Author: Irina KHALTURINA
Escalation of the Arab-Israeli conflict after the clashes in and around the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem once again proved the fragility of peace in the Middle East. The incident once again highlighted the significance of the Al-Aqsa Mosque considered the third main mosque in Islam after the Al-Haram in Mecca and the Prophet Mohammed's Mosque in Medina not only for the Arab community of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but for the Arab world as a whole. As they say, if anything can really cause a stir in the Middle East, it is the turmoil over the widely discussed status quo of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
The covenant mount
The surge of tension coincided with both the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish holiday of Passover. The Al-Aqsa Mosque complex situated on what the Jews call the Temple Mount is considered a holy place in both Judaism and Islam. Muslims call the whole Temple Mount area Al-Aqsa, and entering the area is no different than entering a mosque. As agreed, Jews may only visit the place, but not pray there. Violation of this rule has triggered a new round of violence in the seemingly endless Arab-Israeli conflict.
Those familiar with the history of the conflict may recall the 1969 incident, when Michael Dennis Rohan, an Australian national and a member of the Protestant fundamentalist Church of God, set fire to Al-Aqsa in an attempt to, in his words, "bring closer the date of the Messiah's return". Riots that followed the incident across the Middle East and India led to numerous casualties. The current unrest between the Palestinian youth and Israeli security forces has also resulted in dozens of casualties. Masked Palestinians threw rocks and firecrackers, while the Israeli police used grenades and even a drone to launch tear gas grenades. A video of the incident became viral on social media, which in turn sparked protests in some Arab communities of Israel as well as outside the Middle East. For example, outside the Israeli consulate in New York.
Most disturbing, however, was a rocket and artillery fire between Israel and the Gaza Strip, as well as in southern Lebanon. Israel blamed Hamas, whose leaders then declared that the Al-Aqsa indeed belonged only to Muslims, and vowed to defend the Palestinians' right to pray there. A senior Hamas official warned that in case of a new conflict, they would open front from South Lebanon and restart the 1948 Arab Intifada. According to Mahmoud Mardaoui, spokesman for the militant wing of the movement, the Palestinian Arab unrest in Jerusalem shows "that the so-called Zionist regime has lost its deterrent power". Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said that Israeli measures in the Palestinian territories were increasing tensions and undermining the concept of "two states for two peoples”.
Now the observers are concerned about a possible conflict similar to the one that took place on May 10-21, 2021, when Israel launched the military operation Guardian of the Walls in the Gaza Strip. That conflict also occurred by the end of Ramadan and also began with riots in Jerusalem and Al Aqsa. This time many Palestinians feel that the Israeli leadership has tightened the security measures on the Temple Mount in retaliation for a series of terrorist attacks by Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in recent weeks, which claimed the lives of 14 people, mostly civilians.
Obviously, no one wants the exacerbation of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Collective forces of the West are mainly focused on Ukraine in its war with Russia, while Syria continues to be a source of destabilisation for the entire region. There are also attempts to continue the existing dialogue with Iran over its nuclear programme. Plus, the situation is getting quite nervous on food markets and can get even tenser by other geopolitical, economic and even climatic surprises causing large numbers of migrants and refugees. In this situation, the parties rely on the authority of the White House. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid to avoid actions that would inflame tensions. State Department spokesman Ned Price said Washington was ‘deeply concerned’ about the tensions and called on all sides to maintain the ‘historic status quo’ in the Al-Aqsa complex and avoid ‘provocative’ steps.
In addition, the UN Security Council reviewed the situation in the region in an emergency meeting behind closed doors in New York. Most importantly, the US President Joe Biden is going to visit Israel. But the date and agenda of his visit remain unclear for now. It is only known that Biden and the Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett "discussed a range of global and regional issues" during a telephone conversation.
Meanwhile, the situation is getting complicated by another internal political crisis in Israel. According to local media reports, it was important for Mr. Bennett to demonstrate that he was in control of the situation by declaring that Israeli forces had "complete freedom of action" to continue security operations in Jerusalem. In reality, though, it appears that he encountered the opposite effect. For example, the Muslim Ra'am Party in the Prime Minister's coalition government has frozen its activities in the Knesset. This threatens a political crisis and the collapse of the coalition in the 120-seat Knesset just one year after Bennett managed to rally his supporters and thereby end Binyamin Netanyahu's twelve-year rule. Alliance of parties united only in opposition to the previous prime minister and including leftists and centrists, religious and nationalist groups, and, for the first time in Israeli history, a party that is composed of members of the Arab-Israeli minority in the country, have many vulnerabilities though. Therefore, a refusal to work with the Ra'am party would be a serious hit. After all, the coalition had already lost its majority two weeks earlier.
Incidentally, the head of Ra'am Mansour Abbas himself put his political future in jeopardy. He expected that active participation in Israeli politics could bring tangible civic victories to Arab society, but in fact he failed.
Furthermore, Israel's efforts to improve relations with its Arab neighbours are at risk. On April 21, Arab foreign ministers held an emergency meeting in Jordan to discuss the situation in Jerusalem. Earlier, Jordan, which is the custodian of holy sites in East Jerusalem, including the Old City, summoned Israel's chargé d'affaires to ‘protest illegal and provocative Israeli violations at the holy Al-Aqsa mosque’. According to King Abdullah II of Jordan, Israel's ‘unilateral’ actions against Muslim worshippers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque seriously undermine the prospects for peace in the region.
As a result, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said there was no intention of changing the status quo on the Temple Mount and dismissed rumours that it might be divided between Jews and Muslims. Israel is taking a step forward and the delicate balance in the region is likely to be restored. On the other hand, it is clear that this was still just another phase of confrontation. Unfortunately , the Arab-Israeli conflict continues to be an open wound.
The Al-Aqsa Mosque is a famous, holy but also sad place. A place with a deep historical background, which has been subject to violence from the Crusaders to the present day. It is a place that brings together many faiths and that could have been the hope and symbol of peace in the world. But it continues to be an apple of discord and a bright example of the fact that, in principle, the current system of international relations does not have sufficient mechanisms and the will and desire of its participants to seek real workable compromises.