Violence casts shadow over Holy Land

by Storer H. Rowley

Holy days in the Holy Land should be sacred refuges from escalating tensions and violence, but ironically, they are often just the opposite, producing some of the brutal hell that especially torments Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East. 

The rare, peaceful confluence of Ramadan, Passover and Easter this past week was shattered by clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian Muslim worshippers inside Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, the killing of Jews in the West Bank and the firing of rockets at Israel from Gaza, Lebanon and Syria — as well as retaliatory Israeli airstrikes. 

Muslims, Jews and Christians share similar principles of faith — a belief in one God, respect for life, peace and good works — but as they flocked to pray in Jerusalem’s walled Old City in recent days, their holidays were overshadowed by new conflict and age-old disputes over claims to lands drenched in strife, blood and sorrow. 

No one knows if this is the beginning of a third intifada or even a regional war, but all the ingredients for explosive conflict have been brewing in recent years, and as long as there is no permanent peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians, violence inevitably fills the vacuum. 

The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, widely seen as the most far-right in Israel’s history, must do more to defuse the situation. Thus far, some of Netanyahu’s most extreme anti-Arab ministers seem to be lighting the match. 

Scenes of Israeli police this past week using stun grenades and rubber bullets, beating Palestinians, arresting hundreds and wounding at least 40 inside Al-Aqsa, the third holiest shrine in Islam, brought condemnations from Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and across the Arab world. Israel claims its forces were trying to keep the peace and that militants in the mosque had brought stones and fireworks, preparing to riot, and had to be quelled. But some observers saw that as a pretext to exert control over the site. 

The compound where the mosque sits is sacred to Jews as the Temple Mount, the place where the First and Second Jewish temples once stood, but status quo agreements with the Muslim Wakf, a religious trust that oversees the esplanade, have forbidden Jews to pray on the site, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, where they believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven. 

Some members of Netanyahu’s government, like far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, have called for changing the status quo to allow Jews to pray there. Arabs see that prospect as a provocation that threatens the peace. It’s hard to argue they’re wrong. 

Al-Aqsa is a tinderbox, and the Arab League warned that “the extremist approaches that control the policy of the Israeli government will lead to widespread confrontation with the Palestinians if they are not put to an end.”  

The Biden administration has been encouraging Israel and the Palestinians toward peacemaking, but it should work harder. 

Netanyahu is running out of time to bring his ministers into line. Ben-Gvir touched off widespread Arab outrage earlier this year when he visited the Temple Mount, and Palestinians fear he will upend the status quo. He and his far-right ally, Bezalel Smotrich, now finance minister, and other extremists in the government, are viewed as political pyromaniacs, not peacemakers.  

Israel advocates in America worry their conduct undermines continued unified U.S. support for Israel. Their followers are determined to support expansion of Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territories, still considered obstacles to peace by the U.S. They want to cement Israel’s control more firmly in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, long claimed by Palestinians as the sites of a future capital and independent state. 

Thirty years after the Oslo Accords were signed, neither Israelis nor Palestinians harbor much hope for peace, but some members of the government seem determined to kill it. It is clear the process is at a stalemate, and neither side believes the other is serious about negotiations, or even interested in them. But playing with the Temple Mount during Ramadan is playing with holy fire. 

Palestinians have seen this movie before. When Israeli leader Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount on Sept. 28, 2000, it was widely viewed as the spark that launched a bloody second intifada that lasted five years and cost thousands of lives. There’s talk now of a third intifada. 

To be sure, Netanyahu has his hands full with domestic troubles of his own: Pro-democracy demonstrations have rocked the Jewish state this year as hundreds of thousands of Israelis protest attempts by his government to overhaul the powers of the Israel Supreme Court, potentially weakening Israel’s democracy. 

The uptick in violence for Israel this past week serves as a stark warning of what could be to come if careless leaders disrupt the status quo that has held for decades. 

Peace may be elusive, but war could come much more easily — and quickly. The presence of the holy sites in Jerusalem draws pilgrims from around the world, especially on the holidays, but that presence ratchets up the stakes as well for those who would weaponize religion for political ends. 

Netanyahu must take a hard, thoughtful look at his own government, keep an eye on his legacy and shut down any more provocative acts on his watch if peace is to prevail this holiday season. 

The alternative is unthinkable. 

Storer H. Rowley, a former foreign correspondent and national editor for the Tribune, is an adjunct lecturer in journalism and communication at Northwestern University.