Fighting Over Temple Mount Recalls Second Intifada

By Matt Beynon Rees

JERUSALEM, Israel -- I just returned to Jerusalem after a month away. Or at least I thought I did.

I suspect I entered a cosmic wormhole that popped me out in the right place -- the Israeli capital -- only nine years earlier.

Muslim leaders claim radical Jews plan to pray at the mosques on the Temple Mount. Protect the Mount, goes the cry. Rioters throw rocks at tourists and at Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall. Both sides scream that they're being provoked.

That's the news this week. But it was also the news in the week that started the second intifada in October 2000. So you'll have to forgive me for wondering whether I passed through a fold in the space-time continuum on the flight back from Zurich, where I was vacationing on Lake Geneva after finishing up a book tour.

In October 2000, Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the Northern Islamic Movement inside Israel, called on Muslims to defend the Haram ash-Sharif (the "Noble Sanctuary," which is also known as the Temple Mount because it was the site of the ancient Jewish temple).

To defend it against a visit by Israel's then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon, and against Jews who supposedly wanted to pray there, and against archaeological excavations undermining the mount (the supposed digging was aimed at proving what Salah and his followers argue is a Zionist lie that the Jewish temple ever stood there). His call was in essence to defend the mount against any perceived affront to Muslim "sovereignty" over it by Israel.

The result: the second intifada, more than 1,000 dead Israelis and Palestinians, and another 7,000 injured. Secondary results: deep-freeze for a peace process that's still frosty on the outside and ice-cold within, Palestinian civil war and a big boost for right-wing Israeli politicians who said the peace process was a mistake in the first place.

Despite such dreadful consequences, if Salah could go back in time, he'd do it over just the same.

In fact, that's what he's doing. He spent the last week in Jerusalem pushing for a violent response to the plans of a Jewish group to pray on the Mount. The Israeli police barred the group, which hopes their temple will be rebuilt on the site and the Jewish Messiah will come, from entering the holy precinct. That wasn't enough for the sheikh.

Nor for the Palestinian Authority, which has used the crisis and the violence surrounding it to deflect attention from its own confused response to the U.N.'s investigative report on the war in Gaza at the turn of the year. The Palestinian government in Ramallah initially wanted to turn the screw on Israel and to have the report form the basis of hearings at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Israel headed that off with threats of economic sanctions.

Many Palestinians were unhappy with the decision to ease off on the war crimes angle. Thus, the Palestinian leadership got on board with Salah. One of the leading Jerusalem members of Fatah, the faction that rules the West Bank, threatened a "third intifada" over the Temple Mount. The chief Palestinian peace negotiator blamed Israel for the tension at the holy site.

That plays well with a Palestinian public that is angry at Israel's right-wing government, but it won't outweigh the disgust of Gazans that there'll be no push to put Israel on trial at The Hague.

In Gaza this week, Hamas displayed large posters of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with the caption "Traitor." Gazans were invited to throw shoes at the picture. In the Middle East, showing the dirty sole of your shoe to someone is an insult. To throw it at them is much worse.

Israel's leadership has responded to the Temple Mount shenanigans so far with bewilderment. The police have arrested 75 Palestinians, including 24 minors. A Jerusalem judge freed Salah after he was arrested Tuesday, but he banned the sheikh from Jerusalem for 30 days. Given the nasty atmosphere in Jerusalem, that seemed to me like Salah was being rewarded for what the judge called his "incitement." But then I spent the previous week in Montreux where the most inciteful thing is a lakefront statue of Freddie Mercury in tight pants.

It seems unlikely that the sheikh's Islamic Movement will be banned, though Israeli politicians have raised the idea.

The focus on the Temple Mount conspiracy theories of Sheikh Salah would be laughable if it wasn't for the fact that it raises the prospect of violence potentially as damaging as that which followed the onset of the second intifada nine years ago.

It also deflects attention from the very real issues Palestinians have to face with Israeli policy in general and with Jerusalem in particular. Efforts by the Obama administration to force a freeze on building in Israel's West Bank settlements were essentially evaded by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government -- Israel agreed to a freeze, but before it takes effect permits will be granted for a lot of new building.

Meanwhile in the Jabal Mukhaber neighborhood of Jerusalem, just over the Green Line into East Jerusalem, a right-wing politician and the former chief rabbi laid the cornerstone Wednesday for a new Israeli residential complex called Nof Zion. The 105 housing units planned for the site could be a source of tension to add to the more ideological Israeli settlements deeper in East Jerusalem, close to the Temple Mount.

The view which gives the complex its name (Nof Zion means "View of Zion" in Hebrew) is the forked valley known as the "holy basin," with the golden Dome of the Rock at its center. The residents of Nof Zion might soon have a front-row seat for some unholy fireworks.

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