This week was not the first time Arabs were called upon to “defend Al-Aqsa”. The sudden spreading of false rumours about Israeli attempts to Judaise Jerusalem, to destroy the Dome of the Rock, or to plant false antiquities showing an ancient Israelite provenance — without any obvious provocation from Israel — happens occasionally.
Of course, had Israel wanted to exert its sovereignty over Temple Mount, it has no need for such secretive steps. To begin with, it could have allowed Jews to pray there.
So these riots are an internal Palestinian matter. They have been fomented by the northern branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement, which is affiliated with Hamas, and whose leader, Raed Saleh, has been in and out of Israeli prisons for repeated incitement to violence. The riots are part of Hamas’s endless effort to wrest control of the PA from Fatah, just as they did in Gaza.
But why this, and why now? Three developments shed some light.
First, the deal Hamas made with Israel, in which 20 prisoners were released in exchange for a video of Gilad Shalit. This is part of a broader deal in the works, in which 450 prisoners are likely to be released in exchange for Shalit’s freedom.
Hamas’s main incentive here has to do with the Palestinian elections in June. Hamas wants to prove to the Palestinians that it, and only it, is capable of dealing with Israel and freeing Palestinian fighters. There is no better way to show that they are the true leaders of the Palestinian people than to have major demonstrations in Jerusalem — on the West Bank’s doorstep, but outside Fatah’s ability to stop it.
Second, Fatah leader Mohammed Abbas has come under intense pressure after deciding not to recommend that the UN Security Council consider the Goldstone Report.
Accused of bowing to US pressure, Mr Abbas has declared that he may endorse it after all. Given the choice between being perceived as submitting to US pressure and actually submitting to Hamas pressure, he may well choose the latter. This week’s riots only pressurise him further.
Third, Hamas and Fatah have reportedly reached a reconciliation agreement, allowing a unified front against Israel. If such an agreement comes together, both sides will have convinced themselves that it is the best way for them to take control of the entire PA — that either Fatah will take back Gaza, or Hamas the West Bank. These riots may well be meant to force Fatah to terms favourable to Hamas, or risk a Gaza-style coup.
Until June, we will witness a concerted effort by Hamas to win over the Palestinians. Their strategy is to assume that voters are fed up with the PA’s failure to deflect US pressure and to continue the revolution, and to present themselves as the ideologically pure and politically effective alternative.
Will they succeed? Stay tuned.