The myth of the Al-Aqsa 'siege' continues to ignite Palestinian violence

The myth of the Al-Aqsa 'siege' continues to ignite Palestinian violence
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On Aug. 24, 1929, an Arab mob massacred 69 Jews and wounded many more in Hebron, Judaism’s second holiest city which hosts the Cave of the Patriarchs, the burial place of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah. The motivation for this unconscionable assault was a false rumor that Jews in Jerusalem were laying siege to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, located on the Temple Mount, the third holiest site in Islam and Judaism’s most holy location. 

Those seeking to rid the Jews from British Mandatory Palestine, as the land was then referred to, and to override the League of Nations Mandate which established within that territory a national home for the Jewish people, took notice of the extreme emotional reaction they had provoked with the rumor of an Al-Aqsa siege. It became institutionalized within their antisemitic playbook and remains a potent weapon to this day.

It’s not as if anyone really believed that the Jews were interlopers in Jerusalem, where they had lived for thousands of years. Indeed, in “A Brief Guide to the Al-Haram Al-Sharif” published by the Supreme Muslim Council in 1935, the authors, referring to the Temple Mount (“Al-Haram Al-Sharif” in Arabic), acknowledged that “its identity with the site of Solomon’s Temple is beyond dispute. This, too, is the spot according to the universal belief, on which ‘David built there an altar unto the Lord, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings.’” But in spite of, or perhaps because of, this undisputed biblical connection of the Jewish people to the Temple Mount, Arab extremists have played upon the fear and hatred of the Arab street to cause countless acts of violence against Jews throughout the past century. 

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I saw this first-hand when I was U.S. ambassador to Israel. On July 14, 2017, three Arab Israeli men exited Al-Aqsa and opened fire on two Israeli border police officers, killing them both. It was the first time that weapons apparently had been stored at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, necessitating a brief closure and search of the building. Once the Israeli police had swept the premises, the Mosque was reopened and metal detectors were installed to prevent further dangerous incidents. 

The mere placing of the security devices at the entry points — common now to almost all public places (including the Western Wall, where Jews come to pray) — created a huge opportunity for Mahmoud Abbas, the aging and unpopular head of the Palestinian Authority, to establish himself as the “defender” of Jerusalem. Abbas encouraged dangerous violence for nearly a week until the metal detectors were taken down for the Muslim worshippers (but not for those entering through the single gate earmarked for non-Muslims). He knew full well that the Al-Aqsa Mosque was not under attack, but he played up the false rumor to advance his own needs. Lives were lost on both sides by the violence he promoted.

We saw this again last week when Hamas used the “siege of Al-Aqsa” as a pretext to start a war against Israel. There was no siege. During the holy month of Ramadan, tens of thousands of Muslims prayed peacefully at the Mosque every day. But when Hamas saw the need for a pretext to elevate its standing among the Palestinians, it proclaimed the Mosque to be under attack and fomented a riot. The riot led to stones being thrown toward Jews praying at the Western Wall below, and explosive devices and more stones leveled against the riot police. It was ugly for a day or two. But it is quiet now and, once again, there was never a “siege.”

Israel has always given preference to the rights of Muslims to pray on the Temple Mount. In June 1967, when Israel reunified Jerusalem in the Six-Day War, Israeli soldiers briefly planted a flag on the Mount and proclaimed “the Temple Mount is in our hands.” Moshe Dayan, the commanding general, directed the soldiers to immediately remove the flag; he was not interested in provoking a religious battle with the Muslim world. Since then, the religious practices on the Temple Mount have been administered jointly by the Kingdom of Jordan and the Palestinian Waqf. The Mount is accessible to Muslim worshippers through 11 gates and to non-Muslims through a single gate. Non-Muslim prayer is prohibited on the Temple Mount.

Just to reemphasize this critical point, although the Temple Mount is Judaism’s holiest site, Israel does not permit Jews to pray there — only Muslims.

It is for this reason that a key component of then-President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump takes shot at new GOP candidate in Ohio over Cleveland nickname GOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 On The Money — Dems dare GOP to vote for shutdown, default MORE’s January 2020 “Vision for Peace” between Israel and the Palestinians is a protocol, endorsed by Israel, for Muslims throughout the world to tour Muslim holy sites located in Israel and to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. By seeing first-hand the care and sensitivity that Israel displays towards the Al-Haram Al-Sharif, the big lie of the “siege of Al-Aqsa” finally can be dispelled once and for all. Ending this cynical manipulation of Arab rage by Palestinian leaders is a critical step on the path to peace.   

David Friedman is the former United States Ambassador to Israel.