To ease tensions, empower Palestinians of Jerusalem

Israel Palestinians
Israeli border police officers stand guard as Muslim men pray outside the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem on Sunday.

The violence on al -Haram al-Sharif last Friday morning in Jerusalem that left two Israeli police officers and their three Palestinian attackers dead has created a volatile situation that many fear could change the sensitive status quo in Islam’s third holiest site.

One group that has not been given a chance to deescalate the situation is the Palestinians of Jerusalem. Calls to involve them in the future of their city by the Belgium-based International Crisis Group have gone unheeded consistently. In a June 2015 report, the Crisis Group states that the “the status quo is an Israeli-Jordanian understanding that excludes Palestinians.” They recommend the creation of “a consultative entity of prominent Palestinian figures in Jerusalem \[with\] a degree of authority that could help stabilize the city.”

But any attempt at creating local leadership is fought by the Israeli government and intelligence services.

Ever since the 1993 Oslo Accords, Israel has prevented attempts by the Palestinian government in Ramallah to represent Jerusalemites. At the same time Israel has successfully kept various national institutions from functioning and closed key Palestinian institutions using emergency laws. For example, a Palestinian children’s festival planned for June 2013 was banned by the Israeli police on charges that it was funded by Norway by way of the Palestinian Ministry of Culture.

The result of this policy is that 350,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem are political orphans.

Even though most of the anti-Israeli attacks in Jerusalem have come from non Jerusalemites, the people of the holy city are forced to pay a collective price. Israel unilaterally makes decisions without any mechanism for cooperation and coordination with a respected local Palestinian leadership. Last week was no exception.

After Friday’s attack, Israel unilaterally set up metal detectors around al -Haram al-Sharif. It didn’t even bother to coordinate with Jordan, which, by peace agreement, has a special role in the mosque and other Islamic holy sites.

Muslims refused to be checked before entering their own mosque. Putting restrictions and obstacles in the path of people to pray is seen as an unaccepted constraint.
Palestinians worshipers argue that the status quo — all can visit but only Muslims can pray on the site — has held up for 50 years without a problem. Any issues are the result of extremist Israelis attempting to pray on the mosque site, which they call Temple Mount.

A call from Jordan’s King Abdullah to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu resulted in the mosque area being reopened to all Muslims. However, the metal detectors were place at two gate entrances to the mosque.

Keeping Palestinians out of any decision regarding the city, and especially the management of al-Haram al-Sharif, is a major error. The level of trust between Palestinians and the Israeli authorities is at an all-time low. While Palestinians have respect for the role of Jordan and King Abdullah, the absence of Palestinian representatives in these discussions means that Israel lacks a reliable communication tool and a real-time decision making mechanism that can rebuild trust. Waiting for the king to call the prime minister is not a practical way of solving problems that can escalate within minutes.

Until a peace agreement about the long-term status of Jerusalem is reached, Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian government must agree on a process that empowers local representatives of the Palestinian population. The acceptance of such a leadership would make decision-making easier for all sides when sensitive issues arise.

Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian from Jerusalem, is a former Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton University and a columnist for Al-Monitor. @daoudkuttab