Palestinian and Israeli Leaders Are Struggling to Respond to Al Aqsa Crisis

Both Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu keep trying to insert themselves into the popular drama.

Palestinians protest new Israeli security measures at the Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem on July 20, 2017.
Palestinians protest new Israeli security measures at the Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem on July 20, 2017.  (Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)

Just hours after it seemed to end, a bloody two-week standoff over Jerusalem’s holiest site roared back to life. On Thursday morning, Israel removed the last of its new security installations from the entrances to the Al Aqsa mosque. Police had put up metal detectors and cameras after a July 14 shooting that killed two officers nearby. Palestinians condemned the changes, fearing that Israel was trying to expand its control over the site; they refused to pass through the scanners and instead held prayers in the alleys below.

When the final bits of security apparatus came down early on Thursday, Muslim religious leaders ended the 11-day prohibition on entering the mosque. The decision seemed to head off large protests scheduled for Friday.

Or perhaps not: Minutes after worshippers returned, Israeli police wounded dozens with stun grenades and rubber bullets. The police said Palestinians threw stones at them, though Amnesty International called the shooting “unprovoked.” An officer went up on the roof of the Aqsa compound and removed a Palestinian flag, and the video quickly bounced around social media, likely to inflammatory effect.

The crisis, which has already killed eight people, seems likely to drag on. Even if it does not, though, it has offered a microcosm of the state of this long-running conflict. A few ordinary people drove the unrest of the past two weeks: three young gunmen and a teenager with a screwdriver. And many ordinary people led the protest movements that sprung up in response. The Israeli and Palestinian leaders only had bit roles to play in this popular drama—and when they did act, it was largely to pander to their shrinking political bases.

The 300,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem have long felt marginalized, ignored by both of their governments. On one side is a neglectful Israel. Basic services are scarce in East Jerusalem: trash piles up in the streets, the roads are rutted, and schools and hospitals are underfunded. Most East Jerusalemites (or their ancestors) chose not to become Israeli citizens after 1967, so they live in the city as “permanent residents,” a status that does not confer the right to vote in national elections.

On the other side is a Palestinian Authority whose president, Mahmoud Abbas, is seen as chiefly concerned with his fiefdom in the occupied West Bank. He has no authority in Jerusalem anyway; he would need to cross an Israeli checkpoint to visit. Abbas kept trying to insert himself into the crisis. Last week he halted all contacts between the PA and Israel, reportedly even including security cooperation, the central pillar of their relationship. On Wednesday he called for mass demonstrations across the occupied West Bank. But these were reactive moves, an effort to piggyback off the protests, perhaps to bolster his own reputation. During interviews I conducted in Jerusalem over the past several days, not a single person evinced the slightest bit of interest in the PA’s position. Quite the opposite. Abbas is 82 years old and profoundly unpopular: two-thirds of Palestinians want him to resign, and a slim majority also favors shuttering the PA.

The Aqsa compound is a uniquely resonant spot, one of the few places where the city’s Palestinians feel they have control. It was they, not their political leaders, who led the protests, with thousands of people turning out for more than a week of largely peaceful demonstrations. But they squared off with an Israel that was also dug in for a lengthy standoff.

In 1967, when the Israeli army captured the Old City from Jordan, it recorded the event in matter-of-fact military prose: “The Temple Mount is in our hands,” said the day’s after-action log. Around the same time Moshe Dayan, the storied Israeli general, drove up to Mount Scopus, which offers a commanding view of the city. Looking down at the Old City, he leaned over to a colleague, the head of the central command, and whispered a single question: “What do we need all this Vatican for?”

Half a century later, it is impossible to imagine a prominent Israeli uttering such words. From the center-left to the far-right, politicians vow to keep the city united, a position that effectively rules out a two-state deal with the Palestinians. They speak of Jerusalem with a reverence that was not shared by their early Zionist forebears (Theodor Herzl once lamented its “reeking alleys”).

The Aqsa compound is also the holiest place for Jews, who know it as the Temple Mount, the site of the biblical temples. Under a longstanding arrangement, Jews may visit the complex, but they are forbidden to pray there. Those rules have become a prominent political issue in recent years due to the work of right-wing activists, one of whom now sits in the Knesset as a member of the ruling Likud party. About 40 percent of Israeli Jews support changing the status quo on the mount, according to recent polls.

The Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, urged Netanyahu last week to remove the metal detectors. The agency was worried about violence, a fear that proved well-founded: On Friday night, three Israelis were murdered during Shabbat dinner at their home in the West Bank settlement of Halamish. The attacker, a knife-wielding Palestinian teenager from a nearby village, said he was “answering the call of Al Aqsa.”

Despite his right-wing reputation, Netanyahu is normally a wary politician. He had been burned once before, in 1996, when he ignored his security chiefs and opened a tunnel beneath the Western Wall, sparking days of deadly riots. Since then he has often erred on the side of caution—issuing a blanket ban, for example, on Israeli lawmakers visiting the Temple Mount, a decision that caused no end of grumbling from his coalition partners. But he also lives in constant fear of losing his right-wing base, especially now, with a swirl of corruption cases that threaten his grip on power. So he ignored the Shin Bet’s recommendations and left the scanners in place.

The event that appeared to change his approach happened in another country. On Sunday, a Jordanian worker delivering furniture to the Israeli embassy in Jordan stabbed a security guard with a screwdriver. The guard turned around and opened fire, killing both the attacker and an innocent bystander, a doctor who was the landlord of the embassy residence. Israel said the guard was covered by diplomatic immunity. But the Jordanian police, and the victims’ relatives, wanted to investigate the shooting, and refused to let him leave the kingdom.

It was, perhaps, another moment of déjà vu for Netanyahu. In 1997, during his first term in office, the Mossad tried to assassinate the Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal on the streets of Amman. The agents who sprayed him with poison were quickly detained, and King Hussein threatened to scrap the three-year-old peace treaty with Israel if Meshaal died. Netanyahu was forced to turn over the antidote—and to release Ahmed Yassin, a co-founder of Hamas, from prison.

Two decades later, Netanyahu again found himself making concessions. The embassy guard, and the rest of the Israeli delegation in Amman, returned home Monday night; minutes later, the security cabinet voted to remove the metal detectors. The decision carried a steep political cost: 77 percent of Israelis opposed dismantling the scanners, according to a poll commissioned by Channel 2; two-thirds disapproved of the prime minister’s handling of the crisis. He was even assailed on the pages of Israel Hayom, a daily newspaper that’s funded by the American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and that acts as Netanyahu’s mouthpiece (Israel’s Soviet-born defense minister has likened it to Pravda). Wednesday’s front-page headline was an unprecedented attack. “Removing the metal detectors: A demonstration of Netanyahu’s helplessness,” it blared.

For Netanyahu, it was the worst of both worlds: a right-wing leader, making concessions to the Palestinians; and a prime minister who campaigns on his security credentials, mishandling a security crisis. He quickly veered to the right. On Wednesday night, he proposed shutting the Jerusalem office of Al Jazeera, accusing the Qatari-funded network of “inciting violence.” Hours later, he suggested reinstating the death penalty, which has been used only twice in Israel’s 69-year history. (The last person it executed was the Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann.)

But his bombastic pronouncements, which will probably never be enacted, did little to quiet the furor on the right. The Israeli army, meanwhile, is preparing for unrest on Friday.

Abbas has ruled for 12 years; Netanyahu, for 11. They rarely speak to each other, and their styles are sharply different, yet they have begun to resemble one another—unpopular, long-serving leaders obsessed with political rivals and preserving their rule. Now they have been thrust into a crisis, one of the most dangerous in years, and neither seems to have a grip on it.