On Friday, July 14, three Israeli Arabs who claimed loyalty to Hamas murdered two Israeli policeman at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. In response, Israel declared it would place metal detectors at the Mount, over the misgivings of the security services who feared escalation.
These fears proved well founded. The maneuver inflamed Muslim worshipers, who saw proof of nefarious Israeli intentions instead of enactment of a security measure common throughout the region. The next Friday violent clashes claimed the lives of three Palestinian Arabs, and later that day, a Palestinian stabbed to death a grandfather and his two adult children. The ensuing weeks have witnessed more violent and nonviolent Palestinian demonstrations. The situation was further inflamed last week when a record number of Jews visited the site to mark Tisha Be’av, the holiday commemorating the destruction of the ancient Temple.
This round of conflict stems from the way that both sides wield spiritually infused historical memories and associations as weapons in contemporary political warfare. Palestinians distort historical Jewish claims to this sacred space, inflaming Israeli passions, while a small but vocal minority of right-wing Israelis openly discuss restoring the ancient Temple at the expense of the mosques on the site, stoking Palestinian fears. This creates a vicious cycle that exacerbates problematic Israeli policies like aggressive Israeli settlement in some East Jerusalem neighborhoods.
Ending these distortions will be essential to any hope of achieving peace, or even coexistence, between Palestinian Arabs and Israelis. A full third of Israeli Jews in a recent poll who rejected a two-state solution would change their minds if Palestinians would recognize the Jewish holy sites in the West Bank.
The history matters here. In 70 A.D., the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, the focal point of the divine presence for Jews. The Temple’s very last remnant, the retaining wall on the western slope of the mountain, assumed divine importance. For millennia, Jews around the world turned toward the Western Wall when saying their prayers.
The Temple Mount also possesses deep spiritual meaning for Christians and Muslims. For Islam the Temple Mount, now named The Noble Sanctuary, was sacred thanks to religious traditions that marked it as an ancient site of prayer. It is also the place from which, in Islamic tradition, the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven to meet his prophetic predecessors.
Despite the centuries-old religious significance of the site, the modern political conflict over the Temple Mount actually stems from 20th-century antagonisms that transformed this holy site into a central political battleground in the war between Palestinians and Israelis.
The creation of the new West Jerusalem in 1869 represented one of the first stirrings of what came to be Zionism. Yet the early 20th-century Zionist movement was less invested in ancient Jerusalem than it was in new, avowedly secular projects like kibbutzim, the city of Tel Aviv and the Hebrew University. Zionists were content to leave the Temple Mount alone, and pious Jews forswore going there, per traditional Jewish law, which forbade them from doing so until the purifying advent of the Messiah.
By contrast, Palestinian nationalists in the 1920s relied upon the symbolic significance of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount to shore up their own emerging ranks. Haj Amin al-Husseini, a new, young Palestinian leader who was then Mufti of Jerusalem, sought to Islamicize the political struggle with Zionism, not least because early Palestinian nationalism lacked secular rallying cries. He instilled the idea that anything Jews do on or near the Temple Mount, even something as seemingly innocuous as putting benches in the alley that then encased the Western Wall, was part of a plot to destroy its sacred mosques.
This move sparked decades of conflict that came to a head after British authorities denied Jewish refugees from Europe entrance to Palestine before and after the Holocaust. The resulting turmoil led to the United Nation’s vote to partition Palestine in November 1947, igniting a civil war and then the 1948 war between the newly declared Israel and the surrounding Arab states.
The war left Jerusalem divided between the new West city in Israeli hands and the old East controlled by Jordan. Under Jordanian rule, the Jewish Quarter was razed, Jewish tombstones turned to paving stones and Jews denied any access to their holy spaces there. This destruction fueled a lingering bitterness, and after Israel captured the territory in the June 1967 war, the Israelis razed the Mughrabi Quarter near the Western Wall to create today’s Western Wall plaza.
Israel also annexed much of East Jerusalem, a move still unrecognized by the international community. Israel did, however, leave the Temple Mount under the control of the Muslim clerics. In the ensuing decades, however, the Palestinian nationalist movement, like the Mufti nearly a century ago, has increasingly stoked fears about Jerusalem and the Temple Mount as a rallying cry to make up for the lack of secular national spaces and symbols.
In doing so, the Palestinian leadership has adopted the spurious claim that no Jewish temple ever existed on the site as a central theme in Palestinian politics. Yasser Arafat even cited it to President Clinton to explain his unwillingness to accept Israeli claims during negotiations at Camp David. This distortion has compelled Israel, which for years was content to leave the Mount in the hands of Muslim clergy and defer discussions of sovereignty, to assert its own claims to the Temple Mount. Further inflaming the situation, the Muslim clerics supervising the site have failed to maintain its archaeological history, which arouses Israelis’ fears that they are trying to erase Jewish history — a clear signal that Palestinians will never accept the Jewish State.
Over the years, sporadic actions by Israelis have also stirred Palestinian anxieties about the Mount, like the early 1980s plot to destroy its mosques (whose members Israel jailed), or the provocative visit by then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon in 2000. Recent years have also seen more and more religious Jews, in departure from past practice, visiting the Temple Mount, despite severe restrictions which forbid them from praying or even appearing to pray. They do so in no small part to assert the Jewish past there. While Palestinians fear that everything Israelis do at the Mount is part of a century-old plot to restore a never-existent Temple, these Jews see the real danger as Palestinian denialism of their history and heritage.
The international community has exacerbated these tensions by adopting the Palestinian line on Jerusalem. On July 4, the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) passed a resolution denying Jewish claims to Jerusalem and alleging all manner of Israeli misdeeds. This sort of action stiffens Israeli resolve and empowers hard-liners who argue that there is no point in compromise: If Palestinians and their international allies refuse to even recognize Jewish history, there’s no chance of them accepting a Jewish state.
The decline of secular nationalism throughout the Middle East compounds this vicious cycle. Secular nationalist movements are struggling to sustain themselves without the kinds of passion, commitment and deep historical grounding that religion ignites. In the case of the Temple Mount, these pressures push leaders to wrap themselves in religion, which drives Jews and Muslims alike to press their ties to the spaces of their hallowed pasts even more firmly than before. This impulse makes compromise harder.
Finding a way to reconcile religious pasts with present-day geopolitical realities is as challenging as it is essential. Any hope for a sustainable future requires Palestinians to accept the historic tie and sacred nature of the Temple Mount for Jews. Rather than denying Jewish history, Palestinians must instead construct secular political institutions and partnerships with the many Israelis who would be glad to maintain a peaceful status quo on the Mount for the sake of a livable Jerusalem. Absent this, the Palestinians will find themselves without Israeli partners, and peace, or even coexistence, will be ever harder to achieve.