image of jerusalem 2017

Religion & Politics in Jerusalem: an incendiary combination!
The metal detectors and face-recognition cameras installed by Israel at the entrance to Al-Aqsa Compound were no more than the latest hurdle on a long and bumpy road. And in a sense, their removal was not a voluntary or even magnanimous gesture by the Israeli government but part of a deal struck by HM King Abdullah II with PM Benyamin Netanyahu for the return of Israeli embassy officials to Jerusalem following the shooting ‘incidents’ in Amman.

30 July   |   2017   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

But this was not the first such hurdle, and it was not merely about airport-style machines or cameras either. I am long enough in the tooth to remember the Six-Day War of 1967 when Israeli Jews occupied Arab East Jerusalem and exclaimed triumphantly that they will finally pray at the Temple Mount. Since those days, this walled territory of 35 acres (or 144 dunams) that is known interchangeably as Al-Haram Al-Sharif or Al-Aqsa Compound, has witnessed many ugly sagas and challenging standoffs.

Remember 1969 when al-Qabali Mosque was set on fire, or Black Monday and the al-Aqsa massacre in 1990? Remember also those who died in 1996 during the protests over the opening of a new Kotel tunnel by the Israelis under the Western Wall? Or the second Intifada in 2000 that was set off in part by Ariel Sharon prancing around with a cock-a-hoop attitude on the compound? Since then, confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli settlers, always protected by Israeli forces, have led to an escalation of violence in both Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

Instead of opposing any move that would exacerbate tensions, Israel has been striving all along to achieve its political aims of encroaching on Palestinian lands through religious means. It is disingenuous: appropriate the lands on the basis of a political ideology and then claim that those lands are in fact being taken on religious grounds. Israel has even mooted a concept of sharing this Noble Sanctuary by Jews and Muslims. It has suggested time-sharing and space-sharing whereby Muslims and Jews will enter the Al-Aqsa Compound for prayer at separate times. In so doing, it has used the arrangements at the Ibrahimi Mosque (known to Jews as the Cave of Patriarchs) in Hebron as a future template for Jerusalem. In Hebron, for instance, Jews enjoy the use of 60% of the mosque whilst Muslims have 40%.

Consequently, Jewish religious settlers have been fighting to seize those rights on religious grounds and government officials have encouraged them for political reasons. Only last week, Al-Resalah newspaper reported Bezalel Smotrich from the Jewish Home party calling for the building a synagogue inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque courtyard. A heady mix when religion and politics coalesce in such an incendiary manner. And the outcome is that any opening is grabbed to etch new realities on the ground. After all, has this not been the case all along with myriad illegal settlements?

This is how I see the issue of metal detectors. In their own right, they are one small factor. But viewed broadly, they become a tool for the gradual but inexorable control of Palestinian territory in such a way that it does not jolt Arab and Muslim sensibilities let alone ruffle the international community - including the EU. And any enhancement in the rights of Israeli Jews ineluctably leads to a reduction in the rights of Palestinian Muslims - until such day as Muslims in Palestine and the larger ummah wake up to the fact that the arrangements of Hebron have been cloned in Jerusalem too.

But there was a difference. In the past, the Arab and Muslim Worlds have defended the rights of Palestinians and Muslims to this third holiest site for Islam. From Saudi Arabia to Morocco, and from Egypt to Jordan, these countries had used their moral and political stature to impede the unfurling of such predatory and provocative designs.

Following the Arab uprisings of 2010, though, the regional political topography has changed noticeably - in some cases subtly and in others bluntly. These days, the Arab masses are far too busy with their own Sisyphean struggles against the despotism of their rulers to clamour for Palestinian rights. In fact, Palestine today garners more official support outside the Arab World than inside it. Few are the Arab governments that still stand by Palestinian rights - be they for self-determination or movement and worship. Indeed, new alliances are clearly being forged and new enmities are also being honed: Israel is more of a strategic ally with whom to share intelligence than to fight over holy sites and peoples’ usurped rights. With Iran the arch-nemesis of some Arab leaders, the enemy of my enemy has become my friend.

This is why it also pains me to watch the so-called Anti-Terror Quartet expending so much theatrics blockading Qatar - one of their own - and castigating it for actions that are no different from those of its accusers. Would it not be better if they invested their time, energy and money defending Arab rights that are being poached stealthily but progressively?

Political mistakes have often tended to come back and haunt Arab leaders: I hope this will not be the case too.

This piece is a slightly edited version of an Opinion that appeared in Al-Jazeera (English) on 27 July 2017

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2017   |   30 July


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