Tensions rise on Temple Mount, around Gaza

Palestinian demonstrators break open the locked entrance to the Gate of Mercy compound outside the Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, February 18, 2019. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Update from AIJAC

 

Update 03/19 #01

This Update discusses the increasing clashes of recent weeks around the Temple Mount, centred on efforts by the Muslim religious authorities in charge of the area to unilaterally open a new prayer area in the previously closed Gate of Mercy compound on the Mount. (It is considered likely there will be major clashes over the issue today, Israel time, with large-scale demonstrations called, as Khaled Abu Toameh reports)

It also discusses the dangers of a new escalation along the Gaza border, as Hamas steps up its campaign of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and incendiary balloons and kites, prompting Israeli retaliatory responses.

We lead with veteran Israeli Arab affairs journalist Yoni Ben Menachem, who looks at the volatility both surrounding Jerusalem and Gaza. He reviews the history and motivation of the Temple Mount clashes in some detail, and suggests that there are a number of issues motivating the current escalation – a standoff over Israel withholding some tax transfers to prevent Palestinian Authority (PA) payments to terrorists and their families, a determination by the PA to spike the US “Deal of the Century” peace plan expected to be announced shortly, and also an issue involving illegal phones among Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons.  He also suggests the Temple Mount problem is the most dangerous one for Israel, and the solution lies in a deal with Jordanian authorities, who dominate the Mount’s religious institutions. For Ben Menachem’s detailed discussion of the realities on both fronts, CLICK HERE.

Next up is Israeli analyst and human rights activist Rachel Avraham offering some opinions on why the Temple Mount crisis has broken out now. Speaking to a number of known experts, and one anonymous Palestinian source, she suggests that Jordan has allowed the PA to gain a stronger role in Jerusalem, and the PA seeks escalation principally over the issue of the deduction of payments to “prisoners and martyrs”, because PA President Abbas wants a threat he can use to try and get Israel to end its policy on the deductions. For the full analysis of both Avraham and the experts she consults, CLICK HERE.

Finally, Israeli security journalist Yaakov Lappin explores the escalation around Gaza in more depth. He says the recent increase in incendiary devices and IEDs, and Israeli responses, are a dangerous dialogue, with Hamas seeking funding and other economic benefits for Gaza in exchange for ending this low-level violence, and Israeli seeking to signal it will react strongly if Hamas violence does not stop.  He says that Hamas, after its year-long “March of Return” campaign failed to bring anticipated benefits, now is seeking to use a “‘low flame’ pressure tactic to extort the region into finding a solution to Gaza’s economic mess”, and Israel’s next government will need to make some long-term decisions about its overall approach to Gaza in response. For Lappin’s complete analysis, CLICK HERE.

Readers may also be interested in…


Jordan and the Palestinian Authority Seek to Sabotage the Trump Peace Plan

Yoni Ben Menachem

Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, March 6, 2019

Muslim prayers outside of the Gate of Mercy. (Arab press)

The atmosphere in the West Bank is tense, and the potential for a violent escalation is growing.

The crisis over the Temple Mount’s Gate of Mercy (Golden Gate, Shaar HaRachamim in Hebrew, Bab el Rahma in Arabic) could become the detonator that sets off the next conflagration, and Israel must act quickly to neutralize it.

In recent weeks, signs are growing of an imminent explosion in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as the Israeli elections in April draw near.

Israel can take measures to prevent such an explosion. The most serious danger, though, is that of an eruption sparked by events on the Temple Mount, where the new Islamic Waqf Council, at Jordan’s bidding – took over the Gate of Mercy compound by force.

Senior figures in the Islamic Waqf say that this Friday (March 8, 2019) will be the critical day of the Gate of Mercy issue. On the east Jerusalem street, against the backdrop of what is perceived as Israeli depredations against the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Islamic Waqf institutions, the young generation is calling for a new intifada that will be dubbed HaBat Sha’ar a-Rahma (the Gate of Mercy uprising).

Palestinian social networks have been full of mendacious propaganda calling on Muslims to come to the Temple Mount this Thursday to prevent “the settlers” from forcibly entering the new mosque at the Gate of Mercy.

Hamas has called on Muslims to demonstrate in Jerusalem this Friday, in tandem with measures announced by the Islamic Waqf to counteract Israel’s decision to bar from the Mount those who were involved in the takeover of the Gate of Mercy chamber.

On March 4, the Islamic Waqf announced that the Mount would be closed to worshippers this Friday and prayers would not be held there. The intention is to protest the measures Israel took against the top Islamic Waqf officials and particularly the head of the Waqf, Sheikh Al-Azim Salhab, who was barred from the Mount for 40 days from the Gate of Mercy takeover.

This decision by the Waqf recalls its approach to the crisis involving the metal-detectors that were installed at the Mount’s gates in the summer of 2017. Apparently, on Friday, the worshippers will pray at those gates and in the alleyways of the Old City, and the potential for an outbreak is very high.

The contested chamber at the Gate of Mercy (Golden Gate) photographed circa 1870 (Library of Congress)

For their part, on March 4, 2019, the Islamic Waqf’s security guards on the Mount issued an announcement warning that Israel is working to sabotage the achievement of opening the Gate of Mercy.

The announcement said Israel had so far arrested 14 Waqf security guards who were involved in opening the Gate of Mercy and barred them from the Mount for different periods of time. The announcement also calls on Muslims to demonstrate on the Mount beginning on Friday.

Israel should have drawn the right lessons from the 2017 metal-detectors crisis and internalized the fact that sensitive issues on the Temple Mount are instantaneously combustible. Jordan and the Palestinian Authority are well aware of that fact; seeking to throw a wrench in the works as the proclamation of Trump’s “Deal of the Century” approaches, they laid a trap for Israel in the form of the Gate of Mercy takeover. They likewise established a new, joint Waqf Council that includes senior PA representatives for the first time. They aimed to signal that sovereignty on the Temple Mount belongs to Jordan and the PA and not to Israel or Saudi Arabia or any other international Arab body.

Israel is now ensnared in the Gate of Mercy crisis. On March 4, 2019, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court ordered the Islamic Waqf to respond in a week to the State Attorney’s Office’s request to close the Gate of Mercy compound, saying otherwise it would issue an edict to close it. The Waqf already declared this week that it does not recognize the Israeli courts’ authority or the Israel Police’s directives and that it takes orders only from the Jordanian government. If the court does issue the edict, the police will then have to enforce it, further aggravating the situation. For now, the mosque that was set up in the Gate of Mercy chamber is operating unhindered.

The political echelon, which was not properly prepared beforehand for the Gate of Mercy crisis, must now act to forestall the widespread disruptions that could ensue.  The solution lies in dialogue with Jordan, which oversees the Waqf Council and can restore calm. Israel must not succumb to the trap that Jordan has laid.

Muslims pray outside of the Mercy Gate. (Arab press)

Worrisome Signs in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip

Meanwhile, at the Gaza border and in the West Bank there are worrisome signs of escalation, and an outbreak on the Temple Mount could ignite these on a wide scale. Therefore, the order of the day is to calm the furies on the Temple Mount, which is of a sensitive religious nature for every Muslim.

On the Gaza border, the “night confusion” units have been active again, attacking IDF soldiers along the border fence in the nighttime hours. Explosive-balloon and arson-balloon attacks on the Israeli communities along the border have resumed as well.

“Night Confusion” protesters on the Israeli border, March 2, 2019 (Al-Qassam Brigades Official Spokesperson, i24 News)

Although the Rafah crossing has already been operating for a month or so and even though Mahmoud Abbas has cleared it of PA officials, Hamas seems to want to gradually escalate the situation with the aim of putting the Gaza issue back on the international agenda.

Almost a year has passed since the start of the Great March of Return campaign, and the Hamas leadership cannot point to any significant achievements or breach of the blockade. Gaza’s economic situation is difficult, there is great distress among the population, and Qatar announced that it will stop giving Gaza $15 million in financial aid each month.

Meanwhile, Abbas keeps withholding salaries and stipends from Gaza officials and the families of Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists.

Hamas is now demanding that Israel hand it a sum of $20 million and carry out the second stage of the ceasefire understandings, which includes setting up a new electricity supply line from Israel to Gaza (known as Line 161), opening a maritime crossing to Cyprus, and building a floating maritime terminal.

In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority is in distress as well. Israel has started to implement its law to withhold revenues equal to the stipends the PA pays to terrorists, freezing the transfer of 500 million shekels to the PA. The PA has declared in turn that it will now forgo all of the tax monies that Israel collects for it if even a single cent is deducted from them.

The Trump administration, too, has cut financial aid to the PA and its security agencies. Hence the PA’s financial situation stands to get worse, and it will have a hard time providing services to citizens and paying its officials’ salaries.

To this should be added the simmering anger among Palestinian security prisoners in Israel over the Prison Service’s decision to install electronic cell-phone-jamming devices in the Ketziot Prison as an initial measure. This anger radiates out to thousands of families of security prisoners in the West Bank and Gaza.

In the absence of what the Palestinians regard as a political horizon and with the United States aiming to foist the Deal of the Century on them, the tension in the West Bank could spark the outbreak of a spontaneous intifada involving vehicular ramming assaults, stabbing attacks, and an uptick in “popular resistance.” Fatah activists are now talking about a new tactic of blocking roads leading to West Bank settlements.

What Can Be Done?

The atmosphere in the territories is fraught with explosive vapors. It can gradually be calmed if it is borne in mind that the main fuse is on the Temple Mount and that if this fuse is lit, the security situation could spin totally out of control. That means the state of affairs on the Temple Mount has to be accorded the highest priority.

Jordan is the custodian of the Jerusalem holy places, and its status is anchored in the 1994 peace treaty with Israel. In the Gate of Mercy crisis, the Arab League and the PA are totally behind Jordan. Since the crisis began two weeks ago, the Israeli police have arrested about 300 Palestinians and barred them from the Temple Mount.

In light of the tense situation at the Gaza border and in the West Bank, Israel must calm tensions on the Temple Mount and launch a dialogue with Jordan’s King Abdullah before Friday.

The heads of the Islamic Waqf Council accuse Israel of a deliberate escalation on the Temple Mount with an eye to Israel’s election campaign. For its part, Israel must draw the full benefit from a dialogue with the Jordanian government. Israel can always resort to force and impose the law, but at present, every effort should be made to avoid an escalation on the Mount in light of what is happening along the Gaza border and in the PA.

Israel can also ask Egypt to restrain the Hamas leadership, and it can temporarily freeze the installation of the cell-phone-jamming devices in the security prisoners. Such measures will help allay the tension in the territories.

Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as Director General and Chief Editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

BACK TO TOP


Unrest on the Temple Mount: Why now?

Rachel Avraham

Israel Hayom, March 1

After a weekend of unrest at the Temple Mount and the arrest and subsequent release of two waqf officials, an anonymous Palestinian source has indicated that the recent escalation of violence in Jerusalem is connected to the addition of seven new members to the waqf who are affiliated with the Palestinian Authority and not the Jordanian government.  The new members were added after Jordan announced that it no longer wants to have exclusive control over the waqf.  While Jordan attributes this to a desire for Muslim unity, the source claims that foreign governments are trying to buy their way into Jerusalem and that Jordan is violating the status quo by letting the PA come into the picture.

Waqf chairman Abdel Azeem Salhab (C) after being released from custody in Jerusalem on February 24, 2019. Israeli police said Salhab was arrested for violating an order preventing entry into a prohibited area of the Temple Mount compound. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

Among the new members of the waqf are top PA and Palestine Liberation Organization officials Hatem Abdul Qader (a former member of the Palestinian Legislative Council) and Adnan al-Husayni (a member of the PLO Executive Committee, PA minister for Jerusalem affairs and former governor of Jerusalem). Jerusalem Grand Mufti Muhammad Ahmad Hussein and Al Quds University President Dr. Imad Abu Kishek, both of whom were appointed to their positions by PA President Mahmoud Abbas, are also now members of the waqf. In addition, Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, whose opinions are known to be extreme and who is linked to the Turkish government, was made a member of the waqf by the Jordanian government.

According to the source, these appointments came at the same time that waqf land is being leased to Palestinian nongovernmental organizations sponsored by the United Nations Development Program and the Palestine Investment Fund in order to build schools and playgrounds such as one in Sheikh Jarrah that was built on the same plot of land where an IDF memorial is located.  The source warned that the monument was in danger of being desecrated and that any works intended might be a trigger for instability and violence.

Of course, the PA is not alone in this game.  The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency, known as TIKA, is also increasingly buying properties in east Jerusalem.  Former Israeli Consul General Dr. Yitzhak Ben Gad noted: “Erdoğan is an Islamist and he is also trying to change the situation on the Temple Mount.”

In the wake of these developments, following both Turkey’s and the PA’s increased control over east Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, Fatah is utilizing its power to “stir up and escalate the situation.”

Itamar Marcus, founder and director of Palestinian Media Watch, warned that the Israeli people should expect more violence in the immediate future following this development. “Abbas, whenever he is in trouble politically, even internally, he tries to incite conflict connected to the Temple Mount as a way of putting himself centre stage and presenting himself as a fighter for Al-Aqsa. There has been intense incitement over Al-Aqsa for the past few weeks. It could be that what happened just now was directed from Abbas, who is in need of something to improve himself internally.”

According to the anonymous source, the status of the Gate of Mercy was not the real reason for the escalation: “It is only an excuse for the new Fatah-influenced waqf.” The source added that the Israeli election was also not the real reason for the recent escalation of violence.

According to Marcus, in the wake of Israel’s decision to deduct half a billion shekels from the money that it transfers to the Palestinian Authority (the amount of money used to reward terrorists and their families), Abbas is in such a bad financial situation that “he does not know where to turn.” Abbas is not only desperate because of the reduction in tax revenues but also wants to ensure that U.S. President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” will never see the light of day. He wants the world community to focus more on the Palestinian issue and less on building a coalition against Iran as envisioned at the recent Warsaw Ministerial.

Marcus noted that previously, when Abbas was desperate to put the Palestinian issue back on the map, he turned to incitement and violence as his way out: “He would use the Jerusalem issue to get the Palestinians to resort to violence. Abbas would tell the Israelis and the U.N. that the violence was because Israel stole its money and that if it wanted the violence to stop, Israel must cancel its deductions from the taxpayers. The message to the people is that you have to fight for the Temple Mount.”

Reportedly, due to Abbas’ reaction to Israel’s latest anti-terror measures, his popularity on the Palestinian street has already risen. Many Palestinians are now volunteering to pay the terrorists’ salaries, inspired by Abbas’s hard-line stance on this issue.  This development came after “Riad Malki, the PA foreign minister, said that he notified Israel that he will not accept any money transfer if Israel has deducted anything from it.  That means that the PA won’t be able to pay salaries and that there will be major cuts.” According to Marcus, such a decision will eventually lead to violence: “These kinds of euphemisms happen always before an explosion. This is what Abbas wants.”

Noted Middle East scholar Dr. Mordechai Kedar noted that the Temple Mount has always been a battleground for all kinds of organizations and states. He claimed that there was a major struggle within the waqf “between the Muslim Brotherhood and those supporting Arab statehood.” Israel supported Jordan, according to Kedar, because Israelis perceived them to be opposed to the “Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Movement in Israel, Hamas, the radical group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which has a strong presence in Jerusalem, and other Islamist groups that wanted to radicalize the people against Israel. They viewed Jordan as a state that could bring some stability.  All of these groups are not a partner for Israel. It was much easier for Israel to maintain law and order when the orders came from Amman rather than Hamas or the Islamic Movement.  However, now there is a regime in Jordan that is delegating authority to the PA.  Given this, Israel should not compromise its sovereignty further.”

As Ben Gad noted, “Jordan does not have the right to hand over authority.”

Rachel Avraham is the president of the Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi Center for Human Rights and a political analyst at the Safadi Center for International Diplomacy, Research and Public Relations.

BACK TO TOP


Analysis: Hamas is once again negotiating with explosives

Yaakov Lappin

i24, 05/03/2019

Israel must finally formulate long-term policy on Gaza, rather than rely on short-term reactive measures

Recent days have seen a spike in the number of Hamas-orchestrated explosive attacks on the border with Gaza, and Israel’s reply has been to increase airstrikes on Hamas outposts in retaliation.

A dangerous dialogue, with bombs and IEDs carrying messages across the volatile border, is once again underway and threats to escalate into a wider conflict.

Incendiary toy drone attached to balloon cluster on Gaza border  (Photo: Eshkol Regional Council)

Hamas is applying pressure on Israel, as well as Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, to arrange millions of dollars for its cash-starved government. According to a Kan news report, Hamas is demanding 20 million dollars for its officials in Gaza, in exchange for a cessation of grenade-throwing rioters and balloons carrying explosives over the border into southern Israeli communities.

Hamas is also reportedly demanding a widening of the fishing zone around Gaza, an increase in the flow of goods via Israel’s land crossings with the Strip, and an easing of Israeli restrictions on the import of dual-use materials, which can be used for both civilian and hostile military and terrorist activities.

Hamas has a rich history in cynically misusing past measures, intended to assist Gazan civilians, to build up its military wing and organizing deadly terror plots on Israelis.

Hamas’s threats have not gone unanswered – Israel too has sent messages, in the form of more strident military retaliation to the explosive incidents.

On Sunday, the Israel Air Force struck two Hamas positions in southern Gaza in retaliation to an explosive device attack.

Israel is seeking to beef up its deterrent posture, and is signaling to Hamas that it will not tolerate any further deterioration of the security situation.

The trouble is that Hamas does not appear to be convinced. Explosive device incidents are continuing, and Hamas’ brinkmanship can escalate quickly.

However, Hamas is also showing a reluctance to rush into conflict. It has not fired any rockets so far in response to the Israeli air strikes, which shows that Israel’s deterrence has not vanished, despite what some have claimed.

Still, the situation appears to be facing an explosive dead end at this time, and comes at an especially sensitive time, as Israel’s election season gets into full swing.

No long-term solution in sight

Ultimately, Hamas’s situation has changed little since March last year, when it decided to launch attacks on the Israeli border under the guise of border disturbances branded “The Great March of Return” protests.

These attacks, which have included armed Hamas operatives planting bombs on the border security fence surrounded by human shields, are designed to pressure Israel and others in the region to extract Hamas from its financial distress.

Hamas wants to bring in outside players to rescue Gaza’s faltering economy. After months of violence, Hamas succeeded in bringing in Qatari cash, but not in a way that has extracted it from its problems.

Hamas’ leader, Yahya Sinwar, has tried and failed to end the group’s isolation by reconciling with his arch-foe, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas.

Abbas considers the Hamas regime to be an illegitimate rebel province that has been hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Ramallah-based Palestinian leader has tried to choke Hamas into submission or collapse, thereby further increasing the chances of conflict between Hamas and Israel.

Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar, centre speaks to the protesters during his visit to the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel, Friday, April 20, 2018. (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)

Sinwar, despite his radical Islamist ideology, has repeatedly expressed a certain pragmatism in recognizing Israel’s military superiority. His response has been to ambitiously build up Hamas’s military wing while using the Gazan border violence as a ‘low flame’ pressure tactic to extort the region into finding a solution to Gaza’s economic mess, which has been created by Hamas’s own policies.

Yet Sinwar takes a long-term historical approach to his conflict with Israel and is willing to be patient. He is avoiding full-scale war if he can, but making sure that the military wing prepares itself for the next clash when it comes.

In the meantime, he is pursuing more immediate goals, like undermining Abbas’s rule in the West Bank and replacing the PLO as the main representative of Palestinians by establishing terrorist cells in the territories and using them to launch mass casualty attacks in Israeli cities while also plotting a violent coup against the PA.

This explains why Hamas invested heavily in creating over 200 terror cells in the West Bank last year alone, which Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency have foiled over time.

In the meantime, the most urgent task for Sinwar is to find donors to stave off economic collapse in Gaza, which could threaten the entire existence of his regime.

Hamas is telling Israel that if a solution to its distress is not found soon, it will prefer war to passively watching Gaza’s economy crumble, and risking an uprising by Gazans.

After the elections, whoever is in government in Israel should finally formulate a long-term policy on Gaza, rather than rely on short-term reactive measures.

The time is quickly approaching for Israel’s leadership to decide whether it wants to try and avoid conflict by stabilizing Gaza economically, and try out a long-term truce, or whether Hamas’s presence as a regime and terrorist-army on Israel’s doorstep has become intolerable, and if so, to have a serious discussion on whether there are any viable alternatives.

Yaakov Lappin is an associate researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and a correspondent for Jane’s Defense Weekly and the Jewish News Service.