Stabbing peace at al-Aqsa

Stabbing peace at al-Aqsa

In the wake of the 15th anniversary of the Second Intifada, it is hard to ignore the recent outburst of violence and social unrest spreading from Jerusalem and the West Bank all across Israel and the Palestinian territories. While the death tolls and casualties rise on both sides, reports of clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinian demonstrators in the West Bank and along the Gaza border signal that the Third Intifada might have begun. 

Lone-wolf attacks since last summer seem to have snowballed into a series of suicide stabbings in the last couple of weeks, targeting Israelis, regardless of age or gender. Since Oct. 1, seven Jews have been killed in terror attacks, with nearly a dozen others, including a Jewish toddler, wounded. In response, Israeli police have deployed over 1,000 extra officers to the area around Jerusalem and arrested about 300 Palestinians. The Palestinian Red Crescent has said over 1,900 Palestinians have been wounded and that 30 people have been killed, including those who were allegedly responsible for the terror attacks.

What is fueling the recent outbreak of violence is the growing perception among Palestinians that Israel has been trying to change the status quo at the Temple Mount – the site of the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock – by scheduling the visiting hours of Muslims unilaterally, an assertion which the Israeli government categorically denies.

Since 1967, the Jordanian monarchy has been in charge of the administration of the al-Aqsa Mosque compound, where there is a ban on worship by non-Muslims. It is such a sensitive topic for Muslims that since its foundation in 2012, the Mourabitat – the female guardians of al-Aqsa – have been monitoring non-Muslim visitors’ lips to prevent them from praying. 

Indeed, the attacks escalated after Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon outlawed the Mourabitat from the Temple Mount on the grounds that they were inciting violence. Then, following terrorist attacks, Israeli police imposed a ban on Muslim men under the age of 50 from visiting the compound for limited periods.

Just as a visit by Ariel Sharon, the late former Israeli PM, to al-Aqsa prompted the Second Intifada, visits by hardliners such as Uri Ariel, the agriculture minister from the ultra-nationalist Habayit Hayehudi Party, have also played a role in the recent escalation of tension. Ariel, who has been arguing for Jewish freedom of worship and who has also been in favor of the construction of a new temple on the Temple Mount, was alleged to have prayed during his visits to al-Aqsa both in July and in September on holy days. 

However, at the root of the problem, by and large, lies the disillusionment of Palestinians with regard to the Israel-Palestinian peace process. Since the collapse of peace talks brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in April 2014, the Barack Obama administration no longer has the appetite to initiate a new round of negotiations – a theme which Obama completely ignored in a speech to the United Nations last month. Even the recent initiatives promoted by France through the U.N. seem to be overshadowed with the Europeans overwhelmed by the refugee crisis.

Now, concerned by a further escalation of violence following Hamas’ call for a “Day of Rage” on Oct. 13, the U.S. is showing a willingness to step in and prepare a peace summit in Jordan between Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the following weeks.

So far, the course of events points at an unorganized resistance, although Hamas and Islamic Jihad have been trying to take control of the movement by declaring a new intifada. However, the results of a survey released on Oct. 6 by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Research (PSR) suggest that events may easily spiral out of control. Accordingly, in the absence of a viable peace process, 57 percent of Palestinians support a return to an armed intifada. 

When the world is so busy attempting to avoid a crisis with Russia, the escalation of tension benefits the hardliners in both Israel and Palestine, leaving ordinary people bereft of peace. Neither building new settlements as a response to each attack – as suggested by Education Minister and Hayabet Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett – nor calling Palestinians to arms provides a solution to the ongoing conflict. Aggressive measures such as the demolition of the terrorists’ homes or sealing off Palestinian areas of Jerusalem only exacerbate the Palestinians’ sense of being under siege.

Maintaining the status quo at al-Aqsa is as vitally important as thinking outside the box and disrupting the status quo when it comes to the deadlock in the peace process. 

Otherwise, dealing with an enraged generation that is unbound by ideology and which has nothing to lose could amount to a larger threat than another intifada, undermining both Palestinian and Israeli politics.