Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tried to explain the recent anger and responses to Israeli provocations of Palestinians in East Jerusalem as “deep-seated hatred of Jews.” But we need to look more closely at the Israeli government’s own actions—and specifically its encouragement of messianic Jewish extremists who have been provoking tensions and violence around the historic Noble Sanctuary mosque complex in occupied East Jerusalem, known as the Temple Mount to Jews.
Located in the Old City of East Jerusalem and covered with scenic gardens, the Noble Sanctuary is revered by both Muslims and Jews. But for centuries only Muslim prayer was permitted there, since, for Jews, a strict halakhic (religious) ban forbade visiting.
Up until five years ago, no more than 300 Jews visited each year, whereas about three million Muslims come to the site annually. Today the ban is supported by the site’s official Jordanian caretakers, and also ratified by an agreement between the Jordanian government, the United States, and, at least officially, Israel itself.
Despite the agreement, the Israeli government has, by fits and starts, been changing the status quo at the site—fully aware that its gestures are provocative and likely to incite violence. For while these Temple Mount extremists often couch their goals in terms of religious freedom and civil rights, their ultimate goal is to destroy the Noble Sanctuary and build a Jewish temple in its place. Funding and other encouragement from Netanyahu’s government have helped to expand the Temple Mount movement to alarming proportions, effectively mainstreaming it within Israeli society in recent years. Today, a number of mainstream Israeli religious leaders support the messianic goals of the movement, while a number of senior members of Netanyahu’s party and governing coalition have been aggressively campaigning to impose Jewish Israeli sovereignty over the site.
At least 10 Israeli organizations are now active in the campaign for increased Jewish control over the Noble Sanctuary. The Education Administration has even been allowing extremist Temple Mount activists to indoctrinate Israeli schoolchildren into the movement and encouraging Jewish students to visit the Noble Sanctuary. Meanwhile, senior Israeli government ministers have openly called for the construction of a Jewish temple in the Noble Sanctuary, something which would almost certainly provoke major violence in the region and beyond.
At the same time, the numbers of Jews visiting the Noble Sanctuary (accompanied by Israeli police) in recent years has grown rapidly. By the end of 2015, they were more than 15,000—up from 9,000 four years ago. As the right-wing Jerusalem Post noted in January 2015: “The trend is driven by several activist groups that encourage Jewish Israelis and tourists to visit the Temple Mount, saying they wish to reassert the Jewish connection to the site.”
Palestinians’ fears that Israel will attempt to forcibly partition the Noble Sanctuary are further fueled by the fact that the Israeli government has already partitioned another historic Palestinian mosque, the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in the occupied West Bank, which was divided by Israel following the massacre of 29 Palestinian worshippers by an Israeli-American settler in 1994.
Even Jewish Israeli critics have warned that these threats to the status of the Al-Aqsa Mosque Compound will wreak havoc. Yaakov Stein, Professor of Political Science at Hebrew University, told The New York Times, “This ancient collection of sites, which both Muslims and Jews revere, should have been administered with the utmost tact, yet our government seems to think an iron fist is needed. This is another sign that right-wing and often fanatical Jews now have the upper hand with the Israeli state under Likud.”
Netanyahu’s hollow disclaimers to the contrary, Palestinians see these developments as signs of an Israeli plan to take over the entire Noble Sanctuary compound, and their fears are not without justification. In the larger context of fifty years of illegal occupation, they become deliberate provocations designed to elicit violence and thus to justify massive crackdowns on people already living under constant surveillance and militarized violence.