Whereas Israel takes measures to maintain public order and uphold the delicate status quo on the Temple Mount, many on the Palestinian side exploit the holy sites to inflame passions and undermine the long-standing modus vivendi in the city.
Israel is committed to guaranteeing freedom of religion and access to all holy sites in Jerusalem. But whereas the Israeli authorities take measures designed to maintain public order and uphold the delicate status quo on the Temple Mount, there are many on the Palestinian side who exploit the holy sites in order to inflame passions and undermine the long-standing modus vivendi in the city.
The attempt to frame the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in religious terms is driven by a political agenda. Those who promote such rhetoric hope to advance their national goals by engaging people’s deep religious beliefs, but the outcome may be much more dangerous than they bargain for.
Viewing the conflict as based more on faith than nationality not only makes it more difficult to reach a solution, but may push the region into further instability. Actively promoting such a view is irresponsible.
In contrast to most rulers of Jerusalem throughout history, Israel has an official policy, laid down in the Declaration of Independence, of respecting freedom of faith and worship for all religions represented in the city. Particularly, Israel constantly works to facilitate worship of Muslims and Christians in their respective holy sites, and only restricts access when considerations of security and public safety are preponderate.
Sadly, conspiracy theories about the Jews threatening to destroy the Al-Aqsa mosque have abounded in the region for decades and, starting before the establishment of Israel, have been exploited by Palestinian and Arab leaders to rally the masses and incite them to violence against the Jews.
Already in 1929 the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, provoked the Arab population to fierce anti-Jewish riots by claiming that the Jews were threatening the mosque. Unfortunately, such rumors and conspiracy theories, which can be traced back to almost a century ago, still exist today.
It should be stressed that it is not only Hamas radicals who promote this inflammatory rhetoric. Officials of the Palestinian Authority, which pretends to be interested in reaching a peaceful settlement with Israel, have no qualms about exploiting the holy sites to advance their diplomatic goals.
Recent examples of this are the statements by the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, widely reported in the media on 17-18 October 2014, that the PA will not allow the "herd of settlers" to desecrate the Al-Aqsa mosque, and that the PA intends to take legal action in the international arena to prevent settlers from harming the mosque.
This was not the first time Abbas made such comments. In a speech he gave on 31 December 2013 at an event marking the anniversary of Fatah’s establishment, he warned that "the dangerous systematic attacks on the Al-Aqsa Mosque continue incessantly."
Over the years, PA officials have repeatedly voiced the same preposterous libel which accuses Israel of devising plans to destroy the Al-Aqsa mosque.
In an interview Abbas gave to the Saudi paper Al-Watan in June 2013, he said, "We’ve said on several occasions that Al-Aqsa is in danger because the excavations Israel is conducting in the Temple Mount and beneath its foundations put it in danger of collapse… All these acts indicate an evil and dangerous plot to destroy Al-Aqsa and build the alleged temple."
The truth is that any archeological dig conducted by Israel is done according to accepted archeological standards, taking extreme care not to harm the delicate physical and spiritual fabric in the city. The same cannot be said for the Islamic authorities who manage the Temple Mount, the Waqf, who have conducted heavy excavation works under the mountain in an area called "Solomon’s Stables", indiscriminately removing tons of earth and rubble in order to build a new mosque. These unsupervised works resulted in the destruction of previously unexplored archeological layers.
In another example, the Palestinian Authority disseminated the libel that Israel and Jews were behind a 1969 arson attempt that was actually perpetrated by an Australian non-Jew. Since the Al-Aqsa mosque is an important holy site for Muslims, accusing "senior Jews of high position" of trying to destroy it is a transparent attempt by the PA to promote religious hatred against the Jews. This particular accusation appeared in a documentary film about the arson, and was shown at an event held under the auspices of PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
The false claims about threats to the Al-Aqsa mosque are often mixed with semi-racist claims about the so-called "judaization" of Jerusalem, which hint at the existence of a secret "master plan" to turn the city into an exclusively Jewish one. The main arguments made in this context are summarized in a report posted on the website of the official Palestinian news agency, Wafa, titled, "The Methods Used to Judaize Jerusalem".
In reality, it is rather Palestinian leaders and speakers who engage in relentless attempts to "de-judaize" Jerusalem, and this by denying and negating the Jews’ connection to the city and its holy places.
Thus, former leader of the PLO and first chairman of the PA Yasser Arafat adopted an obscure theory about the location of the Jewish temple, claiming it was in Yemen.
Much like his predecessor, current PA president Abbas, who is often considered to be a moderate, actually holds an extremely intolerant view with regard to Jewish rights in Jerusalem. This view was revealed in various diplomatic speeches that Abbas has delivered at the United Nations General Assembly, in which he stressed Jerusalem’s importance to Muslims and Christians, deliberately omitting the deep historical and religious attachment of the Jews to the city.
For example, in his 2011 address, Abbas pretended to bring a message from "the Holy Land, the land of Palestine, the land of divine messages, ascension of the Prophet Muhammad and the birthplace of Jesus Christ." Note the deliberate omission of any reference to the Jewish faith and its links to the land.
Indeed, the same Palestinian leaders who claim to act in protection of the holy places to Islam in Jerusalem negate the city’s holiness to Judaism. Their statements are strewn with skepticism about the historical existence of a Jewish temple on the Temple Mount (which they call Haram al-Sharif), using terms such as "alleged temple" and "myth". Besides being a poor attempt to rewrite history, this attitude is one of chauvinism and of negation of the other, which is hardly conducive to peace.
This rejectionist approach was reflected in the words of the PA’s Minister of Religious Affairs, Mahmoud Habash in December 2012, who declared that the Western Wall (one of the holiest places for the Jewish people since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE), is an Islamic holy site and that no Jews or non-Muslims worshiped there at any time in history until after the issuance of the Balfour Declaration in 1917. Habash added that Israel’s claim on Jerusalem and the "Wailing Wall" lacks the most basic historical foundations.
Distortion of history and promulgation of a culture of hate against Israel and the Jews in the context of Jerusalem is not confined to official statements, but is also manifest in educational content to which Palestinian children are exposed. For example, Palestinian state television aired in July 2013 a video of two Palestinian girls reciting an anti-Semitic poem. The poem, translated by media watchdog Palestinian Media Watch, also teaches that Jerusalem is not for Jews, because Jerusalem "vomits" out the Jews who are said to be "filth" and "impure."
Recent examples of inflammatory statements by Palestinian Authority officials (courtesy of PMW):
Official PA daily (Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, June 13, 2014): "PLO Executive Committee Member and Head of the Department for Jerusalem Affairs Ahmed Qurei… condemned the opening, for the sixth consecutive year, of the Jewish Festival of Lights in Jerusalem… [he said that] these events incite to the destruction of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the construction of the alleged Temple on its ruins."
Official PA daily (Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, June 10, 2014): "[PA] Minister of Religious Affairs Yusuf Ida’is disclosed yesterday [June 9, 2014] that over the month of May, the occupation authorities and groups of settlers carried out 50 attacks on the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the houses of worship. In a statement made yesterday, Ida’is said… that there has been a rise in the number of settlers invading and desecrating the Al-Aqsa Mosque plazas and the Ibrahimi Mosque (i.e., Cave of the Patriarchs), and a spread of tendentious media campaigns within Israeli society and the world at large calling for the validation of Talmudic prayers [in the Al-Aqsa Mosque], the destruction of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the construction of the alleged Temple."
Mahmoud Abbas (Official Palestinian Authority TV, June 8, 2014): "If the Israelis were allowed to go further, they would have gone further and destroyed the Al-Aqsa [Mosque].
Official PA daily (Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, Apr. 23, 2014): "Secretary-General of the [PA’s] Islamic-Christian Council for Jerusalem and the Holy Places Hanna Issa… noted that lately, ongoing calls have been made by the extreme right to enlist a large number of settlers to assault the Al-Aqsa Mosque in order to perform their Talmudic rituals in it (PA euphemism for Jews praying). He emphasized that ‘… The aim of these attacks is to build the alleged Temple on the ruins of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the expropriation of the sovereignty of these holy sites from the Arabs and Muslims.’"
Official PA daily (Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, Apr. 14, 2014): "The PA Ministry of Foreign Affairs strongly condemned Israel’s escalation against civilians, their property and holy sites… The Ministry disclosed that for more than two years it informed all Muslims and Arabs at an official and public level about the nature of the Judaization plan at the Al-Aqsa Mosque (i.e., the Temple Mount Plaza)… The Israeli government has been carrying out this plan on a daily basis, and the rate of escalation and repression against Al-Aqsa is increasing… towards dividing it (the Temple Mount) geographically and according to time (allocating times and spaces for different religions), destroying it and building what is referred to as ‘the Temple’ in its place."
The following cartoon appeared in the PA official daily, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, on 18 October 2014: