Wed, 16 Jun 2021

Al-Aqsa Mosque attack pivotal in current Mideast crisis

Patrick Kingsley - The New York Times
16 May 2021, 05:22 GMT+10

JERUSALEM - Twenty-seven days before the first rocket was fired from Gaza this week, a squad of Israeli police officers entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, brushed the Palestinian attendants aside, and strode across its vast limestone courtyard. Then they cut the cables to the loudspeakers that broadcast prayers to the faithful from four medieval minarets.

It was the night of April 13, the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. It was also Memorial Day in Israel, which honors those who died fighting for the country. The Israeli president was delivering a speech at the Western Wall, a sacred Jewish site that lies below the mosque, and Israeli officials were concerned that the prayers would drown it out.

The incident was confirmed by six mosque officials, three of whom witnessed it; the Israeli police declined to comment. In the outside world, it barely registered.

But in hindsight, the police raid on the mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam, was one of several actions that led, less than a month later, to the sudden resumption of war between Israel and Hamas, the militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, and the outbreak of civil unrest between Arabs and Jews across Israel itself.

"This was the turning point," said Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, the grand mufti of Jerusalem. "Their actions would cause the situation to deteriorate."

Israeli police officers at the Aqsa Mosque compound on May 7.

Israeli police officers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on May 7.Credit...Ammar Awad/Reuters

That deterioration has been far more devastating, far-reaching, and fast-paced than anyone imagined. It has led to the worst violence between Israelis and Palestinians in years - not only in the conflict with Hamas, which has killed at least 139 people in Gaza and eight in Israel but in a wave of mob attacks in mixed Arab-Jewish cities in Israel.

It has spawned unrest in cities across the occupied West Bank, where Israeli forces killed 11 Palestinians on Friday. And it has resulted in the firing of rockets toward Israel from a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, prompted Jordanians to march toward Israel in protest, and led Lebanese protesters to briefly cross their southern border with Israel.

The crisis came as the Israeli government was struggling for its survival; as Hamas - which Israel views as a terrorist group - was seeking to expand its role within the Palestinian movement; and as a new generation of Palestinians was asserting its own values and goals.

And it was the outgrowth of years of blockades and restrictions in Gaza, decades of occupation in the West Bank, and decades more of discrimination against Arabs within the state of Israel, said Avraham Burg, a former speaker of the Israeli Parliament and former chairman of the World Zionist Organization.

"All the enriched uranium was already in place," he said. "But you needed a trigger. And the trigger was the Al-Aqsa Mosque."

Israeli police fired stun grenades at the Aqsa Mosque compound on May 7.

Israeli police fired stun grenades at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on May 7.Credit...Ammar Awad/Reuters

It had been seven years since the last significant conflict with Hamas, and 16 since the last major Palestinian uprising, or intifada.

There was no major unrest in Jerusalem when President Donald J. Trump recognized the city as Israel's capital and nominally moved the United States Embassy there. There were no mass protests after four Arab countries normalized relations with Israel, abandoning a long-held consensus that they would never do so until the Palestinian-Israeli conflict had been resolved.

Two months ago, few in the Israeli military establishment were expecting anything like this.

In private briefings, military officials said the biggest threat to Israel was 1,000 miles away in Iran, or across the northern border in Lebanon.

When diplomats met in March with the two generals who oversee administrative aspects of Israeli military affairs in Gaza and the West Bank, they found the pair relaxed about the possibility of significant violence and celebrating an extended period of relative quiet, according to a senior foreign diplomat who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak freely.

Gaza was struggling to overcome a wave of coronavirus infections. Most major Palestinian political factions, including Hamas, were looking toward Palestinian legislative elections scheduled for March, the first in 15 years. And in Gaza, where the Israeli blockade has contributed to an unemployment rate of about 50 percent, Hamas's popularity was dwindling as Palestinians spoke increasingly of the need to prioritize the economy over war.

The mood began to shift in April.

The prayers at Al-Aqsa for the first night of Ramadan on April 13 occurred as the Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, was making his speech nearby.

The Memorial Day holiday in Israel last month coincided with the start of Ramadan.

The Memorial Day holiday in Israel last month coincided with the start of Ramadan. Credit...Ariel Schalit/Associated Press

The mosque leadership, which is overseen by the Jordanian government, had rejected an Israeli request to avoid broadcasting prayers during the speech, viewing the request as disrespectful, a public affairs officer at the mosque said.

So that night, the police raided the mosque and disconnected the speakers.

"Without a doubt," said Sheikh Sabri, "it was clear to us that the Israeli police wanted to desecrate the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy month of Ramadan."

A spokesman for the president denied that the speakers had been turned off, but later said they would double-check.

In another year, the episode might have been quickly forgotten.

But last month, several factors suddenly and unexpectedly aligned that allowed this slight to snowball into a major showdown.

A resurgent sense of national identity among young Palestinians found expression not only in resistance to a series of raids on Al-Aqsa, but also in protesting the plight of six Palestinian families facing expulsion from their homes. The perceived need to placate an increasingly assertive far right gave Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's caretaker prime minister, little incentive to calm the waters.

A sudden Palestinian political vacuum, and a grass-roots protest that it could adopt, gave Hamas an opportunity to flex its muscles.

These shifts in the Palestinian dynamics caught Israel unawares. Israelis had been complacent, nurtured by more than a decade of far-right governments that treated Palestinian demands for equality and statehood as a problem to be contained, not resolved.

"We have to wake up," said Ami Ayalon, a former director of the Israeli domestic intelligence agency, Shin Bet. "We have to change the way we understand all this, starting with the concept that the status quo is stable."

The loudspeaker incident was followed almost immediately by a police decision to close off a popular plaza outside the Damascus Gate, one of the main entrances to the Old City of Jerusalem. Young Palestinians typically gather there at night during Ramadan.

A police spokesman, Micky Rosenfeld, said the plaza was closed to prevent dangerously large crowds from forming there, and to head off the possibility of violence.

To Palestinians, it was another insult. It led to protests, which led to nightly clashes between the police and young men trying to reclaim the space.

Israeli security forces detained a Palestinian protester outside the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem last month.

Israeli security forces detained a Palestinian protester outside the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem last month. Credit...Ahmad Gharabli/Agence France-Presse - Getty Images

To the police, the protests were disorder to be controlled. But to many Palestinians, being pushed out of the square was a slight, beneath which were much deeper grievances.

Most Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, which Israel occupied during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and later annexed, are not Israeli citizens, so they cannot vote.

Many feel they are gradually being pushed out of Jerusalem. Restrictions on building permits force them to either leave the city or build illegal housing, which is vulnerable to demolition orders. So the decision to block Palestinians from a treasured communal space compounded the sense of discrimination that many have felt all their lives.

"It made it feel as though they were trying to eliminate our presence from the city," said Majed al-Qeimari, a 27-year-old butcher from East Jerusalem. "We felt the need to stand up in their faces and make a point that we are here."

The clashes at the Damascus Gate had repercussions. Later that week, Palestinian youths began attacking Jews. Some posted videos on TikTok, a social media site, garnering public attention. And that soon led to organized Jewish reprisals.

On April 21, just a week after the police raid, a few hundred members of an extreme-right Jewish group, Lehava, marched through central Jerusalem, chanting "Death to Arabs" and attacking Palestinian passers-by. A group of Jews was filmed attacking a Palestinian home, and others assaulted drivers who were perceived to be Palestinian.

Supporters of the far-right Jewish group Lehava faced the police near Jerusalem's Old City last month.Credit...Ariel Schalit/Associated Press

Foreign diplomats and community leaders tried to persuade the Israeli government to lower the temperature in Jerusalem, at least by reopening the square outside Damascus Gate. But they found the government distracted and uninterested, said a person involved in the discussions, who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Mr. Netanyahu was in the middle of coalition negotiations after an election in March - the fourth in two years - that ended without a clear winner. To form a coalition, he needed to persuade several extreme-right lawmakers to join him.

One was Itamar Ben Gvir, a former lawyer for Lehava who advocates expelling Arab citizens whom he considers disloyal to Israel, and who until recently hung a portrait of Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish extremist who massacred 29 Palestinians in Hebron in 1994, in his living room.

Mr. Netanyahu was accused of pandering to the likes of Mr. Ben Gvir, and fomenting a crisis to rally Israelis around his leadership, by letting tensions rise in Jerusalem.

"Netanyahu didn't invent the tensions between Jews and Arabs," said Anshel Pfeffer, a political commentator and biographer of the prime minister. "They've been here since before Israel was founded. But over his long years in power, he's stoked and exploited these tensions for political gain time and again and has now miserably failed as a leader to put out the fires when it boiled over."

Mark Regev, a senior adviser to Mr. Netanyahu, rejected that analysis.

"Exactly the opposite is true," Mr. Regev said. "He has done everything he can to try to make calm prevail."

On April 25, the government relented on allowing Palestinians to gather outside the Damascus Gate. But then came a brace of developments that significantly widened the gyre.

First was the looming eviction of the six families from Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem. With a final court decision on their case due in the first half of May, regular protests were held throughout April - demonstrations that accelerated after Palestinians drew a connection between the events at Damascus Gate and the plight of the residents.

Palestinians in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

Palestinians in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem.Credit...Maya Alleruzzo/Associated Press

"What you see now at Sheikh Jarrah or at Al-Aqsa or at Damascus Gate is about pushing us out of Jerusalem," said Salah Diab, a community leader in Sheikh Jarrah, whose leg was broken during a recent police raid on his house. "My neighborhood is just the beginning."

The police said they were responding to violence by demonstrators in Sheikh Jarrah, but video and images showed they engaged in violence themselves. As the images began to circulate online, the neighborhood turned into a rallying point for Palestinians not just across the occupied territories and Israel, but among the diaspora.

The experience of the families, who had already been displaced from what became Israel in 1948, was something "every single Palestinian in the diaspora can relate to," said Jehan Bseiso, a Palestinian poet living in Lebanon.

And it highlighted a piece of legal discrimination: Israeli law allows Jews to reclaim land in East Jerusalem that was owned by Jews before 1948. But the descendants of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled their homes that year have no legal means to reclaim their families' land.

"There's something really triggering and cyclical about seeing people being removed from their homes all over again," Ms. Bseiso said. "It's very triggering and very, very relatable, even if you're a million miles away."

On April 29, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority canceled the Palestinian elections, fearing a humiliating result. The decision made Mr. Abbas look weak.

Hamas saw an opportunity, and began to reposition itself as a militant defender of Jerusalem.

"Hamas thought that by doing so, they were showing that they were a more capable leadership for the Palestinians," said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political expert at Al Azhar University in Gaza City.

On May 4, six days before the war began, the head of the Hamas military, Muhammed Deif, issued a rare public statement. "This is our final warning," Mr. Deif said. "If the aggression against our people in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood does not stop immediately, we will not stand idly by."

War nevertheless seemed unlikely.

But then came the most dramatic escalation of all: a police raid on the Al-Aqsa Mosque on Friday, May 7. Police officers armed with tear gas, stun grenades and rubber-tipped bullets burst into the mosque compound shortly after 8 p.m., setting off hours of clashes with stone-throwing protesters in which hundreds were injured, medics said.

A police stun grenade went off during clashes at Damascus Gate on May 8.

A police stun grenade went off during clashes at Damascus Gate on May 8.Credit...Amir Levy/Getty Images

The police said the stone throwers started it; several worshipers said the opposite.

Whoever struck first, the sight of stun grenades and bullets inside the prayer hall of one of the holiest sites in Islam - on the last Friday of Ramadan, one of its holiest nights - was seen as a grievous insult to all Muslims.

"This is about the Judaization of the city of Jerusalem," Sheikh Omar al-Kisswani, another leader at the mosque, said in an interview hours after the raid. "It's about deterring people from going to Al-Aqsa."

That set the stage for a dramatic showdown on Monday, May 10. A final court hearing on Sheikh Jarrah was set to coincide with Jerusalem Day, when Jews celebrate the reunification of Jerusalem, by dint of the capture of East Jerusalem, in 1967.

Jewish nationalists typically mark the day by marching through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City and trying to visit Temple Mount, the site on which the Al-Aqsa Mosque is built.

The looming combination of that march, tensions over Al-Aqsa and the possibility of an eviction order in Sheikh Jarrah seemed to be building toward something dangerous.

The Israeli government scrambled to tamp down tensions. The Supreme Court hearing in the eviction case was postponed. An order barred Jews from entering the mosque compound.

But the police raided the Al-Aqsa Mosque again, early on Monday morning, after Palestinians stockpiled stones in anticipation of clashes with the police and far-right Jews. For the second time in three days, stun grenades and rubber-tipped bullets were fired across the compound, in scenes that were broadcast across the world.

Helping a wounded protester at the Aqsa Mosque compound on Monday.

Helping a wounded protester at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on Monday.Credit...Agence France-Presse - Getty Images

At the last minute, the government rerouted the Jerusalem Day march away from the Muslim Quarter, after receiving an intelligence briefing about the risk of escalation if it went ahead.

But that was too little, and far too late. By then, the Israeli Army had already begun to order civilians away from the Gaza perimeter.

Shortly after 6 p.m. on Monday, the rocket fire from Gaza began.

Rami Nazzal contributed reporting from Ramallah, West Bank, and Iyad Abuhweila from Gaza City.

Source: The New York Times

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