Eran Tzidkiyahu, a research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking and a PhD student in the Institute of Political Sciences in Paris. 

The current wave of violence sweeping Israel and Palestine in the last days wouldn’t have erupted if not for the current tensions around the Temple Mount (al-Haram al-Sharif). Escalation or de-escalation of the situation depends on what happens on the Holy Esplanade and around it. A dramatic declaration by Netanyahu to reaffirm limitations on visits by Jewish adherents of the Temple Mount Faithful, which seeks to rebuild the Third Temple on the site, would most probably bring an end to the cycle of violence. If these actions are accompanied by trust-building steps and an appeal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, they could even leverage the current crisis for the best. However, provocations by an Israeli politician on the Holy Mount, should they be serious enough to incur casualties, would cause the situation to get out of hand and might even lead to a third intifada.

Abbas expressed Palestinian worries about what happens around the Holy Mount in his September 30 speech at the UN General Assembly, where he opened with a warning that radical right-wing Jewish groups are—according to him—repeatedly violating the status quo in an attempt to impose a new order. Abbas also attacked the members of the Knesset who go up to the Temple Mount, whose actions strengthen the Palestinians’ belief that the change of status quo is not just the aim of a few radical groups, but an official Israeli policy. He accused Israel of de facto dividing the Holy Esplanade between Jews and Muslims “in direct violation of the status quo since before 1967 and thereafter” and called on the Israeli government “to cease its use of brutal force to impose its plans to undermine the Islamic and Christian sanctuaries in Jerusalem, particularly its actions at Al-Aqsa Mosque, for such actions will convert the conflict from a political to religious one, creating an explosion in Jerusalem and in the rest of the occupied Palestinian territory.”

Three days after the speech, Muhannad Halabi, a Palestinian student, stabbed to death two Jewish men and wounded several others in the Old City of Jerusalem, not far from the city’s holy sites, before being shot to death by the police. Before executing his deadly plan, Halabi wrote on his Facebook wall: “The Third Intifada has erupted. What is happening to al-Aqsa [mosque] is what is happening to our holy sites, and what is happening to the women of al-Aqsa is what is happening to our mothers and women. I don’t believe that our people will succumb to humiliation. The people will indeed rise up.”

Abbas did not threaten Israel. Rather, he warned us all, and he was not alone. Before, during, and right after the Jewish High Holidays, voices warned against an escalation around the Holy Esplanade. Indeed, starting in late July on Tisha B’Av (the Jewish commemoration day for destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem), and up to Yom Kippur (Jewish Day of Atonement) and the Muslim Eid al-Adha in late September, violence on the Holy Esplanade erupted time and again after increased visits by Jewish groups triggered violent responses by Muslim worshippers. This escalated into the current “knives intifada,” a wave of violence and hate that hasn’t been seen in the country since the days of the second intifada, which that also erupted in the mosque whose name it bears, the “Al-Aqsa Intifada.” 

Understanding the centrality of the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif and the authenticity of Palestinian fears—whether they are justified or not—concerning the integrity of the holy site, is a prerequisite for understanding the current situation. With the religion-ization of the conflict as a whole, Jerusalem’s holy sites are being transformed from a religious symbol into a protected, national symbol.