The proximate cause of the tension is jockeying by extreme Palestinian and Jewish groups that fuse nationalism with religion. But when a fire begins at the Mount, it is always fueled by wider issues. Right now those issues include continued Palestinian disappointment with American diplomacy and Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas’s precipitous loss of public credibility.
Al-Aqsa under Israeli rule has become Palestinians’ most powerful symbol of occupation.
In 1990, an announcement by the tiny Temple Mount Faithful group that it would lay a cornerstone for the Third Temple led to a Muslim riot at the Haram. An unprepared, outnumbered Israeli police contingent used live fire, killing a score of Palestinians.
On the other hand, as the site of the First and Second Temples in ancient times, the Mount is the holiest spot in Judaism — and a very tangible symbol of Jews’ historical connection to their homeland. Right-wing politicians have exploited that symbolism with disastrous consequences. In 1996, in his first term as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu opened a tunnel along the side of the Mount, setting off a week of pitched battles. Then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon’s demonstrative visit to the Mount in 2000 was the spark for the Second Intifada.
In each case, though, an incident at the holy site was a detonator because the atmosphere was already explosive. The 1990 violence was an escalation of the first Palestinian uprising. Diplomacy was deadlocked in 1996 after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the election of Netanyahu. Sharon’s visit followed the failure of the Camp David summit.
the Hebrew media has paid little attention to the growing number of religious rightists visiting the Mount to assert Jewish ownership. A publicist for far-right organizations told me that “hundreds of Jews” have been visiting the site weekly, usually in organized groups.
When diplomacy appears deadlocked, the chances of violence rise, and Jerusalem’s most holy space is always available as a pretext. Deploying extra police along the Street of the Chain might keep the calm for now. After all, the city does have a reputation for miracles But if Netanyahu, Abbas and Obama are looking for a practical way to avoid a new blow-up in Jerusalem, they need to restore faith in peace negotiations as an alternative.