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A Site Holy to Jews and Muslims Returns as the Nexus of Conflict

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JERUSALEM — Clashes broke out Friday for the seventh time in eight days at the holiest site in Jerusalem, foregrounding how the site — sacred to both Jews and Muslims — has become the newest focus of a monthlong spasm in tensions across Israel and the occupied territories.

The skirmishes between Palestinians and Israeli police at the Aqsa Mosque compound, known to Jews as Temple Mount, followed a deadly wave of Arab attacks in Israel and an ensuing Israeli military crackdown in the West Bank.

The clashes have prompted the fiercest exchange of rockets and missiles between Gaza militants and the Israeli armed forces since an 11-day war last May; militants fired two more rockets on Friday night.

The clashes have also tested Israel’s emerging ties with parts of the Arab world, leading three countries that signed diplomatic agreements with Israel in 2020 to express rare criticism of the Jewish state, and undermining efforts to improve relations with neighboring Jordan. And they have deepened a government crisis within Israel, causing an Islamist party to suspend its participation in the governing coalition and increasing the chances of the opposition winning a majority in Parliament.

Perhaps most strikingly, the clashes illustrated how easily the Aqsa site can be harnessed by extremists on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and why it remains among the most intractable of the obstacles to the conflict’s resolution, as well as the conflict’s ultimate Rorschach test.

To many Jews, the site is the holiest in Judaism, the location of two ancient temples where tradition holds that God’s presence was revealed. To Israelis, it is an essential part of their sovereign territory and capital, and officials have exhibited considerable prudence by limiting Jewish activity there since capturing the site from Jordan in 1967.

To the government, the police interventions there over the past week have been necessary law enforcement operations to quell riots started by Muslim extremists led by Hamas, the Islamist militant group, and to secure access for Jews, tourists and thousands of peaceful Muslims.

To Muslims, the mosque compound is the third-holiest in Islam, a site of Muslim prayer for more than a millennium, and the place from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. To Palestinians, it is occupied territory, as confirmed by the United Nations Security Council and most foreign governments, and part of what should one day become the capital of a Palestinian state. For many Palestinians, confrontations at the compound are a legitimate act of resistance against an occupying power, regardless of who threw the first stone.

Neither perspective is entirely fair, said Michael Koplow, an analyst at the Israel Policy Forum, a New York-based research group. “Everybody needs to understand that both sides not only have real claims, but feel an emotional and symbolic connection to the site,” he said. “It’s not exclusively for anybody.”

Equally, both sides have due cause to doubt parts of the other’s narrative, not least this week.

Though Palestinians have presented themselves as the victims of Israeli aggression at the compound this week, some helped stoke the violence, stockpiling stones, fireworks and gasoline bombs.

On Friday morning, video posted online by a Palestinian outlet showed that the clashes began after dozens of Palestinian youths threw stones at and set off fireworks in the direction of a police outpost on the edge of the compound. Only afterward did riot police enter the forecourt of the mosque.

Similarly, on Sunday morning, riot police entered the site after Palestinian youths blocked the path of a route through the site used by Jews and foreign tourists, and stockpiled stones elsewhere on the route, raising fears that they would attack non-Muslims there.

Hamas, the militant Islamist group, praised the stone throwers several times this week. Some Palestinians involved in the clashes chanted pro-Hamas slogans and carried the green flags associated with the group — raising questions about whether Hamas operatives had played a role in premeditating the unrest, knowing that Israel would likely respond aggressively.

“The Palestinian organizations were not only preparing for it, but advancing it,” said Ehud Olmert, an Israeli former prime minister who once proposed placing the compound and adjacent areas of Jerusalem under shared sovereignty. “They were preparing Molotov cocktails, on Temple Mount, and stones.”

The Israeli authorities took steps to avoid flagrant provocations, arresting several Jewish extremists who were said to be planning a Passover sacrifice at the compound, blocking a far-right Jewish march near the compound this week and, as usual, barring non-Muslims from the compound during the final 10 days of Ramadan.

But these constructive gestures were diluted by heavy-handed tactics like using rubber-tipped bullets against stone throwers and spraying tear gas by drone, and by breaking longstanding conventions barring Jewish worship at the site.

For months, the Israeli police protected Jewish worshipers at the site, breaking a decades-old understanding, aimed at preventing conflict, that allowed Jews to visit but not worship there. That change has created the impression among Palestinians that Israel is trying to unilaterally change the delicate status quo, and further undermine Muslim access to and oversight of one of the most sacred places in Islam.

Similarly, during the clashes on Sunday morning, the Israeli police went beyond securing parity of access to Muslims, Jews and tourists. Instead, the police allowed hundreds of Jews to enter while, unusually, blocking Muslim access to the site for several hours that morning.

Against the backdrop of this kind of perceived provocation, it was unsurprising that young Palestinians lashed out this week, said Moayd Abu Mialeh, 22, a Palestinian who was arrested during the clashes.

“We are humans, we react,” said Mr. Abu Mialeh, who denied personal involvement in the clashes and said they erupted spontaneously. “When the settlers claim they will sacrifice a lamb at Al Aqsa,” he added, young Palestinians “can’t simply open their arms to the settlers and tell them ‘come on in’ to our mosque.”

Unsurprisingly, the complexity of the standoff forecloses any easy solution.

To some Palestinians, the short-term answer is simple: Temporarily shut the compound to non-Muslims while all sides discuss how to secure a long-term solution. In the meantime, the site could be placed under the full control of the Waqf — an Islamic trust, financed and overseen by neighboring Jordan, that currently runs civil matters at the mosque.

In the interim period, Jews could pray as usual at the nearby Western Wall, one of the last remaining sections of the ancient temple complex, said Aladdin Salhab, a member of the Waqf council and the owner of an Old City hotel.

Otherwise, Mr. Salhab said, “we’re adding oil to the fire.”

To Israelis, that idea is far-fetched. For religious Jews, such a move would tear at their spiritual identity. And secular Israelis would also balk at ceding temporary control of a site so central to their national identity, as well as to security in the Old City. From the high compound, Palestinians can throw stones down at Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall.

“For much of the Jewish world writ large, certainly for observant people, you’re asking them to make an almost unacceptable compromise,” said Chuck Freilich, an Israeli former deputy national security adviser.

Even much smaller concessions, like restoring the ban on Jewish prayer at the site, would prove difficult to enact for the Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett. He leads an immensely fragile coalition government that controls just half the seats in Parliament. Several of Mr. Bennett’s lawmakers are from the religious right. They already feel he has compromised too much on Israel’s Jewish identity. Any further compromises might prompt them to defect.

“I don’t envy Bennett — he’s caught in the middle of two extreme factions,” said Mr. Olmert, the former prime minister.

But as prime minister, “you’ve got to take hard decisions sometimes,” Mr. Olmert added. “That’s why you’re there.”

Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting from Nazareth, Israel.



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