Al-Aqsa flashpoint

Dina Ezzat , Mohamed Abu Shaar , Tuesday 19 Apr 2022

Though diplomacy offers the hope of restraint in Jerusalem it remains unclear whether or not Israel will continue in its attempts to create new realities on the ground. Dina Ezzat reports from Cairo, and Mohamed Abu Shaar from Gaza

photo: AFP
An Upper Egyptian Coptic pilgrim celebrates Easter in Jerusalem, where despite the convergence of all three Abrahamic religions and their respective holy days this year, extremism and hatred continue to inform the season. Israeli forces have attacked Muslims at Al-Aqsa Mosque. Nowhere on earth is tolerance called for than in the ancient city, yet the Jewish state still pays no heed. (photo: AFP)

Jordan is hosting an emergency meeting of the Arab League Ministerial Committee on Palestine on Thursday. The committee includes Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco.

It is convening at the request of the Jordanian monarch whose country holds the custodianship of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. King Abdullah of Jordan consulted with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and several Arab leaders, including Mohamed VI, king of Morocco, whose country chairs the Jerusalem Committee, before calling the meeting.

Informed diplomatic sources say that the Jordanian monarch has also been in touch with US, European, and Israeli officials.

“The idea behind the meeting is to push for self-restraint following the recent escalation of clashes in Jerusalem,” said one. “Everyone, including the Israeli government, is interested in containing the situation. The question is how,” said one.

Cairo is among the Arab capitals that have issued statements over the past week calling for self-restraint and for the protection of Muslim worshippers at Al-Aqsa Mosque.

The Ministerial Committee will meet almost two weeks after clashes in and around Al-Aqsa Mosque. Israeli authorities had allowed Jewish extremists to storm the mosque during the holy month of Ramadan, and prohibited Muslim worshippers from accessing the mosque for Ramadan prayers.

Clashes between worshippers and Israeli forces left many Palestinians wounded. Israeli police arrested hundreds of Palestinians and raided Palestinian territories in the West Bank, and on Monday evening and early Tuesday morning Israeli forces conducted air raids against the Gaza Strip, claiming it was targeting facilities connected to Hamas.

In statements following the Gaza raids, Ismail Haniyeh, chief of Hamas’ political bureau, said “our people are committed to holding their rights.” A Hamas leader said the movement cannot be neutralised when the fate of Al-Aqsa Mosque is in question.

The government of Israeli Prime Minister Neftaly Bennett, which had agreed to Arab, American, and European demands to ease the suffocating restrictions imposed on Gaza for the duration of the holy month of Ramadan, threatened this week to re-impose tougher restrictions. Earlier in the week the Joint Arab List suspended its participation in the Israel government, a largely symbolic move given the Knesset is in recess until next month, but one that reflects increasing levels of tension.

Islamic Jihad leader in Gaza Zeyad Nekhala said that his Gaza-based resistance movement will not trade its position on Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque for anything the Israeli government might give or withhold. “Our lives are on the line,” he said.

Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Mohamed Hussein, the mufti of Al-Aqsa, said that the current situation suggests Israel is actively trying “to create a new reality on the ground” by allowing Jewish worshippers to assume the right to perform prayers and other rituals in the heart of Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Jewish extremists have long claimed that they have a right to perform prayers within Al-Aqsa Mosque which came under Israeli control following the Arab military defeat in 1967.

The status of Jerusalem, and of the holy sites of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, are among the most contentious points in the long and inconclusive path of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations for a political settlement. The Arab Peace Initiative, put forward 20 years ago, envisioned East Jerusalem as the capital of an independent and viable Palestinian state. Over the last five years, however, Israel has vastly expanded its illegal settlement activities across East Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, control over holy Muslim sites has continued to be monitored by Jordan via mostly unannounced coordination channels. The Hashemite Kingdom keeps a close eye on any attacks on Jerusalem’s holy sites, mindful of its custodianship and of the possible repercussions among the wider Palestinian presence in Jordan.

Speaking off record, Arab diplomatic sources say the Arab Peace Initiative, like the entire peace process, is clinically dead, and that it is now up to Jordan to shoulder the management of Muslim sites in Jerusalem.

This week, Jordan’s Prime Minister Bisher Al-Khawssennah expressed support for Palestinian worshippers in Jerusalem. His statements prompted an angry reaction from the Bennet government, resulting in the Jordanian Foreign Ministry summoning the Israeli chargé affaires.

According to an informed Egyptian official, Jordan had no option but to register its strong protest with the Israeli government. He added that the final statement expected to come out of Thursday’s ministerial meeting will underline that the status of Jerusalem must be respected, and nobody should aim to create new realities on the ground in a way that prompts anger and escalation.

The source added, however, that the ultimate purpose of the meeting is not to address Jerusalem or its fate but to secure an immediate de-escalation before “things get out of hand”.

“We are at that point in Ramadan when Muslim worshippers are expected to be gathering in larger numbers at Al-Aqsa Mosque,” he noted.

Egypt had been communicating its concerns about the escalating tensions to several capitals, including Washington. Last week, according to an informed Egyptian source, during his visit to the US capital Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri asked Antony Blinken to “urge Israeli officials to be cautious in managing the situation in Jerusalem in order to avoid unwanted escalation”.

The source added that Blinken shared Shoukri’s concern over a possible uncontrolled wave of violence and its consequences on regional stability.

The source went on to criticise the disengagement policy of the Biden administration, saying it creates a political vacuum that allows for spirals of violence. He also warned that given the fragility of the Bennett government the Israeli prime minister will opt to appease the far right.

Egypt, he said, sent “a crisis management delegation” to Israel and the Palestinian territories to talk to officials about the necessary measures to avoid further escalations”. In parallel, he said “Cairo has communicated a very straightforward message to Hamas, especially on the need to avoid taking the current crisis over Al-Aqsa Mosque into a wider Palestinian-Israeli confrontation.”

The reactions that Egypt has received, the same source said, indicate a wish for simultaneous de-escalation, and “Cairo is hoping that Thursday’s meeting will help give a push to this momentum.”

According to official sources, Cairo is counting on the good office of Doha to urge Hamas not to expand the scope of confrontation by firing rockets into Israel. It is also counting on Amman to press Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to encourage Palestinian political leaders in the West Bank to call for de-escalation for the remainder of the holy month.

The recent wave of tensions between the Palestinians and Israel started less than four weeks ago and left 36 people, mostly Palestinian, dead.

Jews are allowed to visit but not to pray in Al-Aqsa Mosque. While King Abdullah of Jordan has called on Israel to stop its illegal and provocative acts, the UN Security Council was scheduled to meet behind closed doors to discuss the situation in Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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