed prayed at the Al-Aqsa Mosque before ascending to heaven from where the Dome of the Rock is.
I am an atheist but I can’t help but be captivated by the spirituality of the place every time I visit.
Usually it is a place of calm and contemplation but it can also be a focal point for religious and political passion. In 2014, just a week before the last Gaza War, I saw Palestinian women lead mass chanting of “Allahu Akbar” and make a three-fingered gesture to celebrate the capture and death of three Israeli teenagers, whilst Israeli border police sprinted across the holy flagstones to head off any attempt to lob stones over the parapet onto the Jews worshiping below at the Western Wall.
Al-Aqsa is an iconic national symbol for Palestinians; any interference in Muslim sovereignty there regarded as a grave insult. They fear that Jews will try to rebuild the Temple in order to fulfil Messianic prophesy, though mainstream religious Jewish opinion is that it is forbidden to go there as it is such a holy place. Some Jews and Christians now want to go there and pray but this is stopped by the Israeli authorities.
The site was in Jordanian hands until the 1967 Six Day War, after which Israel immediately handed over control to the Waqf, a Muslim religious council.
When you enter from the Jewish Quarter of the Old City as a non-Muslim you go through two layers of security checks. Israeli Border Police scan you through a metal detector and airport-style bag check. They are looking to stop not just weapons but “provocative” Jewish or Christian religious books or artefacts from going in. Then the Waqf have the final say, and check you are appropriately modestly attired.
On July 14, the serenity of this holy space was once again shattered. Three terrorists (Arab citizens of Israel) smuggled in automatic weapons. They shot dead two Israeli police, who happened to be Druze (an Arab religious minority) as sensitivities mean non-Jewish police are often used around the Temple Mount compound.
Israel responded by bringing in metal detectors at the other entrances to the Temple Mount which are only open to Muslims.
To us in the UK this would seem to be an obvious and uncontroversial step to increase security at Temple Mount straight after an attack. Indeed, anti-terror measures such as CCTV cameras are standard practice in equivalent historic and religious sites all over the world, from the Vatican to Mecca.
Crucially, enhanced security protects Muslim worshippers as well as Jews praying immediately next door at the Western Wall, international tourists, and security personnel. No-one was being stopped from going there by these measures.
The protests and absurd rhetorical response by the Palestinians and their UK supporters have meant that everyone in Jerusalem is now less safe
The reaction by the Palestinian leadership and Muslim leaders, like President Recyip Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, was extraordinary. Rather than try to calm the situation, the Waqf announced a boycott of worship there as well as endorsing street protests, with violent clashes inevitably following. Protestors demanded the removal of the new security measures. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah Party called for “Rage for the Al Aqsa mosque”. This call was answered. On July 21, a Palestinian murdered three members of a Jewish family while they were enjoying a festive Shabbat dinner, and celebrating the birth of a new grandchild.
The crux of Palestinian anger is about whether Israel is trying to “alter the status quo” regarding the site. Extremist Palestinian preachers and the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel incited violence by warning of non-existent Israeli plots to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque. These claims are echoed in the UK by “Friends of Al-Aqsa”, whose chairman Ismail Patel says "extreme right-wing Israeli politicians are using the shooting as a guise to further their own agenda of wrestling control of Al-Aqsa from the Palestinians”. The Palestine Solidarity Campaign organised a demo outside the Israeli Embassy against the metal detectors.
In contrast, Israel moved to deescalate the crisis. It has ultimately agreed to remove all the new security measures, despite the ongoing security concerns.
The protests and absurd rhetorical response by the Palestinians and their UK supporters have meant that everyone in Jerusalem is now less safe because there will not be adequate checks to stop weapons being brought onto Temple Mount and it could be used again as a jumping-off point for a terror attack. The nearby Jewish and Christian holy sites would be very vulnerable.
The media portrayal of events turned the victims – the people of Israel, who is mourning five more dead citizens – into the “bad guys” for having the temerity to try to bring in security measures that would be the norm anywhere else.
The cavalier disregard for keeping the peace in a city and region that is a tinderbox was extraordinary. This week’s disorder could very easily have degenerated into a full-scale Palestinian intifada, or if Hamas got involved and used rockets from Gaza, a fourth Gaza War, with thousands of civilian casualties.
Israel deserves credit for bringing this back from the brink. It is unlikely to get it from global public opinion, which sees a complex situation with impossible security implications and huge significance for religious and national identities, and reduces it to a cartoon about “bad Israelis” oppressing Palestinians.
Luke Akehurst is Director of We Believe in Israel - http://www.webelieveinisrael.org.uk