For the past two weeks, as Jerusalem burned and bled, leaders on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have incessantly professed their deep love for our city.
To me, a woman who lives in and loves this city, a mother who has raised her children here, their professions of love and fealty are frightening. Theirs is a vicious, possessive love. Once again, our city has been taken over by jealousy. Once again, it has been reduced to little more than a humiliated pawn in the hands of politicians who, in their attempts to own this city, are willing, quite literally, to let her die.
This time, as it has so many times before, the violence has centered on the Temple Mount, a large stone and marble plaza lined with Cypress trees believed by Jews to be the site of the Holy Temple, and regarded by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, the site of the al-Aqsa mosque, the third most sacred site in Islam.
But sadly, neither side has shown any sign of holiness, nobility or sanctity.
This round of the conflict began on July 14, when three Palestinians, citizens of Israel from the city of Umm al-Fahm, smuggled guns onto the Noble Sanctuary, then shot and killed from behind two on-duty police officers, who were there to protect the worshippers.
Israel responded by immediately closing down the site completely for two days. Then, in a show of “who’s boss,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose love and concern for the city didn’t prevent him from setting off on a five-day trip to Hungary and France, unilaterally ordered metal detectors installed at the site, as a security measure.
In response, Palestinian worshippers refused to go through those security measures. Goaded by religious and political leaders, by outside Arab and Muslim powers such as Jordan, and by the blistering heat, they held their prayers outside the compound and at major intersections throughout the city, selected for their dramatic media effect. The police pushed back; at least four Palestinians were killed, and several hundred were wounded. Several police officers were hurt, some seriously.
On July 21, a young Palestinian terrorist wrote his last will and testament on Facebook, adorned it with emojis and, claiming he was avenging the defilement of the al-Aqsa mosque on the Noble Sanctuary, stabbed three members of a Jewish family to death in the settlement of Halamish as they celebrated the birth of new baby.
It was all sadly predictable. This happens every time that one or the other side violates the only thing that actually is sacred on the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary: the status quo.
Israel and the Muslims consecrated the status quo in 1967, when, following the Six-Day War, in which Israel took back all of East Jerusalem, the State handed over administration of the Temple Mount to the Waqf Islamic Trust, which historically dates back to the 12th century and is largely funded by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The State also agreed that Jews would not have the right to pray, individually or collectively, on the Mount, and that they could enter through only one of the 11 gates, while representatives of the Waqf would have control over who can, and cannot, enter everywhere else.
Over the years, the Noble Sanctuary has become a symbol of Palestinian aspirations for sovereignty, with the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque painted on murals all over Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. And Jews have increasingly chafed at what they regard as the unfair and unjust restrictions on their religious rights.
But the rigid status quo provides a tenuous, fragile stability. That stability can be maintained only as long as both sides keep their nationalist and religious passions to take over the site in check.
Netanyahu had to know that Palestinians would equate the metal detectors with barriers and checkpoints, the hated symbols of the occupation, and that these would be even more intolerable at their holiest site. How could he not foresee that they would regard the new restrictions as collective punishment? Why didn’t he predict that some warped individual, like the murderer in Halamish, would think that he could avenge the defilement of his beloved by killing innocents?
Netanyahu’s advisors in the General Security Service and the military warned him that the Palestinians would interpret the metal detectors as a violation of the status quo. They reminded him that any time that Israel attempts to make large-scale changes in the area, people, on both sides, die.
On the other side, the Waqf and Palestinians must know that Israel had to respond to their failure to prevent violence on the Mount/Sanctuary. Just as they know that whether or not the metal detectors constitute a violation of the status quo or their loyalty to God and country is a matter of interpretation, given to manipulative incitement.
But proud alpha politicians like Netanyahu and his cabinet members or like the Waqf and the Palestinian leadership don’t back down, even in the face of death (of others). In the war over control of their beloved Jerusalem, even metal detectors are contested symbols of sovereignty and resistance.
It didn’t have to be this way. It was possible to find an alternative security solution, in coordination with the Waqf and with Jordan. Israel could have engaged the majority of Arab citizens of Israel who are appalled by the desecration of the Noble Sanctuary and horrified by the murders of the family. Common interests can lead to shared solutions. But in the quest to conquer and take possession, there are no common interests.
Instead, everyone puffed up with bravado. The Waqf and the Palestinians promised to continue their resistance, calling on the worshippers to prevent even the several hundred faithful who were willing to go through the metal detectors to actually pray from doing so.
Terrorism, asserted Education Minister Naftali Bennett, “can be eradicated…All it takes is the right combination of “force, action, determination and consistency.” His threat was directed at the Palestinians; the barb to his competitor from home, Netanyahu.
Heads of the ultra-right-wing Im Tirzu movement provocatively appeared near one of the Muslim entrances to the compound. When police shooed them away, one shouted loudly, “The people of Israel are not afraid.”
I am very afraid. I am afraid of leaders who care for Jerusalem but not for Jerusalemites. I am afraid of politicians who attach more importance to the symbols of religion than they do to the devout who worship those symbols.
I am afraid because competitors are afraid to see that they cannot ever own Jerusalem and refuse to realize that their purported love is little more than a cruel attempt at subjugation. That with all their talk about united Jerusalem, none of them have any plan for how we can live here in peace.
I am afraid that they will never understand that to love Jerusalem requires a Solomonic feat: We must both keep her whole and divide her. To love Jerusalem is to realize that it must be creatively shared—and that means it must be clearly politically divided before it can be geographically and functionally united.
Finally, late this week, Israel blinked first and removed the metal detectors while warning that they would be replaced with “smart cameras” at some future time (which sounds to me like an inadvertent admission that the metal detectors were dumb.)
But the Israelis are not modest in defeat, and the Palestinians are not gracious in victory. “Don’t test us,’ Jerusalem police chief Yoram Halevi warned the Muslims. If they don’t behave, protesters “should not be surprised” if police respond to disturbances with force and casualties ensue.
Hamas and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas both proclaimed victory over Israel and urged Palestinians to respond to the ongoing events in order to “deter Israel from continuing its violations against our people and holy places.”
So far, things have remained tensely quiet – but hardly peaceful. I write “so far” because I fear that none of us know what will happen next. The meanings of devout, sacred, holy, sovereignty and love for country have once again been distorted.
The drone of surveillance helicopters over our heads are not songs of love, and protesters’ screams that they will redeem al-Aqsa with their blood and spirt are not sonnets of affection.
But in the background, if you listen, you can still hear the still small voice that promises that there really is a better way to love this city (Psalms 122: 6-8):
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; may those that love you prosper.
Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces.
For my brethren and companions’ sake, I will now say: Peace within thee.