People power in Jerusalem: Al Aqsa's winners and losers

People power in Jerusalem: Al Aqsa's winners and losers
6 min read
28 Jul, 2017
Comment: People power successfully pressured Israel into removing its controversial security measures at al Aqsa. This momentum must now be harnessed across Jerusalem and Palestine, writes Daoud Kuttab.
Worshipers demonstrated their dissatisfaction by praying peacefully outside the mosque [Anadolu]
Nearly two weeks after Israel closed the entire compound of al Haram al Sharif/al Aqsa Mosque, Palestinians emerged having succeeded in forcing Israel to remove humiliating restrictions on the entry to their own mosque. 

After thirteen and a half days of absence, Muslims were able to practice their faith in the third holiest mosque. It took the nonviolent protest of the faithful who chose to pray outside the compound until all restrictions to it were removed, before victory could be declared.

Thursday 27 July saw Jerusalemites pray the aser (afternoon prayers) in unison, after missing 67 consecutive times of prayer. Today (Friday 28 July), a sparsely filled mosque also saw men and women attend Friday prayers in Al Aqsa after two Fridays during which the entire mosque was shuttered.

In this time, much has happened and many lessons can be learned about what led to the current victory, and whose position proved to be a disappointment.

The main victors are the people of Jerusalem, who proved beyond a doubt that they are capable of opposing a powerful military and security force through the simple nonviolent act of praying outside the mosque, rather than agreeing to unilateral Israeli restrictions and impositions.

Protests proved that if carried out correctly by a unified people with a clear purpose, the willingness to sacrifice and a refusal to rush any half-baked solutions will lead to success.

The status quo in Al Aqsa was a significant victory, firstly for Muslims' right to freely access their holy mosque, but secondly in terms of non-Muslims respecting an understanding on how they should behave when visiting the mosque area.

The losers are many. To begin with, extremist elements in Israel were dealt a powerful blow for supporting a unilateral act of imposition without coordination with the relevant Palestinians and Jordanians custodians.

The head of the Jerusalem police who on 29 June made a provocative visit along with 150 Israelis to the mosque in which he was given a Jewish blessing, and was photographed with them, caused much anger among Palestinians.

Jerusalem Police Chief Yoram Halevey, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and the far right wing Minister for Education Naftali Bennet were in support of keeping the electronic gates, in opposition to the Chief of the Israeli intelligence service and the head of the Israeli army.

The cancellation and removal of the gates and cameras is a clear sign that the actions of the extremist Israeli trio will be seen as having backfired. Normally, such a miscalculation might cause them to resign, or get fired, but unfortunately this is unlikely given the staunchly right wing Israeli government.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu who preferred the advice of the police over that of the army and intelligence chief also emerges from the situation as a loser. In fact, an Israeli poll showed 77 percent of Israelis opposed the removal of the metal detectors - the focus of the protests.

It is important to realise that keeping Palestinian leaders (whether religious or political) out of the decision making process regarding Al Aqsa is a major mistake

Israeli officials were warned of the trouble that would ensue, yet they choose this path and were forced to reverse every decision they had made unilaterally.

Other losers in the situation include the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) who were slow and ineffective in responding to the clear violation of the status quo on the Al Aqsa Mosque.

The Arab League had planned for a meeting of foreign ministers on Wednesday (which was later postponed to Thursday). This is hardly a signal of the importance of the violations in Jerusalem. The OIC held an emergency meeting on Monday night, but there is no evidence that anyone paid much attention.

And while some losers and winners were clear, some parties had a foot in both camps:

The Palestinian President and Jordan's King were also slow to react, though perhaps through particular fault of their own. Both were away when the problems began and no one was mandated to make important decisions in their absence.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas did cut short a visit to China, and upon his return held a meeting of the Palestinian leadership and announced the suspension of all contacts with Israel including security cooperation. There is no doubt that the strong Palestinian decision prepared the way for the eventual decision to remove the gates and to allow a return to the status quo.

Read more: Jordan: 'No deal' with Israel over embassy killing

King Abdullah, who was on vacation when the protests began, was unable to make any major change until an unexpected opportunity regarding the trigger happy Israeli embassy security officer led to the death of two Jordanians. Although both Israel and Jordan deny it, the fatal shootings may well have helped usher in a deal of sorts.

Jordan appears to have opted to contribute to ending the standoff by trading the release of the Israeli attacker in return for the removal of the metal detectors and cameras.

Regardless of winners and losers, there are many lessons that must be learned by all. The Al Aqsa mosque is clearly a highly sensitive issues that must not be dealt with lightly.

The two-week long protests will act as a deterrent to Israel if it chooses to take the path of unilateral changes to the status quo again

In the same vein, it is important to realise that keeping Palestinian leaders (whether religious or political) out of the decision making process regarding Al Aqsa is a major mistake that must be quickly rectified in order to ensure that the people who pray in the mosque are also consulted regarding any attempted change in how it is managed.

The two-week long protests will no doubt help bring focus to new religious and political leaders that the public trusts. It also will act as a deterrent to Israel if it chooses to take the path of unilateral changes to the status quo again.

If the newly discovered people power in Jerusalem is in fact a winner, the momentum that has begun in Al Aqsa needs to spread to other sectors of Jerusalem and Palestine.

Hopefully the Israeli will realise that meddling with religious sensitivities and the status of Jerusalem can easily provoke the city and wider region.

This success in Jerusalem is a small but symbolic victory, and as such must be handled wisely. The newly discovered power must leveraged for gains on the ground without any attempt to overreach or risk wasting this effort and sacrifice.

Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. 

Follow him on Twitter: @daoudkuttab

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.