Jerusalem & Al Aqsa Mosque attacks: Israel won’t learn from history

Jerusalem & Al Aqsa Mosque attacks: Israel won’t learn from history
6 min read
15 Apr, 2023
Israel pays a heavy political price whenever it wages attacks on Palestinian worshippers in Al Aqsa Mosque, but the current extremist Israeli government nevertheless continues to push the boundaries of a historical status quo, writes Daoud Kuttab.
Israeli police raided the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem earlier this month during the holy month of Ramadan, injuring and arresting hundreds of Palestinian worshipers. [GETTY]

For centuries military rulers who have conquered Jerusalem have discovered a simple truth: monopolising the holy city of three world religions for one group at the expense of all others is a colossal mistake. This is as true today as it has ever been. This is a lesson that needs to be re-learned after the brutal attacks on worshipers in Al Aqsa mosque produced widespread condemnation from Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Jericho, and even Tel Aviv.

Israeli leaders had a choice to make on the evening of 8 April and the morning of 9 April. They were under extreme pressure from right-wing Israelis, including the Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir, to empty Al Aqsa Mosque from all Muslim worshipers. This was especially the case regarding those who were carrying out the practice of Itikaf (praying and sleeping in the mosque overnight) because religious Jews were eager to use the Passover holidays to visit what they call the temple mount. On the other hand, Israel had determined that the previous effort to empty the mosque came at a heavy political, human, and even strategic price.

''The truth is, the current Israeli government hasn’t learned the historical lesson that the conquerors of Jerusalem learned the hard way. Every previous rule of Jerusalem has faced some of the same challenges and while some worked to avoid them, others failed.''

Videos of Israeli security brutally attacking the worshipers in their house of worship were broadcast around the world angering millions of Muslims and many others. Three Israeli women were killed in a shooting targeting settlers driving on the Jordan Valley road.

The attacks on worshipers have clearly weakened Israeli deterrence as three fronts (albeit temporarily) were suddenly opened up: Gaza, South Lebanon, and Syria.

In the end, Israeli decision-makers calculated that they can accept Muslim worshipers staying overnight and called in more Israeli security to guard the ‘visiting’ Jews. There has been over 1500 visitors since, and no violence has occurred on either side. The status quo was largely preserved.

What this means is that we are approaching a rare threshold. A balance of deterrence – or as Israel might call it, a balance of terror – appears to have emerged. This balance has largely been in practice between Israel and Hezbollah for years and to a lesser extent with Hamas in Gaza. The violence at Al Aqsa, and Israel’s insistence on forcefully taking out Muslim Itikaf worshipers has threatened this balance, however.

The truth is, the current Israeli government hasn’t learned the historical lesson that the conquerors of Jerusalem learned the hard way. Every previous rule of Jerusalem has faced some of the same challenges and while some worked to avoid them, others failed.

For example, the second caliph and companion of the Prophet Mohammed, Omar Ibn Khattab, avoided this friction when he came to Jerusalem by deciding to pray outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and set a healthy precedent in tolerance and respect for the other. The Crusaders, on the other hand, acted violently against all non-Catholics (other Christians included), and as a result their rule was short-lived.

For 400 years, the Ottomans faced the challenge of managing the competing claims to holy places, not only from Christians but also from Jews and Muslims in the city. In 1852, the Ottoman Sultan Abdulmejid I issued a decree which upheld the possession and division of Christian holy sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem and prohibited any changes to their status. This arrangement came to be known as the Status Quo. The Treaty of Berlin, signed in 1878 between European powers and the Ottoman Empire following the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, recognised the Status Quo agreement for Jerusalem internationally.

Even Israelis have initially avoided the confrontation that we are seeing now by not allowing Jews to enter the mosque area and later by allowing them to visit only during visitation hours like all other tourists. But things have gotten worse over recent years.

As late as March, Israeli representatives promised American, Jordanian, Palestinian, and Egyptian representatives to honour the status quo at Al Aqsa Mosque. The conclusions to the meetings in Aqaba in February (which was never published officially in Israel) state: “The five parties recognise the importance of upholding unchanged the historic status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem in word and practice, and emphasises in this regard the Hashemite Custodianship / special role of Jordan.”

A month later and just before the beginning of Ramadan, another meeting was held in Egypt and again the parties agreed to respect the status quo. Specifically, the joint statement noted agreement that the parties need to “actively prevent any actions that would disrupt the sanctity of these sites, inter alia during the upcoming Holy Month of Ramadan, which coincides with Easter and Passover this year.”

For a few days in Ramadan this year, things went well and Muslims were allowed to pray uninterrupted, but as Passover approached, it became clear that radical Jews were set on praying and even sacrificing a goat on the Muslim holy site. The Israeli minister of national security, Itamar Ben Gvir, was given a chance to call the religious fanatics off, but refused to make that statement as he was being interviewed on Israel tv a few days before Passover.

Furthermore, with Jewish fundamentalists publicly offering rewards to anyone able to make a Jewish sacrifice on a UNESCO-protected world heritage site, Palestinians were not willing to allow this to happen. They decided to stay overnight in the 35 acres esplanade to protect the space from fundamentalists who’d be indirectly backed by the minister of police, Ben Gvir (who had previously said that he favours Jewish prayers on the Muslim site).

What ensued was best captured by an Israeli reporter who wrote in Haaretz: “Aside from one lethal incident, Ramadan in Jerusalem had been exceptionally quiet. But Jewish activists seeking a Passover sacrifice on the Temple Mount and the police’s falling into the same old trap reignited the flashpoint site.”

Applying the lessons of history will require some hard decisions. It is high time that international humanitarian law be applied, and that Israel is held accountable for undermining the globally accepted status quo. This is the only way that peace and quiet can be restored. Once that happens, it is incumbent on all parties to follow up by providing a strong and impenetrable agreement with clear accountability for any party that will not honour them.

Jerusalem is holy to Muslims, Christians, and Jews. It is also home to Palestinians and Israelis. No one party can monopolise the rule of the city. The sooner that a coexistence formula is found and cemented through binding agreements, the better for all.

Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist from Jerusalem. He is a former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University.

Follow him on Twitter @daoudkuttab

Have questions or comments? Email us at:

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.