I spoke to several Fatah sources in east Jerusalem on July 17, 2017, as the “metal detector” crisis began to build, and their bottom-line is that they feel they are left alone to defend Jerusalem. They fear they may lose control of the situation; some individuals may take action on their own with serious consequences.
They told me that on Sunday, July 16, 2017, at a meeting in Ramallah of Fatah top echelons, Mahmud al-Alul, Abbas’ deputy in the Central Committee, told them that PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas was instructing them not to escalate the situation in Jerusalem. Instead of Jerusalem’s situation, they were to concentrate on the conflict with Hamas over Gaza.
Indeed, on July 19, 2017, Abbas delivered a policy speech in Beijing, China, and barely mentioned the current Jerusalem issues.
The Fatah leadership in Jerusalem told Ramallah that if at the moment of truth Fatah will not lead the “defense of al-Aqsa” – it will be the end for them; they will have no role to play anymore. Already now they are very weak compared to the Islamic religious players in Jerusalem.
Finally, on July 18, 2017, Fatah issued a statement calling for a “Day of Rage.”
What is the “Status Quo?”
The core of the conflict has become the security measures taken by Israel in installing metal detectors and magnetometers at the entrances of the gates of the Temple Mount compound, the “Haram.”
The Waqf (religious authority), as well as Fatah, reject these security measures on the grounds that they breach the status quo of the holy site, which is based on the understandings between Israel and Jordan in 1967. According to the agreement, the Haram is to be used exclusively for Muslim prayers, Israel is responsible for its security, and the site is open for non-Muslim tourist visits.
However, the PLO and Muslim movements never accepted the 1967 understanding, and for them, the status quo is from the period prior to 1967. That means Jews cannot enter the site; the Western Wall is Palestinian/Muslim; and, according to the PLO, the Palestinians will be responsible for security under Palestinian state sovereignty.
Despite the fact that the Jordan-affiliated Waqf operates closely to the Israeli interpretation of the status quo, the installing of the magnetometers sparked a dispute with Israel over the status quo. According to the Waqf – and Jordanian – interpretation, the area of the Haram includes both sides of the walls – inside and out. Hence, even the Western Wall is Palestinian/ Muslim. Israel assuming the security responsibility on the outside of the gates that were in the hands of the Waqf personnel until now is viewed as breaking the status quo.
The Fatah sources assured that the moment these magnetometers would be removed, the city will return to normalcy, but the dispute will still stir anger and hurt pride that could lead to individual terror attacks.
This video clip filmed on July 17, 2017, shows a large demonstration at the Old City’s Lion’s Gate, far smaller than Turkey’s calls for “a million-strong” demonstration on the scale that overturned the attempted Turkish coup d’état last year. The demonstration was devoid of Palestinian organizational flags. Political activist Mustafa Barghouti, leader of the Palestinian NGO community in Ramallah, is trying to fill the vacuum created by the PLO hesitancy.
Other matters concerning the status quo are reports that the Jerusalem municipality sent cleaning crews to clear the Mount’s esplanade – an action normally the responsibility of the Waqf. Also, Jewish “settlers” were allowed to enter the compound, for the first time without the Waqf personnel inspecting and escorting them.
Hence, if the Waqf insists on refusing to cross through the magnetometers to the compound until the devices are removed, it risks another change of the status quo—the municipality of Jerusalem will assume the role of maintaining the site and allowing Jews to enter the site with no inspection role for the Waqf.
Dilemma for Jordan and the Waqf
While the Waqf is a Jordanian-affiliated religious council, it could feel forced to take a harder line than Jordan’s position in the confrontation with Israel.
Another major concern of the east Jerusalem leadership is the importing of the conflict by individuals of Israeli Arab communities into Jerusalem, as was the case of the three terrorists from the Israeli Arab town of Umm al Fahm.
It should be noted that the tensions on the Temple Mount were not sparked by the east Jerusalemites but by Israeli Arabs, some possibly aided by Turkey.
The murder of the two Israeli Druze policemen exacerbated tensions in Israel between Druze and Muslims. In mixed Muslim-Druze cities, shots have been fired towards mosques. The three killers, suspected of being Muslim Brotherhood supporters, knew that they were targeting Druze. Have the Druze-Sunni tensions in Syria spread to Jerusalem?
In conclusion, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas ordered the de-escalation of tensions in east Jerusalem which frustrated the local Fatah. The Waqf is in a real dilemma: if they accept the magnetometers, they recognize the Israeli responsibility on the outer side of the Haram walls, but if they insist on refusing to walk through them until they are removed, the Waqf will endanger the status quo inside the walls with Jewish visits without a Waqf presence.
In turn, Israel risks losing the Waqf as a partner in quietly balancing the delicate situations in Jerusalem.