In the Old City of Jerusalem, the days before the Jewish holiday of Passover this year were tense. Amid an ongoing wave of violence, the focal point of these tensions was the Temple Mount / al-Haram al-Sharif, a site sacred to both Muslims and Jews.
An analysis of two weeks of Israeli and Palestinian media in the lead-up to Passover showed how Islamist and Jewish activists were stressing their connection to the holy site, while delegitimising the other side's claims. What it also showed is the very different place the issue occupies in Israeli and Palestinian society.
In the lead-up to the holiday, the Islamic Movement in Israel, an Islamist group, published a video accusing Israel of digging "secret tunnels" underneath the holy site. This was in line with with its ongoing campaign, 'al-Aqsa is in Danger,' which refers to the Al-Aqsa Mosque at the site. Jewish Temple Mount activists, meanwhile, started a crowd-funding campaign for money to sacrifice a goat nearby for the holiday.
Passover passed with relative calm, but tensions once again flared in May.
Passover itself passed with relative calm, but tensions once again flared in mid-May, with Israeli police arresting Jewish activists trying to stage a protest. Authorities are keen to avoid the tensions boiling over. Ahead of Passover, police took steps to keep known inciters away. Jewish activists who approached the site with a goat to sacrifice were arrested. In fact, last year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered Israeli ministers and Knesset members not to visit the site, in order to reduce tensions. This was reaffirmed ahead of the holiday. According to the International Crisis Group, in addition to actions by Israeli police, cooperation between Israel and Jordan – the official custodian of the site – helped maintain the relative calm.
Temple Mount / al-Haram al-Sharif remains a flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; tensions there flare with every new wave of violence. One oft-cited example is that former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's visit to the site in September 2000 kick-started the second intifada. Although most of the recent stabbing attacks have not been religiously motivated, several were directly linked to the holy site, and took place in the streets surrounding it.
The delicate status quo at the site is based on an arrangement in place since after the 1967 war, when Israel captured Jerusalem's Old City and holy places. According to this, Jews and other non-Muslims are allowed to visit, but only Muslims can pray there. Then-Defence Minister Moshe Dayan thought allowing Jewish prayer would spark clashes with the Muslim world, and that there was a Jewish consensus against visiting the site due to its holiness.
The Temple Mount, the traditional location of the First and Second Temples, is the direction of Jewish prayers. The immediate goal of Jewish Temple Mount activists is to enable Jewish prayer at the site. According to their own statements, the ultimate goal of this fringe movement is to build the third Jewish temple there.
There is no consensus among Orthodox Jews when it comes to worship at the site, but most Orthodox rabbis claim it is too holy even to visit. Hence, Temple Mount activists are on the margins of the society. However, according to a 2014 poll, though 56 percent of Israeli Jews agree with the prohibition on Jews praying at the Temple Mount, a full 38.5 per cent think the prohibition should be canceled, even if this leads to bloodshed. Some mainstream rabbis do permit Jews to visit, but not to pray there.
Israeli and Palestinian media deal with activity at the site differently.
Israeli and Palestinian media deal with activity at the site differently. These differences give insight into wider attitudes on the issue of the Temple Mount / al-Haram al-Sharif. Monitoring of Israeli and Palestinian news sources in the two weeks before Passover this year showed that the issue got very little coverage in mainstream Israeli media. In Palestinian sources, meanwhile, it was widely reported. This difference may stem from the fact that in Israel, Temple Mount activists, and indeed the Temple Mount issue in general, are on the margins of public debate. Most Israeli news items on the topic were from Arutz Sheva, a right-leaning website whose audience is mainly comprised of religious Zionists.
The story was featured consistently in mainstream Palestinian sources, however. Jerusalem and al-Haram al-Sharif are a matter of consensus in the Muslim world. As such, every Israeli movement at the site over the two-week period was widely reported. In the run-up to Passover, there was almost daily coverage on Jewish visitors to the site. These reports used hostileterminology; verbs which mean to "violate" or "enter violently" described Jews visiting the site. Overall, the reporting painted a picture of an increased Jewish presence on the Mount in attempt to subvert the delicate status quo.
Jerusalem in general, and Temple Mount / al-Haram al-Sharif in particular, are holy in Judaism and Islam. This discourse of holiness creates clashing narratives, which are hard to reconcile. In turn, this creates a pattern of constant tension around the site, which often surges around major Jewish or Muslim holidays. Those tensions can cause a violent ripple effect, which makes the clashing narratives concerning Temple Mount/ al-Haram al-Sharif into more than a local affair, and more than a matter of disagreement on a religious principle.
Indeed, Jordan's involvement makes these tensions a regional geopolitical matter, beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Amman's plans to reduce tensions sometimes backfire, such as when the Jordanian plan to place security cameras on the site was cancelled this year due to Palestinian opposition; both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas claimed the Hashemite kingdom was "collaborating with Israel." The involvement of a third party does help reduce tensions, however. Further, Jordan could be a broker of tacit understandings between Israel and the Muslim world regarding this flashpoint holy site.