July 25, 2017

Shootings on the Temple Mount: Arab discourse and state-minority relations in the aftermath

Early in the morning of Friday, July 14th, a shooting attack on the Temple Mount by three Arab citizens of Israel left two Druze officers and the three assailants dead. This attack and its aftermath have brought to the surface internal challenges within Israel’s Arab community; deteriorated Jewish-Arab relations inside Israel; and reignited tensions surrounding control of the site.

Individual attacks have been ongoing in the Old City over the last two years, but this attack differed in that it took place on the Temple Mount itself, was perpetrated by Arab citizens, and that the victims were Druze. Jewish and Arab discourse in Israel in response to the attacks was heated, but has been quickly overshadowed by the wider Muslim discourse – inside Israel and around it in the West Bank and Jordan – in response to the government’s decision to close the site and install metal detectors at the entry prior to reopening it the following Monday for prayers.

Discourse on attacks

Arab leadership struggled to issue a joint statement in response to the attacks, as members of the Joint List were unable to agree on the extent of condemnation versus emphasizing the attack in the context of the government’s treatment of Palestinians. This lack of rapid and unequivocal response drew significant criticism from Jewish leaders. President Rivlin, for example stated that Arab leadership’s “silence and feeble responses” were akin to an endorsement of the shooting, saying that “terrorism must be denounced unconditionally…anyone who doesn’t denounce terrorism is collaborating with it.”

Arab MKs eventually made statements separately.  In a radio interview MK Ayman Odeh, Chair of the Joint List as well as others emphasized that the “struggle of Arab citizens is a political struggle and is by no means an armed struggle.” The High Follow Up Committee labelled the attack “a rejected act that doesn’t serve the struggle of the Arab masses to defend their presence, rights and holy sites.” In the same statement, the committee also warned that the “government of Benjamin Netanyahu [is] exploiting the operation to escalate its vicious incitement against our Arab masses,” placing ultimate blame on “the occupation [that] bears responsibility for every drop of blood that is shed [at the Temple Mount].”

A number of Jewish leaders lashed out against Arab members of Knesset, both for their lack of unequivocal condmenation and in accusations of complicity with the violence. Minister of Internal Security Erdan named MK Zoabi and Tibi specifically as having “heavy responsibility” for the violence on Temple Mount. Minister of Education Naftali Bennet accused Arab MKs of exacerbating the Temple Mount crisis. Defense Minister Liberman also blamed Arab MKs for the attack.

In Umm el-Fahm (the attackers’ home city), residents described the atmosphere as “gloomy” following the shootings. .The Vice-Mayor of Umm el-Fahm, Bilal Daher Mahajne, said “Umm el-Fahm is shocked by this attack. We still don’t understand the reasons.” One resident who said he is not afraid to speak said that the feeling in the city is that “these three men and the messages of hate that they picked up have caused indescribable damage to the city” and that this radicalization “isn’t the religion we were raised in.” While others were more demur, saying “[s]ome favor it and some are against it.

The attacks also raised sensitivities between Israel’s Arab and Druze communities. Mohammad Barakeh, chair of the High Follow Up Committee, and other Arab leaders met with the families of the fallen Druze officers to extend condolences, drawing criticism from some of the Arab community. Some of Israel’s Druze leadership, in turn criticized the Joint List, saying the statements from its four parties did not really reflect condemnation of the attack.

Discourse on Temple Mount security and protests

In the aftermath of the attacks, focus has shifted from the shootings themselves to management, access and security at the Temple Mount, perhaps the most sensitive flashpoint between the Government of Israel and Arab society in Israel, in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and beyond. Arab leaders and many in the wider Arab public feared the attacks will be used to fuel change in the ‘status quo’ (the arrangement in which the Waqf, an Islamic body funded by the Jordanian government, manages the holy site and in which Muslim prayer is allowed but Jewish prayer and religious rituals are forbidden).

Following the attacks, Israel closed the site and installed metal detectors manned by Israeli border police prior to reopening, and later security cameras. What appears as legitimate security measures to most of Israel’s Jewish society, has struck much of Arab society “a violation of the status quo on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, as well as increased Israel control over those who enter it.”

There is a common perception in Arab society—indeed, it is the slogan of the Islamic Movement in Israel—that “al-Aqsa is in danger” and that Israel is seeking to do away with the status quo at the Temple Mount. Deviations from the status quo are seen as a particularly incendiary infringement on Muslim religious and cultural autonomy.

While Prime Minister Netanyahu has expressed his commitment to retain the status quo, installation of the security measures were seen as a significant breach. Since the reopening of the site, Muslim worshippers have refused to enter through the metal detectors and, instead, daily prayers outside the gates are attracting thousands of Muslims as a form of both civil and fierce disobedience. Over the following weekend, as part of a “Day of Rage” announced by the Palestinian Fatah Movement, clashes with police have resulted in three Palestinian deaths.

In Arab cities throughout Israel, hundreds of Arab citizens have held peaceful protests in solidarity, and a number of journalists and activists are emphasizing that despite media focus on the clashes, these protests have been predominantly non-violent. On Sunday night, Women Wage Peace held a joint, Jewish-Arab event to denounce the violence and commit to a path for peace despite disagreements.

As of the writing of this post, following US diplomatic involvement, Israel’s Security Cabinet decided to take the metal detectors down. Muslim worshipers are still refusing to enter the compound, though, since they view the security cameras set up  to replace the metal detectors as no less controversial. In the process, several Arab MKs’ reiterated that the issue isn’t the security installations themselves, but the change in status quo and the occupation.

Further reading:

Temple Mount Crisis: It’s Not About the Metal Detectors – The Tower –  Arsen Ostrovsky and Aviva Klompas – 7.21.17

Why people are protesting and dying in Jerusalem over metal detectors – Vox – Sarah Wildman – 7.21.17

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