The atmosphere in the West Bank is tense, and the potential for a violent escalation is growing.
The crisis over the Temple Mount’s Gate of Mercy (Golden Gate, Shaar HaRachamim in Hebrew, Bab el Rahma in Arabic) could become the detonator that sets off the next conflagration, and Israel must act quickly to neutralize it.
In recent weeks, signs are growing of an imminent explosion in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as the Israeli elections in April draw near.
Israel can take measures to prevent such an explosion. The most serious danger, though, is that of an eruption sparked by events on the Temple Mount, where the new Islamic Waqf Council &hdash; at Jordan’s bidding – took over the Gate of Mercy compound by force.
Senior figures in the Islamic Waqf say that this Friday (March 8, 2019) will be the critical day of the Gate of Mercy issue. On the east Jerusalem street, against the backdrop of what is perceived as Israeli depredations against the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Islamic Waqf institutions, the young generation is calling for a new intifada that will be dubbed HaBat Sha’ar a-Rahma (the Gate of Mercy uprising).
Palestinian social networks have been full of mendacious propaganda calling on Muslims to come to the Temple Mount this Thursday to prevent “the settlers” from forcibly entering the new mosque at the Gate of Mercy.
Hamas has called on Muslims to demonstrate in Jerusalem this Friday, in tandem with measures announced by the Islamic Waqf to counteract Israel’s decision to bar from the Mount those who were involved in the takeover of the Gate of Mercy chamber.
On March 4, the Islamic Waqf announced that the Mount would be closed to worshippers this Friday and prayers would not be held there. The intention is to protest the measures Israel took against the top Islamic Waqf officials and particularly the head of the Waqf, Sheikh Al-Azim Salhab, who was barred from the Mount for 40 days from the Gate of Mercy takeover.
This decision by the Waqf recalls its approach to the crisis involving the metal-detectors that were installed at the Mount’s gates in the summer of 2017. Apparently, on Friday, the worshippers will pray at those gates and in the alleyways of the Old City, and the potential for an outbreak is very high.
For their part, on March 4, 2019, the Islamic Waqf’s security guards on the Mount issued an announcement warning that Israel is working to sabotage the achievement of opening the Gate of Mercy.
The announcement said Israel had so far arrested 14 Waqf security guards who were involved in opening the Gate of Mercy and barred them from the Mount for different periods of time. The announcement also calls on Muslims to demonstrate on the Mount beginning on Friday.
Israel should have drawn the right lessons from the 2017 metal-detectors crisis and internalized the fact that sensitive issues on the Temple Mount are instantaneously combustible. Jordan and the Palestinian Authority are well aware of that fact; seeking to throw a wrench in the works as the proclamation of Trump’s “Deal of the Century” approaches, they laid a trap for Israel in the form of the Gate of Mercy takeover. They likewise established a new, joint Waqf Council that includes senior PA representatives for the first time. They aimed to signal that sovereignty on the Temple Mount belongs to Jordan and the PA and not to Israel or Saudi Arabia or any other international Arab body.
Israel is now ensnared in the Gate of Mercy crisis. On March 4, 2019, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court ordered the Islamic Waqf to respond in a week to the State Attorney’s Office’s request to close the Gate of Mercy compound, saying otherwise it would issue an edict to close it. The Waqf already declared this week that it does not recognize the Israeli courts’ authority or the Israel Police’s directives and that it takes orders only from the Jordanian government. If the court does issue the edict, the police will then have to enforce it, further aggravating the situation. For now, the mosque that was set up in the Gate of Mercy chamber is operating unhindered.
The political echelon, which was not properly prepared beforehand for the Gate of Mercy crisis, must now act to forestall the widespread disruptions that could ensue. The solution lies in dialogue with Jordan, which oversees the Waqf Council and can restore calm. Israel must not succumb to the trap that Jordan has laid.
Worrisome Signs in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip
Meanwhile, at the Gaza border and in the West Bank there are worrisome signs of escalation, and an outbreak on the Temple Mount could ignite these on a wide scale. Therefore, the order of the day is to calm the furies on the Temple Mount, which is of a sensitive religious nature for every Muslim.
On the Gaza border, the “night confusion” units have been active again, attacking IDF soldiers along the border fence in the nighttime hours. Explosive-balloon and arson-balloon attacks on the Israeli communities along the border have resumed as well.
Although the Rafah crossing has already been operating for a month or so and even though Mahmoud Abbas has cleared it of PA officials, Hamas seems to want to gradually escalate the situation with the aim of putting the Gaza issue back on the international agenda.
Almost a year has passed since the start of the Great March of Return campaign, and the Hamas leadership cannot point to any significant achievements or breach of the blockade. Gaza’s economic situation is difficult, there is great distress among the population, and Qatar announced that it will stop giving Gaza $15 million in financial aid each month.
Meanwhile, Abbas keeps withholding salaries and stipends from Gaza officials and the families of Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists.
Hamas is now demanding that Israel hand it a sum of $20 million and carry out the second stage of the ceasefire understandings, which includes setting up a new electricity supply line from Israel to Gaza (known as Line 161), opening a maritime crossing to Cyprus, and building a floating maritime terminal.
In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority is in distress as well. Israel has started to implement its law to withhold revenues equal to the stipends the PA pays to terrorists, freezing the transfer of 500 million shekels to the PA. The PA has declared in turn that it will now forgo all of the tax monies that Israel collects for it if even a single cent is deducted from them.
The Trump administration, too, has cut financial aid to the PA and its security agencies. Hence the PA’s financial situation stands to get worse, and it will have a hard time providing services to citizens and paying its officials’ salaries.
To this should be added the simmering anger among Palestinian security prisoners in Israel over the Prison Service’s decision to install electronic cell-phone-jamming devices in the Ketziot Prison as an initial measure. This anger radiates out to thousands of families of security prisoners in the West Bank and Gaza.
In the absence of what the Palestinians regard as a political horizon and with the United States aiming to foist the Deal of the Century on them, the tension in the West Bank could spark the outbreak of a spontaneous intifada involving vehicular ramming assaults, stabbing attacks, and an uptick in “popular resistance.” Fatah activists are now talking about a new tactic of blocking roads leading to West Bank settlements.
What Can Be Done?
The atmosphere in the territories is fraught with explosive vapors. It can gradually be calmed if it is borne in mind that the main fuse is on the Temple Mount and that if this fuse is lit, the security situation could spin totally out of control. That means the state of affairs on the Temple Mount has to be accorded the highest priority.
Jordan is the custodian of the Jerusalem holy places, and its status is anchored in the 1994 peace treaty with Israel. In the Gate of Mercy crisis, the Arab League and the PA are totally behind Jordan. Since the crisis began two weeks ago, the Israeli police have arrested about 300 Palestinians and barred them from the Temple Mount.
In light of the tense situation at the Gaza border and in the West Bank, Israel must calm tensions on the Temple Mount and launch a dialogue with Jordan’s King Abdullah before Friday.
The heads of the Islamic Waqf Council accuse Israel of a deliberate escalation on the Temple Mount with an eye to Israel’s election campaign. For its part, Israel must draw the full benefit from a dialogue with the Jordanian government. Israel can always resort to force and impose the law, but at present, every effort should be made to avoid an escalation on the Mount in light of what is happening along the Gaza border and in the PA.
Israel can also ask Egypt to restrain the Hamas leadership, and it can temporarily freeze the installation of the cell-phone-jamming devices in the security prisoners. Such measures will help allay the tension in the territories.