A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Al-Aqsa Fracas

Generally speaking, when a fire is already burning, throwing gasoline on it is contra-indicated. Iran's launching of long-range missiles on Yom Kippur was pretty much a case of spraying gasoline on the grill, but the troubles on Sunday on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif are also an indicator of potential explosion. Remember that it was Ariel Sharon's visit to the platform on which stand the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock that provoked the entire second intifada.

I've been cautious about writing anything so far because the events occurred just hours before the Israeli media (and Israel generally) went into the 26-hour blackout that is Yom Kippur. I didn't want to comment purely based on Arab media, such as this Al-Jazeera report or this one in the Daily Star. Now we're starting to see more Israeli reports on the events. Also here and here and here. Some of the early accounts may have been exaggerated. What's still not clear to me from the Israeli reports is who the Jewish visitors who went to the Mount accompanied by police actually were; the Palestinians obviously believed they were a settler group, and saw this as a provocation.

And there is, certainly, no more explosive 35 acres on the planet than the one Jews call Har ha-Bayit, the Temple Mount, and Muslims call Al-Haram al-Sharif, usually translated as "the Noble Sanctuary." Along its western face lies the Western Wall (Ha-Kotel ha-Ma'aravi), the remnant of the wall of the Second Temple Platform and the holiest site in Judaism, and on its surface lie the Masjid al-Aqsa (the "Farther Mosque," believed to be the site of Muhammad's isra' and mi‘raj or Night Journey to Jerusalem and vision of heaven), and the Dome of the Rock (Qubbat al-Sakhra, often misnamed "Mosque of Omar" in Western guides), together the third holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina. (Christians of course have plenty of Gospel references to Jesus at the Temple, but perhaps fortunately don't have any acreage on the Mount at the moment.)

Sorry. There are multiple issues when it comes to holy places. There's the question of free access on the one hand, and of respect on the other. I frankly don't know who's at fault here: were the Jewish visitors seeking a provocation, or were the Palestinians overreacting to a rumor? It's not clear from the reports, even a couple of days after the fact. I've always been scrupulous about complying with everybody's rules at holy sites: shoes off in mosques, kipoh on in synagogues, both in places like Hebron where both religions share a single building, no shorts in churches, etc. etc.. After decades of spending timein the region I can flip from Catholic to Greek Orthodox to Muslim to Jewish custom in an instant. But most folks in the region aren't trying to respect the other, they're trying to one up the other.

What worries me is that this may have been a deliberate attempt to provoke a confrontation by settlers or an unwarranted overreaction by Palestinians. Honestly, I still can't tell. But you don't throw gasoline on a hot stove. Everybody should calm down and back off.

I know there's a lot of nonsense out there, from the Palestinian clerics who keep insisting, against all evidence, that there's no evidence the Jewish Temple ever stood there, to the Temple Mount Faithful who want to blow up the Dome of the Rock and build a Third Temple. It used to be — probably still is — pretty easy to buy a photoshopped picture of a new Temple on the Temple Mount, if you looked in certain parts of the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem. And of course if there's a Palestinian cafe anywhere from Jerusalem to DC to Michigan that doesn't have the Dome of the Rock on the wall I've yet to see it. This is high-octane, weapons-grade emotional religious explosiveness, here. Everybody needs to step back a bit.

1 comment:

JR said...

The difference between the peace process and the piece process illustrated again for those who hadn't figured it out before.