A handout picture released by the Jordanian Royal Palace shows Egypt s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C) meeting with Jordan s King Abdullah II (L) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R) ahead of a Trilateral Jordanian-Egyptian-Palestinian Summit in the Egyptian capital Cairo, on January 17, 2023. AFP
Spurred by provocative visits by Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and other senior Israeli officials to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, dozens of Israeli extremists invaded the sanctuary on Monday, the beginning of the month of Shevat in the Hebrew calendar, storming the compound from the Al-Magharba Gate.
“The settlers toured the holy site’s courtyards and performed Talmudic rituals, angering Muslim worshippers,” a statement by the General Islamic Endowments Department in Jerusalem said.
Incursions into Muslim holy sites have triggered outrage among Palestinians in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the occupied territories and led to calls for mobilised action to stop the assaults. Israeli occupation forces have cordoned off areas around Al-Haram Al-Sharif and tightened security throughout the Old City.
Al-Aqsa Mosque has been subjected to near daily raids by Israeli fanatics bent on forcing a change on the holy site’s status. Observers in Egypt, Jordan, and Palestine warn that the situation will spiral out of control if the Jewish extremists, emboldened by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bid to weaken the Israeli judiciary, continue their attempts.
All Palestinian political factions have condemned the repeated incursions, with Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) saying Israeli extremists have launched a war against Jerusalem and the Palestinian people and warning of an open confrontation with Israel.
In Cairo, Major General Mohamed Ibrahim, deputy director of the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies and a former senior security official concerned with Israeli and Palestinian affairs, warned that the situation is extremely volatile and could erupt into a number of unpredictable scenarios, including a new war launched by Hamas and the PIJ or a fully-fledged Intifada. The incitement is mounting: it is no longer coming from Israeli extremist forces but also from officials in the Netanyahu government.
On 17 January, Cairo hosted a trilateral summit between President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, King Abdullah of Jordan, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss developments in Jerusalem. The joint statement they released “stresses in no uncertain terms the need to preserve the historical and legal status quo in Jerusalem and the importance of the Hashemite [Jordanian] crown’s historically established guardianship of the Islamic and Christian holy places in the Holy City,” said Ibrahim. He added that the Arab leaders had also called for an end to Palestinian factional rifts and for action to address deteriorating living standards in Gaza.
The three leaders committed to intensifying consultations and coordination to formulate a plan to stimulate efforts to resume negotiations. Egypt, for its part, said that it would pursue all possible channels to contain the crisis, restore calm and compel the Israeli government to halt the provocations.
Although tensions in Jerusalem have subsided since the extremists’ raid on Monday morning, the situation remains volatile given the nature of the new Netanyahu government, says Jack Khoury, a Haaretz journalist of Palestinian origin. Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly by phone, he said that the status of Jerusalem is increasingly being prioritised by the new Israeli government, and Ben-Gvir’s provocative visits to Al-Aqsa Mosque and Israel’s offensive treatment of the Jordanian and EU ambassadors signal where the situation is headed. Khoury also pointed out that work is currently in progress to demolish the Palestinian town Al-Khan Al-Ahmar and displace its inhabitants as part of a project to incorporate more Palestinian territory into Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. This, too, will trigger clashes and sharpen tensions, he said.
Observers are already worried about what will happen in Ramadan, which coincides with Passover when Jewish extremists habitually increase their assaults on the Al-Aqsa compound, warning that it is necessary to prepare for the worst.
“Things cannot go on this way,” a Jordanian source familiar with developments in Jerusalem told the Weekly.
“It is important not to reduce the crisis to containing the fallout from the Israeli police’s assault against the Jordanian ambassador, or to the role of the Jordanian Ministry of Endowments, Islamic Affairs and Holy Places in administering the area. Attention must be given to what Israel is doing in the occupied territories and the West Bank.”
Khoury agrees, adding that it is essential Netanyahu and extremist ministers such as Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich are reined in.
Egypt, Jordan, and other Arab states such as the UAE have already started to intervene in order to reduce tensions as a crucial first step. Some European powers have also stepped forward. And Washington, too, appears alarmed. Biden administration officials have urged Netanyahu to restrain Israel’s extremist trend.
The subject was discussed during US National Security Adviser Jack Sullivan’s visit to Cairo in December, and in US Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns’ discussions with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi this week. US concern over the escalating situation prompted the forthcoming visit to the region by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, with Blinken’s itinerary likely to include Cairo. Netanyahu is also due to fly to Washington to meet with Biden.
Though US diplomatic activity is aimed in the same direction as Arab efforts, success is contingent on the behaviour of the current Israeli government and the ability of its prime minister to restrain the impetuousness of his far-right ministers, if that is his intent.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly