Crisis Group Provides Formula for Easing Tensions in Al Aqsa
Despite the lack of a political horizon in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one area that appears to witness a de-escalation of tensions might be Al Aqsa Mosque.
According to a just-released comprehensive report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, Jordan and Israel are close to an agreement that can re-establish the modalities at Islam’s third holiest site as those that existed on the eve of the second Intifada.
For Muslims, the 500-square-metre area that contains Al Aqsa Mosque, the golden Dome of the Rock, the Islamic Museum and large courtyards is considered a single religious site generally referred to as Al Haram Al Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary.
Israeli Jews refer to the same site as the Temple Mount. Authors of the crisis group report use the neutral term Holy Esplanade.
In their recommendation, the international researchers called on Muslim leaders to stop making the unsubstantiated claims that the Israeli archaeological digs aim at bringing down the Islamic mosque.
At the same time, the International Crisis Group agrees with the Jordanian authorities responsible for the mosque area that visiting Jews should not be allowed to pray. Since 1187, non-Muslims have been forbidden to pray on the premises of the mosque.
Israeli officials at the prime minister’s office are willing to allow for the re-establishment of a semi-control by Jordan’s waqf guards at the contentious Bab Al Magharbeh.
Israeli security personnel had secured this gate since the 2000 clashes that followed the provocative visit of Ariel Sharon to the mosque area.
Since then, visitors to the mosque area using the Bab Al Magharbeh have not been obliged to purchase a tourist visitation ticket, which is part of the waqf’s way of reminding all that it owns and controls the area and therefore regulates the visits.
Visitors are also expected to dress appropriately and to travel in small groups. In the absence of an authority responsible for regulating visits, Israeli extremists have been making unannounced visits, sometimes in groups that range from 35 to 50 people.
High-profile individuals, including member of Knesset and well-known radical religious activists, also made visits there, causing tension among the Muslim worshipers.
The troubles reached a peak last fall when Israeli provocative visits produced clashes with Palestinian worshipers who were then punished by Israel by restricting access, especially on Fridays.
The tension resulted in Israeli soldiers damaging the mosque and its carpets, and Israel restricted for the first time worshipers from entering. These high tensions produced Jordanian diplomatic intervention that included the withdrawal of Jordan’s ambassador from Tel Aviv.
Since then, Israel has reduced tension, allowed all worshipers access to the mosque and banned Knesset members and large groups of Jews from visiting the mosque area.
According to the International Crisis Group report, what is holding up a return to the pre-2000 understanding is the worry by Israel that by issuing entry tickets, the Jordanian waqf officials might prevent certain radical Israelis from visiting.
Jordanian officials told crisis group researchers that they will not abuse this “veto” power, but this has not solved the problem. It seems that high-level political intervention is needed to resolve the issue.
Another area that the report by the crisis group identified is that of communications with the Palestinian community.
While Jordan has an official position as guardian of the Islamic sites in Jerusalem, Israel has used this fact to avoid making any meaningful relations with local Palestinian leaders.
Israeli officials refuse to deal with the Palestinian government in Ramallah on issues related to Jerusalem so as not to give the impression that they accept any role for the Palestinian leadership in a city that was unilaterally annexed by Israel shortly after the 1967 occupation.
To overcome this lack of communication, the International Crisis Group calls on Israel to communicate with local Palestinian leaders, possibly through recognition of a local Palestinian advisory council made up of community leaders from Jerusalem.
The status of Al Aqsa Mosque is a highly sensitive issue that needs to be dealt with through political negotiations. However, until such negotiations take place, it is clear that reaching understandings like those recommended by the crisis group to ease tension around the mosque and regulate visits to it can contribute towards this goal.