By Mohamed Mohamed
As documented by The Jerusalem Fund’s Settler Violence Project using data from the Palestinian Monitoring Group, extremist Israeli settlers have descended on the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on an almost daily basis for many years now. In these “tours,” Israeli settlers and extremists engage in provocative actions against Palestinian worshipers in a deliberate attempt to incite violence. These settlers, whose ultimate goal is to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque and replace it with a Jewish “Third Temple,” are almost always under the full protection of Israeli forces while they carry out such provocations.
These are the same type of people as Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli terrorist who massacred 29 Palestinians and wounded 125 others at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron. It is important to note that these fanatics are also represented within the Israeli government, and their hatred for Christians is just as extreme. (Former Israeli lawmaker Michael Ben-Ari once destroyed a copy of the Bible on video and tossed it in the trash).
Undoubtedly, these constant, state-sanctioned infringements contributed to a rare and isolated shooting on July 14, in which two Israeli police officers were killed by three Palestinians near the Al-Aqsa Mosque complex in Jerusalem’s Old City. After opening fire, the attackers were pursued by Israeli forces and eventually shot dead in the courtyard of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
In response, Israeli authorities sealed off the compound and banned Palestinians worshippers from praying there. This was the first time in almost 50 years that Friday prayers were cancelled at the holy site. Furthermore, Israel imposed tighter restrictions on the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound by installing metal detectors, turnstiles, and cameras at the entrances. These actions led to widespread protests and confrontations between Palestinian men and women and Israeli police and army. Israel also responded to peaceful demonstrations with violence, resulting in multiple Palestinian deaths and hundreds of injuries.
A casual observer might wonder why the installation of additional security measures would cause such outrage. However, the issue for Palestinians goes far deeper than the metal detectors and related devices. These heightened restrictions are just a few symptoms of a much broader disease, which is the Israeli occupation of Palestinians. This illegal occupation, along with its confiscation of homes, land, and resources, the progressive encroachment on holy sites (Muslim and Christian sites alike), and the countless ways in which Israel has deprived Palestinians of their basic human rights since 1948, are the root causes behind Palestinian frustration.
After seizing a majority of Palestinian land in 1948, destroying more than 400 Palestinian towns, and expelling hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, Israel then proceeded to occupy the rest of historic Palestine in 1967, in complete violation of international law. This included the seizure of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, which is where the Al-Aqsa Mosque is located. Therefore, Palestinians refuse to accept increased control over the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound because it never belonged to Israel in the first place. It was occupied by force.
More than 10,000 people pray and congregate peacefully at the Al-Aqsa Mosque each week. Many Palestinian worshippers have been injured or killed over the years by Israeli settlers and forces, but when two Israeli police officers were killed, and under the guise of security, Israel decided to impose further control of the complex (it is worth noting that the three attackers were Palestinian citizens of Israel, and not residents of East Jerusalem or the West Bank). This is just another instance of Israel violating Palestinian sovereignty, restricting religious freedom, and inflicting collective punishment. These are the underlying issues for Palestinians.
Israel’s provocations may seem illogical and risky, especially in such a religiously significant site, but it conforms to a calculated strategy that has been pursued ever since it was established in 1948. To put it plainly, the Israeli strategy is to change the “facts on the ground” by capturing and controlling as much as possible from Palestinians (their land and resources, rights, sovereignty, etc.) in order to entrench itself deeper into Palestine.
This strategy is perfectly depicted by the 1967 war, which is widely accepted in Israeli government circles as a legitimate use of Israeli pre-emptive force in anticipation of an Arab attack. However, using recently declassified documents, Professor John Quigley shows in his 2013 book that Egypt and the Arab states were actually not prepared to attack, and that Israel had initiated a war of aggression.
By the time the war had ended, Israel had seized Gaza, the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Golan Heights. As a result, Israel succeeded in solidifying the original 1948 occupation of Palestine. With Gaza and the West Bank in its control, Israel no longer needed to worry about the right of return and compensation for Palestinian refugees expelled in 1948. As Professor Shibley Telhami points out, the seizure of the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights also helped neutralize the threat from Egypt and Syria, as they now had territories of their own to regain. Palestine was no longer a priority for these states. This gamble paid off, especially with Egypt, which agreed to a peace deal with Israel in 1979 in exchange for its own territory.
Today, Israel continues to try to change the facts on the ground. This is apparent with the tremendous expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, despite agreeing to the Oslo Accords of 1993, which was supposed to bring peace and self-determination for Palestinians. By stealing more land for its own citizens, Israel is severely hindering the prospects for a two-state solution.
With respect to the Al-Aqsa Mosque complex, Israel eventually decided to remove the metal detectors, but is now planning to install advanced security cameras equipped with facial recognition technology. This type of control might be less visible than metal detectors and turnstiles, but it is arguably much more intrusive, especially for a place of worship. This is likely to be just another bargaining chip in the future, whereby Israel will demand additional Palestinian concessions in exchange for their removal, while also acting that it did Palestinians a favor.
A 2016 Pew Survey indicated that almost half of Israeli Jews believe that Palestinian citizens of Israel should be expelled from the country, and 79 percent believe that Jews deserve preferential treatment in Israel. As long as Israeli society maintains such arrogant and discriminatory attitudes, and as long as it continues to support the occupation, it will never understand why Palestinians continue to resist. Desecrating and imposing control of Palestinian holy sites will guarantee endless strife in Palestine, the region at large, and beyond.
Mohamed Mohamed is the Executive Director of The Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center.
The views in this brief are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.