Experts believe that the outbreak of riots around the Old City of Jerusalem is not the beginning of a “third intifada”, but an attempt by Palestinian leaders to draw their population’s attention away from recent governmental debacles.
Stone-throwing and violent encounters with police began in Jerusalem, in and around the Old City, last Sunday, on the day before Yom Kippur.
The rioting began when a group of French tourists entered the Al Aqsa Mosque compound on the Temple Mount and rumours spread that “the Jews are trying to take over the mosques”.
Since then, confrontations have continued sporadically between Palestinian demonstrators and police, causing dozens of casualties.
On Monday morning, police forces entered the Mosque area after surveillance cameras caught piles of rocks that had been prepared for throwing on the tens of thousands of Jews arriving at the Western Wall for the traditional Succot Birkat Cohanim, or priestly blessing.
Rumours spread that ‘the Jews are trying to take over the mosques’
Jews are forbidden from praying openly on the Temple Mount and the Palestinian religious council controls the area.
This has not stopped Palestinian movements accusing Israel of trying to destroy the mosques by digging beneath them.
The main organisation backing the riots is the radical northern wing of Israel’s Islamic Movement. The movement’s leader, Sheikh Raed Saleh, has repeatedly called upon Muslims to flock to the mosques and “defend them with their bodies”.
On Tuesday, he was broadcast on Al Jazeera calling for all the Muslims in the world to arrive.
“We will not hesitate to pay any price to defend Al-Aqsa,” he said.
The Islamic Movement is identified with Hamas but the leaders of the Palestinian Authority have also joined in the rhetoric, including PA President Mahmoud Abbas who said that “while Israel and world Zionism is pouring in billions to buy up land in Jerusalem, the Arab effort in comparison is weak”.
Jordan is worried about the spread of the violence to the Palestinian community which makes up three quarters of the kingdom’s population and has discreetly asked Israel to forbid tourists and Jews entrance to the Temple Mount.
There have been calls to arrest Sheikh Saleh to put him on trial for incitement and outlaw the Islamic Movement, including from Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau.
But most security experts believe this will only cause further escalation.
“The riots so far have been relatively minor,” said one government security adviser, “and they haven’t shown any sign of spreading outside Jerusalem. The truth is that neither the PA, nor Hamas, currently have any interest in escalating the violence.
They only want to use the riots for political purposes, to draw attention away from Hamas’s military failures during the Gaza fighting and subsequently rebuilding the Strip and the PA’s diplomatic failures.”
Sheikh Saleh was arrested for a few hours on Tuesday evening and charged with incitement but a Jerusalem judge ordered his release on the condition that he keep away from the city for the next 30 days.