Summer in Jerusalem: As Israel continues to sweat through the hottest summer on record the Jewish Quarter of the Old City is full of tourists, seemingly oblivious to the heat. The restaurants leading from the Quarter towards the Western Wall pump with life, as does the Hurva Square, the open space located outside the synagogue of the same name. Down at the Western Wall Plaza families wash their faces in the water fountains before proceeding to the Wall itself, and then again on the way back. A large group of athletes who came to Israel for the Maccabiah Games waits to enter the Western Wall Tunnels; judging by their accents and languages they have come (at least) from Latin America, South Africa, England, Germany and Australia.
Barely 200 meters away, the scene could hardly be more different. Entering the Old City through the Damascus Gate and proceeding through the Muslim Quarter, locals say the tension rises the closer one gets to the Temple Mount. On the Mount itself, al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are empty and locked, and the plaza separating the shrines is empty, save for small groups of Jews who have capitalized on the absence of Waqf (Islamic trust) officials to visit the site without harassment.
Some of the Israelis have described the Muslim-less holy site as “pastoral,” but the looks on the faces of police and border police officers guarding the Jews tells a different story. As professional officers with a job to do, the guards refuse to engage in conversation but they clearly believe they are tasked with preventing an explosion that could well engulf the city, the country, possibly also the entire Middle East. It is a look of determination spiced with a healthy dose of fear.
Remarkably, however, away from the Mount none of the relevant parties appear to have any interest in ramping down tensions that appear to be headed for an explosion. Jewish and Arab co-existence leaders, both in Jerusalem and around the country, confirm that there are currently no efforts to bridge the gap between Arabs and Israel as the city speeds towards a possible intifada-type explosion.
In the Arab sector, both in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority, where fears of nefarious Israeli plans to damage al-Aqsa and belief in conspiracy theories are two of the defining characteristics of the society, civic leaders say that “no one cares” what happens on Friday and insist that the community will not liaise with Israel to ease tensions.
Arab Knesset members, too, appear to be capitalizing on the crisis to fan the flames of conflict by accusing Israel of “incitement” and “collective punishment” against Muslims, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the new security regime at al-Aqsa is no different than the one visitors to the Western Wall – as well as every shopping mall in Israel – are subject to. Tuesday night, MKs Ahmed Tibi and Osama Sa’adi (Joint List) blasted Israel for limiting religious freedom, but refused to acknowledge a contradiction in their concurrent demand that prayers on the Temple Mount be limited to the Muslim variety.
On the other side, Israeli politicians such as Education Minister Naftali Bennett called on Prime Minister Netanyahu to “stand strong, not give in or cave to the international pressure to cancel Israel’s security needs on Temple Mount,” while the National Union faction of Bennett’s Jewish Home party called on the prime minister to “show them who is the sovereign power here.”
“Past experience teaches us that every time Israel tries to unilaterally establish ‘facts on the ground’ vis-à-vis the Temple Mount, not only does the move not work, but it comes back to bite us,” said Eran Tzidkiyahu, a licensed tour guide who specializes in Jerusalem who has served as a special adviser to various religious leaders, including the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the Heads of the Local Churches of the Holy Land, the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Waqf and Religious Affairs.
“Right now, I can say that it has happened again: The police were surprised to see the wall-to-wall opposition by the Waqf and by the near-complete adherence to calls to stay away from al-Aqsa by Jerusalem Muslims. Al-Aqsa is completely empty and tensions are growing in the neighborhoods around the Temple Mount by the minute. Add into the mix the fact that photos of Israeli Temple Mount activists having a grand old time up there are racing around social media websites, and you’ve got a situation in which any small incident could drive things completely out of control,” Tzidkiyahu said.
With less than 48 hours until Friday prayers at the Temple Mount are scheduled to begin, the clock is ticking.