Palestinian waqf (endowment) officials responsible for running the day-to-day affairs at al-Haram al-Sharif (noble sanctuary) in East Jerusalem have continued to reject heightened security procedures imposed by Israeli authorities since Friday, July 14. Palestinians are also boycotting prayer at the compound, until the changes are reversed.
The protests follow a two-day closure of al-Haram al-Sharif, and the installation of metal detectors and additional cameras by Israeli authorities. The stated reason for these measures was a fatal shooting on Friday, which left two Israeli police officers dead and another wounded near the Old City’s Lion’s Gate entrance. Israeli authorities identified three Palestinian citizens of Israel, who were killed in the confrontation, as the assailants.
al-Haram al-Sharif is home to some of Islam’s holiest sites, including the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque. It is also a national icon, symbolizing Palestinian history, identity, and resilience in the face of Israeli settler-colonialism.
This past Friday was the first time in decades that Friday prayers were not permitted at al-Aqsa. According to waqf officials, the last such closure occurred during the first intifada in the autumn of 1990. Before that, Israeli authorities had suspended Friday prayers in August 1969, after an Australian tourist set fire to Salah ad-Din’s pulpit in the al-Aqsa mosque.
Israeli officials insist that the new measures are necessary for security. Palestinians, however, accuse the government of using the police shooting as a pretext to alter the status quo over the compound.
This arrangement was originally codified in 1757 by Ottoman Sultan ‘Uthman III. It was issued specifically to settle disputes over the maintenance of holy places and the conduct of ritual. But, it also acted to formally recognize a tradition of local, autonomous control over holy sites. After Israel conquered East Jerusalem in June 1967, this status quo became the basis for an unofficial modus vivendi between Israeli authorities and local religious dignitaries. Aiming to acclimate Palestinians to Israeli rule (and placate international criticism of the occupation), Israel established informal relations with Palestinian religious authorities, permitting them a measure of (semi-autonomous) control over their institutions.
While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists the new measures are not precursors to an overall policy change, Palestinians have many reasons to believe that Israel is, yet again, attempting to create new facts on the ground. First, the initial closure and subsequent changes were done without consulting Jordanian Islamic authorities, who are official custodians of the compound according to a 1994 treaty.
Second, high profile Israeli lawmakers are openly calling for the re-assessment of administrative and security arrangements governing al-Haram al-Sharif. In fact, the new security measures were imposed against the backdrop of a proposed bill, approved by the Knesset, that would make Israeli withdrawal from East Jerusalem all but impossible. It stands to reason that the Israeli right’s muscle-flexing over occupied Jerusalem would extend to the holy sites.
Finally, a growing number of nationalist-religious Israelis, including lawmakers and ministers, want to enforce Jewish prayer rights at, if not full Israeli sovereignty over, the site. Not to be outdone, some are even seeking to re-build the Third Jewish Temple on the sanctuary’s grounds – a move that would necessitate the destruction of existing Muslim holy places. According to waqf officials, in 2016, Israeli police permitted a record number of incursions by Israeli extremists onto al-Haram al-Sharif.
Given the immediate political context, changes to the arrangements al-Haram al-Sharif are likely to spark violence, which has become a reoccurring feature of daily life in the colonized city (especially since 2014). Making the situation even more volatile is the fact there has been only a lukewarm response, thus far, from the United States and neighboring Arab states to Israeli maneuvers. While Fateh and Hamas have attempted to influence developments on the ground, they lack the political clout to make any meaningful, positive impact.
With no significant political entity willing to challenge Israel, and with the waqf administration weakened, there is a political vacuum in Jerusalem that nobody can fill. The results are likely to be explosive.