How we got to the ‘Al-Aqsa tsunami’

(RNS) — Shortly after the Israeli occupation of the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967, Israeli leaders realized that the one issue they should avoid was turning a political conflict into a religious one. In politics, there is room for give-and-take and a pragmatic approach to issues based on the balance of forces, but in a religious war, there is no room for compromise.

A lot of what we are seeing now is the result of the rise of a nationalist religious government that has taken Israel’s political secular majority hostage, allowing religious radicals to call the shots and poison the air with words, actions and pogroms. 

Jewish supremacy has not been restricted to demeaning the Muslim population and forcing Jewish religious nationalist views on the Al-Aqsa complex, the third holiest mosque in Islam. This mindset has filtered into a dangerous anti-Christian indoctrination that has manifested in the last year in increasing attacks against priests, nuns, pilgrims and churches.

Add to all that a total lack of effort to find a political solution that might end the decades-long Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.

Initially, shortly after the June 1967 war, Israeli leaders were careful not to stoke religious strife. Having occupied and, within days, annexed East Jerusalem, Israeli leaders promised, and for some time, honored the status quo, a sort of firman (agreement) reached by the Ottoman Empire that basically guaranteed the way religious sites are managed, particularly with an eye to avoiding conflict between and within religions.

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Israel’s top rabbis, no doubt with help from the secular Israeli leadership, also came up with a plan 56 years ago to avoid potential conflict by ordering Jews not to enter the entire esplanade around the mosque for fear of defiling the remnants of the ancient Jewish temple.

That edict stood until the rise of Israeli religious nationalists in recent years. Some radical rabbis argued that not every part of the esplanade could lie atop the Jewish holy place. Armored with that justification, ultrareligious Jews began demanding the right to visit and pray in the complex, regardless of what effect it would have on interreligious tensions in Israel, the occupied territories and around the world.

But the issue was not purely religious. Secular politicians also used Al-Aqsa to make a point, with terrible consequences. Ariel Sharon’s controversial visit to the esplanade in October 2000 produced an angry Palestinian response, leading to the shooting deaths and injuries of tens of Palestinians on the grounds of their holy site. In the revolt that followed, thousands of Palestinians and hundreds of Israelis died, all so a secular Israeli politician could advance his political ambitions.

More than a decade later, tensions again forced political leaders to try to calm the anger in Jerusalem. Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shepherded a Jordanian-Israeli understanding regarding the protection of the status quo. The understanding reached in Amman by then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, King Abdullah II and Kerry in November 2014 was focused on two reciprocal issues, summarized thusly: “Al-Aqsa is for Muslims to pray and for all others to visit.”

But all previous understandings collapsed with the inauguration of the latest Israeli regime, which has been described as the country’s most right-wing government. The minister of police, Itamar Ben-Gvir, running the very institution that was supposed to protect the sensitive diversity in Jerusalem, carried out his own provocative visit to the mosque complex early in his tenure, inviting fanatic groups to increase their visits and their provocations. Soon hundreds of Jewish zealots stormed  the Islamic shrine daily, accompanied by a heavy police presence.

The Jordanian foreign ministry has been issuing nearly daily statements denouncing the escalation in the mosque. Three days before the Hamas attack, Jordan was forced to send a strongly worded letter to the Israeli Embassy in Amman protesting the fact that Jewish “visitors” had begun praying loudly on the grounds of the shrine. At the same time, Israeli police kept all Palestinian men under the age of 70 from entering the mosque itself, saying it was for the protection of the unwanted visitors.

The constant attacks, vandalism and stone throwing, the daily spitting on Christians and churches in Jerusalem, the Jewish supremacist attitudes that Jews could do what they wanted, have caused major consternation, not only in Palestine but throughout the world.

As he was named a new cardinal last month in Rome, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, raised the situation with Pope Francis and mentioned it in news conferences and in his first homily. 

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As it launched its widespread attack, Hamas dubbed the action “the Al-Aqsa tsunami,” and the leaders of Hamas took pains to note that their action was aimed at restoring the integrity of Muslims and their holy sites. 

What is needed now more than ever is to turn down the religious rhetoric and action; return to the respected understandings based on the U.S.-sponsored Jordan-Israeli understanding; and begin a serious effort to negotiate an end to the Israeli occupation and establish an independent secular Palestinian state alongside a safe Israel that extends genuine respect to all its citizens.

(Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist from Jerusalem. Follow him on X @daoudkuttab and on threads @daoud.kuttab. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)