Tensions around the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem eased late this week after Israel removed security infrastructure around the entrance, but earlier violence left four Palestinians and three Israelis dead, as Dennis J Bernstein reported.
By Dennis J Bernstein
Update: By the early hours of Thursday — after this interview — Israel had removed the metal detectors from Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Violence flared in East Jerusalem starting on July 21, as a result of Israel’s decision to put metal detectors at the entrance to the Palestinians most holy site, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, along with the stationing of hundreds of Israeli security forces and police.
Palestinians protested all over occupied Palestine against the decision and at least four Palestinians and three Israelis have died as a result. The situation triggered international alarm and caused the United Nations Security Council to convene a meeting to explore ways to calm the tension.
I spoke to Ramzy Baroud, editor of the PalestineChronicle.com, about the situation on the ground last weekend and the continuing moves by Israeli occupation forces to seize more and more Palestinian land in East Jerusalem and on the West Bank.
Dennis Bernstein: What are your thoughts on the tense situation and the standoff in East Jerusalem?
Ramzy Baroud: Well, the situation on the ground is quite difficult right now. As you know, there was this gun battle a few days ago, which resulted in the closure of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Haram Sharif compound, one of the holiest sites for Muslims everywhere. This is the first time we have seen such a closure since the time of the Crusades. So this is a huge deal for the Palestinians and many fear this is an indication of a much more extensive political plan to normalize the annexation of East Jerusalem.
We have seen tens of thousands of Palestinian worshippers, mainly Muslim but also joined by their Christian brethren, prevented from entering the compound to pray. On July 21, Israeli [forces] installed metal detectors and, of course, the Palestinians are protesting this. The Al-Aqsa compound has been under the management of the Islamic Trust since an agreement was reached by the Israeli and Jordanian governments in 1967. Installing metal detectors is Israel’s way of rejecting this agreement, which has been in force for five decades now.
Palestinians are feeling a great deal of outrage and insecurity now in East Jerusalem. They fear this is part of a larger Israeli plan that brings right-wing politicians such as Benjamin Netanyahu into the same camp with extremist Zionists who believe that the mosque is built on the site of an ancient Jewish temple and want to destroy it. They have attempted to do so in the past but this recent violence has inspired many of them to believe that the moment is now.
DB: Maybe you could put this latest violence into the context of the ongoing seizure of Jerusalem.
RB: American politicians such as Trump tend to neglect the complexity of history. They assume that all it takes to be an effective politician is the ability to attract campaign contributions and win the support of powerful segments of the population. Truly wise politicians try to understand the repercussions of every decision they make.
With the Trump administration, there has been a kind of euphoria in Israel, particularly among the ultra-nationalists, the most extreme camps in the Israeli government and society. They feel that Trump is their messiah, not in a religious sense but in the sense that he is going to be the one to fulfill biblical prophecy. Trump has promised that he is going to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in defiance of international law, making the US the only country in the world to do so.
Whether he actually carries through on the promise is not the issue. The message is loud and clear: The US is no longer following any kind of international consensus, on Jerusalem or the status of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. That changes the rules of the game entirely.
Nikki Haley, the new US ambassador to the UN, has repeatedly insisted on Israel’s sovereignty in Jerusalem, on Israel’s ownership of the Muslim and Christian holy shrines. I don’t think we have seen anything like this since the George W. Bush administration and the Negroponte doctrine, which stated that the United States would not accept any UN resolution inconsistent with Israeli interests.
But what is happening now is even worse than that. We are not just seeing attempts at preventing United Nations institutions from speaking out against Israel’s violations of international law. We are seeing a new level of very right-wing, indoctrinated outlook emanating from Washington. As a result, Israel has been extremely empowered.
For the Zionists, Nikki Haley is a godsend. She is the person who is going to change the status of Israel at the United Nations. Palestinians understand that something has been fundamentally altered in the nature of the relationship between Israel and the United States.
So there is an attempt to really push the limit. For example, last March the Knesset passed another reading of a law that prohibits the Muslim call for morning prayer. Again, this is something that hasn’t happened for a thousand years. It is not possible to say this new position is just the work of a few extremists on the margin. We are talking about mainstream politics in Israel.
If this continues and there are no international repercussions, Palestinians will be forced to fight. What is happening in Jerusalem now are not clashes, it is about people wanting to go to their mosques to pray and thousands of Israeli soldiers blocking entry. If this continues, we are going to see a lot more violence in the coming days and weeks.
DB: In April, the Israeli government announced that they are going to build 15,000 new housing units in occupied Jerusalem. That has got to to be wreaking havoc already.
RB: We hear these astonishing numbers, as if the occupied territories have this unlimited space that can be constantly carved out and destroyed and rebuilt! These housing units are going to be built on Palestinian land, whether privately owned or not. People will find themselves homeless, entire villages will be wiped out. The Bedouins, in particular, are often the first to suffer.
Unfortunately, when this happened, our media told us only part of the story: Three Palestinian brothers opened fire, killing two Israeli police officers. Anyone hearing a story like this is going to think, well, this is really quite violent and completely unacceptable. These officers are doing their jobs. But they don’t understand the very violent context to this story: people being killed, being ethnically cleansed, being brutalized on a daily basis.
People are being pushed to the breaking point. This doesn’t mean that we are condoning violence but it must be understood that these types of violent actions don’t happen out of context. Until we hold to account those who are illegally wielding power, the violence is going to continue and more people are going to suffer as a result.
DB: It is my understanding that a lot of organizing is going on within the Palestinian community all over occupied Palestine and Israel. What is now happening at the holy sites is really getting attention not only in the region but all over the world. How do you see this in the context of the larger wars underway, the Syria connection, the way in which the Saudis are being even more empowered by the Trump administration? It seems that the Israelis are seizing the opportunity to do what they have been meaning to do in Jerusalem for so long.
RB: Indeed, we see for the first time in many years the absence of an Arab consensus on Jerusalem. Not because Arabs don’t care about Jerusalem, but because greater political urgencies are motivating the various actors. Saudi Arabia, at this point, is an embattled country, a country which is undergoing shifts in its political structure from within. The heir apparent has been replaced in a so-called “palace coup.”
The Saudi’s main concern right now is not Israel but Iran. The more they try to limit Iran’s influence in the region, the greater this influence becomes. At this point we are seeing an almost open pact between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Those who dare operate outside the Saudi consensus, such as Qatar, find themselves immediately under siege.
So right now the political equation in the Middle East is changing. Israel is no longer at the center. Rather, you have Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Israel on one side, and Syria, Iran and a few others facing off against them.
This creates the perfect opportunity for Israel, if you think about it from a shrewd political standpoint, to do whatever they deem necessary for their political interests. In Washington, you have an administration that is completely blind to Israeli crimes and you have Saudi Arabia and its allies looking the other way. This is the perfect opportunity for the Israelis to open the floodgates to new settlements and to do what they please with the Palestinian population.