October 30, 2013
As happened in 2000, the Palestine-Israel negotiations are about to end with another eruption of civil unrest because of Jerusalem. The main difference on this occasion is that the parties have not even begun to discuss the Holy City because Israel, with typical contempt and arrogance, has declared unilaterally that Jerusalem is off the agenda. It has, moreover, stepped up its campaign to divide and seize control of Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third most sacred in Islam. Even the oft-pliant President Mahmud Abbas now acknowledges that this trajectory is leading to a religious confrontation. Though fundamentally correct, Mr Abbas's remark will ring hollow as long as he continues to negotiate on other issues.
The notion that the current US-led negotiations will lead to an independent Palestinian state is delusional. Israel's coalition government has made it abundantly clear that it does not intend to have a Palestinian state in the West Bank. Likud-led, it is, after all, the true inheritor of the revisionist Zionist policy articulated by the then Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1978 when he insisted that Israel would only concede "autonomy for the people but not for the land".
On the immediate issue of Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque, Israel is now seeking to confine it to limited rights to worship for Muslims, given on its terms and according to its will. This was represented in a bill proposed by the Deputy Knesset Speaker, Moshe Feiglin (Likud), to regulate the times and space usage of the Noble Sanctuary. In recent months, extremist settlers, accompanied by Israeli soldiers, have carried out almost daily incursions into Al-Aqsa Mosque, either to conduct Jewish religious rituals or raise the Israeli flag and taunt the Palestinians.
This is new and dangerous uncharted territory aimed ostensibly at divesting Muslims of ownership of the mosque. More directly it would render the role of the Palestinian Department of Religious Endowments utterly redundant and replace it with a special commissioner appointed by the occupation authorities. In effect, the plan is to place Al-Aqsa Mosque under the control and supervision of the Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs. That, Feiglin hopes, will normalise the current practice of Jews entering the mosque at any time of their choosing accompanied by a heavy security presence.
Whether the Israeli desecration of non-Jewish religious sites in Jerusalem had anything to do with Pope Francis's decision this week not to meet Benyamin Netanyahu is not known. Whether he was responding to the calls from fellow Christians in Palestine is not clear either. However, what is known for certain is that Palestinian Christians and Palestinian Muslims are all vehemently opposed to the current Israeli provocations in Al-Aqsa Mosque.
This week, the Christian-Islamic Council for the Support of Al-Quds and the Sanctities issued a statement warning of the Israeli plan to divide the mosque, which would allow time and space for Jews to worship to the exclusion of the Muslims who own the site as a religious endowment. Likewise, a statement by Jerusalem's Grand Mufti, Sheikh Mohammad Hussein, condemned recent Israeli plans to build a temple on top of Al-Musalla Al-Marwani, a prayer site located within the Al-Aqsa Mosque complex. This musalla constitutes one-fifth of the total area of the sanctuary and many see this as a first step towards full control by the Israelis.
The Israeli government's policy as pursued by Likud activists and illegal settlers is evidently based on the presumption that the region's governments and people are too preoccupied with their own problems to bother themselves with what happens in Jerusalem. Jordan is burdened with the fall-out from the Syrian conflict and its own political paralysis; Egypt is unstable and dysfunctional; and Saudi Arabia, the region's power broker, is mired in a bitter rivalry with Iran and a worsening dispute with the Americans over Syria. The Israelis will view this as a historic moment that they must seize as such a "perfect storm" may not come along again for a long time.
Israeli designs in Jerusalem were given a huge boost by the overthrow of Egypt's President Morsi in July. For the first time, the leader of the Islamic Movement in Palestine, Shaikh Raed Salah, has told Al-Jazeera this week that he was in regular contact with the Morsi administration to develop a popular international alliance to protect and preserve Jerusalem's Islamic identity. Several of his attempts to visit Egypt for this purpose were scuppered by the "deep state" now running Egypt; the last time was just three days before Morsi was overthrown.
It goes almost without saying that Al-Aqsa Mosque is threatened now more than at any other time since the occupation of Jerusalem began in 1967, yet no one can predict the consequences of Israel's attempt to seize full control of this Islamic sanctuary. While no individual leader or country is capable of reversing the imminent danger, everyone shares a collective responsibility. The marches organised across Egypt on the last Friday of October under the slogan "The steadfastness of Suez is our way to Jerusalem" may be the beginning of the sort of popular response that is needed and has not been anticipated by the Israeli occupation.