A third Intifada could be on the way

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Jerusalem might be the cause of Palestinian uprising No 3.

When the Arab Spring erupted, when masses of the oppressed rose up against their oppressors, it was almost a sure bet that the Palestinians, too, would be inspired to break the iron manacles of Israeli occupation. After all, they had been through uprisings before – twice – the first in the late 1980s and the second at the start of 2000. They also had more reason than most to rebel against a ruler who had stolen and occupied there land over 60 years ago. The third Intifada thus seemed right around the corner.

A third Palestinian revolt has yet to happen but all the elements are in place. And the place where this possible Intifada Three could start may well be Jerusalem. On the ground in the old walled city, both Arabs and Jews are openly talking about a burgeoning third intifada. The latest violence in east Jerusalem, including deliberate hit and runs, has been building up for months. There are daily clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police, especially in East Jerusalem, and warnings and threats from both sides are ratcheting ever upwards.

Things got worse last week when Yehuda Glick, a rabbi and advocate for permitting Jewish prayer at Al-Haram Al-Sharif (what the Jews call temple Mount) was shot in an apparent assassination attempt. Glick’s purported Palestinian assailant was reportedly killed by Israeli police, after which riots ensued. Shortly afterward, Israeli officials took the extraordinary step of closing Al-Haram Al-Sharif to all worshipers, an act that Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas called a “declaration of war”.

It didn’t take long for the Israeli authorities to reopen Haram Al-Sharif. Apparently, Israel took Abbas’ warning seriously. The closure at the site, which includes Al-Aqsa Mosque, was the first in 14 years. More important, it sits right at the heart not just of arguments and conflict in Jerusalem but at the very heart of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict altogether because sovereignty of that area defines what could be a two-state solution. Attempts by Israel to block off access to the holy site are inevitably attempts to take sovereignty over the wider area of Jerusalem. That is why it is such an explosive issue when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a whole.

Jews are allowed to visit the site but not to pray there. However, Glick and his backers are determined to change the status quo that has governed Al-Aqsa since Israel seized the city in 1967. But Glick and company should be as fearful, as was Israel at the time, of triggering a holy war. It swiftly handed control of the compound back to the Islamic religious authorities.

The rules state that Jordan’s religious authorities are responsible for administering Al-Aqsa until the end of the Israeli occupation. But Glick and his supporters argue that Jews should have the right to pray at their holiest site, and take their cue from the Knesset which last week briefly discussed a proposal to that effect. Hard line lawmakers, many from the coalition government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, vow to place Al-Aqsa fully under Israeli sovereignty. Indeed, after Glick was shot, far-right Jewish groups urged supporters to march on Al-Aqsa. That could have started a conflagration in the region. Any tampering with the status quo at the site is rejected. The site has been an exclusively Islamic holy place for more than 1,400 years. It belongs to Muslims who will not accept Israeli efforts to steal or arrogate their rights. This is not a political matter; it is one of religious belief and faith.

Israel, however, makes clear it will not respect the Jordanian agreement nor rein in fanatics; if anything, it abets them. Israeli authorities permit Jewish fanatics to tour the area and hold their rituals in defiance of the sensibilities of Muslims who reject any Israeli encroachment at the Muslim sanctuary.

Imposing Israeli sovereignty at Haram Al-Sharif would be the ultimate breaker of everything. Nothing would survive this, neither the peace process nor peace treaties. Nothing.

Al-Haram Al-Sharif, the third holiest site in Islam, is a potent historic symbol of identity and nationhood. The Israeli government, however, would rather it cemented the bond of Jews to their state rather than encourage Arab longing for a Palestinian nation that Israel never wants to see.

The return of Al-Haram and Al-Aqsa to the forefront of the crisis between Israelis and Palestinians is not good news. Al-Aqsa is the buzzword for Palestinian youths since it once again becomes the focal point of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Al-Aqsa represents for Palestinian youngsters the Israeli occupation and the oppression it brings to them and all other Palestinians.

Note that the bloody second Intifada started in part because Israeli leader Ariel Sharon visited Al-Haram Al-Sharif in 2000 during a similar period of severely heightened tension and incitement.

The first Intifada was instigated by a seemingly isolated incident, when an IDF truck struck a civilian car, killing four Palestinians, most likely intentionally.

But don’t be fooled by the incidents which triggered the two Intifadas. The killing of a group of Palestinians, even if it were deliberate, and an excursion by an Israeli prime minister to Al-Aqsa, even if provocative, does not result in intifadas. These uprisings have a background that lead up to the eventual catalysts. These tail ends are the last straws, the point at which water and blood boil over. They are the reminders that it doesn’t take much of an additional spark to set this conflict alight once again.

The first and second Intifadas were much more than isolated parts. They were the sum of Israeli repression, extrajudicial killings, mass detentions, house demolitions, forced migrations, relocations and deportations, collective punishment, curfews and the suppression of political institutions. In both cases Israel was confident its iron-fist policies would exhaust Palestinian resistance. In both cases, the assessment that the unrests would collapse proved to be mistaken.

These days, add the overspill of fast-track planning for more than 1,000 new apartments in several Jewish neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem where the Palestinians envisage the capital of their future state. That announcement came on the heels of another 1,800 homes in West Bank settlements to be built in response to the summer’s swearing in of the Fatah-Hamas unity government of which Israel is dead set against.

Then the 50-day war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas which killed nearly 2,200 Palestinians, almost a quarter of them children, as east Jerusalem erupted in protest.

The ongoing turbulence and instability in much of the Arab world could very easily extend to the occupied territories. Palestinians could also be spurred on by the mushrooming diplomatic crisis between the United States and Israel, mainly over settlements. The frost between the two allies could give the Palestinians more nerve to revolt in the belief Israel might not have America’s usual blind support enjoyed in the past.

A new Intifada has been in the making for years as peace talks have faltered, fighting has broken out, and the region has been engulfed by conflict. While the prediction may have been premature, the return of Al-Haram Al-Sharif to the forefront of the crisis between Palestinians and Israelis brings the next Intifada that much closer.

Alaa Abdel-Ghani is an affiliate professor, Faculty of Journalism, American University in Cairo.