With the Muslim holy month of Ramadan underway and Jewish high holidays soon to follow, tensions have started to rise, if only slightly, at the Holy Esplanade – the Temple Mount (har habayit) to Jews, the Noble Sanctuary (al-haram al-sharif) to Muslims. In mid-2014, it seemed the site might be the epicentre of the next Palestinian uprising, even a broader Jewish-Muslim clash. Israel believes 2015’s relative calm is sustainable, if ministers and Knesset members refrain from pushing, as they did last year, to change the setup. Even if this proves correct during the holiday season, quiet is unlikely to endure. While Jewish Temple activism was crucial in sparking the last round of unrest, the religious salience of and political contestation around the Esplanade, especially among Jews but also Muslims, has been increasing for two decades. This has eroded the status quo arrangement that has mostly kept the peace since Israel captured East Jerusalem in 1967. Any further slippage must be prevented and the status quo braced.
Judaism’s holiest site and Islam’s third-most after Mecca and Medina, containing the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, is a microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It sees repeated violent upsurges that never decisively end, only fade; as a final-status issue in a stalemated peace process, its disposition remains unclear, a situation which Israel has exploited to expand control. Managed by an Israeli-Jordanian condominium, the site exemplifies political exclusion of Palestinians from what they consider their capital and the inability of their fractured national movement to defend it meaningfully. As a location that is both a paramount pillar of Judaism and centrally important in Islam, it invites Arab denial of Jewish history and connection to the Holy Land and Jewish rejection, especially within the religious camps, of Palestinian and Muslim ties. As the iconic national and religious symbol for both sides, it showcases the increasing weight of the Religious Zionist camp in Israel and Islamist voices among Palestinians.
Yet, the Esplanade also has its specificities. It is the sole place in the West Bank where Jordan has a formal role and where in Jerusalem Palestinians can organise with relative autonomy. Its sensitivity also amplifies events elsewhere. With memories still fresh of the second intifada, which Ariel Sharon set off by visiting with several hundred security personnel, many believe there is no quicker path to a major conflagration than violence there. It has been a focus of the Israeli right, especially Religious Zionist elements, which came to emphasise it after the 1993 Oslo Accords and Israel’s 2005 Gaza withdrawal. Because it highlights violence potential, the fault lines of both societies and the failures of the diplomatic process, the Esplanade urgently requires attention.
This exigency, at the same time, could perhaps offer a hint of how to rejuvenate an exhausted peace process. This may sound counter-intuitive, as the site is one of the toughest final-status issues. In Israel, attachment to it is stronger than ever. On right and left, it beggars belief that in a Jewish state Jews face limitations on religious practice at their holiest site. For decades after 1967, Israel was content to leave in place a status quo under which entry of Jews was on Jordanian sufferance, and non-Muslim prayer was banned. Today, mainstream Religious Zionist authorities even encourage Jewish ascension; despite profound ultra-orthodox disagreement, they have secular allies who believe Israel’s sovereignty and freedom of worship ought not be abridged.
For Palestinians, increasing Jewish interest in and presence on the Esplanade portends the too familiar. From desecration of a number of mosques and other holy sites after the 1948 War to division of the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron to allow Jewish worship at the Cave of Machpela, Palestinians progressively have lost control over religious sites and national symbols. Jewish historical and religious sites in East Jerusalem have become foci of Israeli control, attracting a Jewish presence that securitises Arab surroundings and embitters residents. Many Palestinians believe their last stand is at Al-Aqsa, in a city already lost.
With deteriorating coordination and competing interpretations of the status quo that leave stakeholders to protect interests by precipitating crises – by stones, security forces or diplomacy – the status quo conceived in June 1967 may seem obsolete but remains the only consensus about the Esplanade. To shore up the site’s stability, it must be shored up. This involves:
Access. The presence of religious Jews on the Esplanade became contentious only once Muslim access was greatly reduced. Access for all communities is the best way to ensure access for each.
Prayer. There should be no unilateral change in the prayer regime, the most explosive element of the status quo, so until Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians can agree on change, there should be no non-Muslim, including Jewish, prayer.
Archaeology, Public Works. Leaders on both sides should denounce the obsolete, dangerous claims made by their own publics: in Israel, that Jordanian maintenance work performed by an Islamic endowment that administers holy places is destroying Jewish artefacts; and among Palestinians and Jordanians and Arabs in general, that Israel is plotting to destroy Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Palestinian Participation. The status quo is an Israeli-Jordanian understanding that excludes Palestinians. The Jordanian body thus lacks credibility in East Jerusalem. Though formal Palestinian Authority (PA) participation would not be acceptable to Israel, a consultative entity of prominent Palestinian figures in Jerusalem could give it a degree of authority that could help stabilise the city.
A bolder vision would see the site as a jumping off point to reimagine what is needed to reach peace. This requires including marginalised groups and excluded issues, such as Israel’s religious Zionists, Palestinian refugees, East Jerusalemites and Arab citizens of Israel. The Holy Esplanade is a venue for including the conflict’s religious and narrative dimensions, whose importance has grown. Religious dialogue, within each society and faith and if and when possible between them, is vital for resolving the conflict, but also for managing the site in the interim.
Any deal, especially regarding the Esplanade, will be hard to forge or sustain without religious leaders’ support. But with the high potential for violence, there is reason to start with basics, ensuring a stable environment so building blocks of a new process can be laid. With the peace process defunct, Israel’s government willing to live without one, a major Gaza escalation always possible, the Palestinian national movement in shambles and a world distracted by a region aflame, calming the conflict’s symbolic core is important.