Recent scenes of Israeli security forces beating Palestinians inside Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque have put the Middle East on the brink of a major conflict yet again. In response to Israeli raids on the site, videos of which inflamed the region and generated international condemnation, Palestinian militant factions in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon fired rocket barrages at Israeli territory. The fusillade from Lebanon was the largest since the 2006 Israeli invasion of that country.
Following Thursday’s missile attacks, the Israeli government struck back, bombing targets in both Gaza and Lebanon and announcing a new military operation, codenamed “Strong Hand.”
The conflict may seem like just another turn in an endless cycle of violence, but its proximate cause reflects a novel crisis, if only for its depth: the increasing radicalization of the Israeli settler movement, and its political patronage by the Netanyahu government.
In recent weeks, radical settler groups issued calls to conduct an animal sacrifice at the site of Al Aqsa, or the Temple Mount as it is known to Jews.
Understanding the implications of such an act requires some historical background. The site that presently hosts the Al Aqsa Mosque was once home to the temple that was the center of the ancient Jewish religion and was demolished following a failed revolt against the Roman Empire nearly two millennia ago. Centuries later, after the Romans and Persians lost control of the region, the mosque that stands there was constructed by conquering Arabs. Today, some Jewish extremists in Israel seek to reassert control over the site and rebuild the temple anew — demolishing the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, in the process.
This threat, however arcane it may sound to secular ears, has driven tensions at the site for decades. When British rule in Palestine ended in 1947, the holy sites were supposed to be shared as part of an internationalized Jerusalem. After the 1948 war that accompanied the founding of Israel, however, the city was split between Jewish Israelis in the west and Jordanian control in East Jerusalem, including over the Old City.
The Israeli government took control of the site following 1967’s Six Day War with its Arab neighbors. Since then, Israel has overseen a fragile status quo wherein it controls the city of Jerusalem yet allows Palestinians to maintain a limited degree of sovereignty over Al Aqsa itself. This arrangement has come under pressure in recent years, as Palestinians have alleged that Israel has plans to assert direct control over the site.
The annual observance of Ramadan has become a regular scene of violence at Al Aqsa, as Israeli security forces routinely raid the site to evict Palestinians, often using gratuitous violence in the process.
These tensions have burst to the fore yet again this year. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that his government has no plans to change the status quo at Al Aqsa. Yet his government includes leaders from some of the most extreme settler groups in Israel. Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, the national security and finance ministers, respectively, are members of settler movements who pursue a radical religious agenda. Both men have been at the vanguard of demanding changes in the delicate arrangement that currently governs Al Aqsa.
The presence of such figures in the government appears to have emboldened the extremists. Several settlers in recent days were arrested by Israeli police in Jerusalem on suspicion of bringing livestock to the site in order to conduct a sacrifice there. Even though most mainstream Jewish groups oppose efforts to reestablish the temple, this politically ascendant fringe has, since Netanyahu brought its adherents into his government, gained more legitimacy and confidence than at any time in history.
In response to the threats by settlers to conduct an animal sacrifice at Al Aqsa — an act that would be considered equal parts desecration and threat — Palestinians have been holding nightly prayer vigils inside the mosque. The purpose of these vigils is partly to commemorate Ramadan, and partly to defend against what many view as a prelude to a later destruction of the mosque that stands there.
Nighttime prayer vigils are common during Ramadan and the attack on worshippers by Israeli security forces wielding batons and tear gas, documented by Palestinians themselves in harrowing cellphone footage, has generated widespread anger. During the day, Israeli police were again videoed, appearing to gratuitously push Muslims worshipping outdoors off their prayer rugs. That evening, the Israeli police raids came again to the doorstep of the Al Aqsa Mosque.
Israeli soldiers push Palestinians off their prayer rugs mid-prayer.
This comes a day after Israeli police brutally beat Palestinian worshippers inside al Aqsa mosque, one of the holiest sites for Muslims, during Ramadan. pic.twitter.com/JnfVwWHVoW
— IMEU (@theIMEU) April 5, 2023
Although the site has a religious value, it is also a nationalistic symbol to both Israelis and Palestinians. For the latter, it also represents one of the few pieces of Jerusalem that they can still call their own. “Palestinians also have very earthly reasons to fear even limited changes to the status quo,” the political commentator Matthew Petti recently wrote about the subject. “Al-Aqsa is one of the few Arab-run public spaces in the Old City of Jerusalem, an island of Palestinian sovereignty in a sea of Israeli-annexed territory.”
It remains to be seen how far the current military escalation will continue. The Netanyahu government has been embattled by domestic protests in recent weeks and may benefit from the distraction of a foreign war. Yet a larger conflict with Palestinian groups that generates unintended consequences, including drawing in more powerful actors like the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, would risk raising the tempo of the conflict beyond a point where the Israeli government can retain control.
The Second Intifada was triggered by a visit by a right-wing extremist politician, Ariel Sharon, to the Temple Mount. As violence ramps up in the region, it seems as though the Israeli government has once again tripped over an issue that has been a red line in the region for decades. The consequences this time could be more dire than in years past. While Israeli governments have occasionally sought out of prudence to police the most extreme members of the settler movement, this time the sound is coming from inside the house.
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