Monday, September 28, 2009

Temple Mount riots - what really happened?

Isabel Kershner, in an article in today's New York Times, reports that the visitors to the Temple Mount who aroused such violence yesterday were not in fact a group of Jews, but a French tourist group.
Palestinians had been expecting a group of religious Jews to try to enter the Temple Mount compound, according to an independent Palestinian news agency, Maan.... A police spokesman, Micky Rosenfeld, said the police dispersed a crowd of about 150 Palestinian Muslims with stun grenades after they attacked the tourists, who he said were French. Disturbances then broke out in and around the Old City and elsewhere in East Jerusalem as Palestinian officials urged more Muslims to come to the holy site. At least 40 Palestinians were injured, according to Palestinian officials. Mr. Rosenfeld said that 17 police officers were injured, and that 11 Palestinians were arrested for throwing stones.
The Palestinian Authority's Information Ministry responded as if this was a deliberate attempt by Jewish settlers to enter the Temple Mount. Was it?
The Palestinian Authority’s Information Ministry issued a statement after the initial clashes on Sunday accusing the “Israeli occupation police and extremist settlers” of “breaking into the courtyard of the mosque, firing tear gas bombs and live bullets” against Palestinian worshipers.

It did not mention the French tourists, but added: “The Ministry of Information calls upon our people to gather at the mosque and to stand in the face of extremist Jewish groups.”

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, accused Israel of “deliberately escalating tensions in Jerusalem” by sending the police up to the mosque compound.
According to Kershner's report, however, there weren't live bullets, there were stun grenades. At least some police were already there on the mosque compound, as they always are during the hours when non-Muslims are permitted to visit (as I know from my own personal experience this summer). One of the Old City's police posts is right next to the Temple Mount, at the Mahkameh, and thus it's very easy for the Border Guards to get there. (See picture below)

From Jaffa Gate - Holy Sepulcher - Haram - Mt. Zion

While looking for some images on the web of the disturbances yesterday, I came across an interesting AFP photo that shows Israeli border guards deployed near the Al Aksa mosque, in the southwest corner of the Temple Mount:

91189849, AFP/Getty Images /AFP

(From Getty Images - since I haven't paid for it, the Getty Images copyright image appears on it).

The AFP caption reads:
A picture obtained on September 27, 2009 shows Israeli policemen taking position inside the grounds of the al-Aqsa mosques compound in Jerusalem. Tensions ran high after clashes erupted in Jerusalem's Old City at the Al-Aqsa, a site revered by Muslims and Jews that has been a major faultine in the Middle East conflict. Police and witnesses said the unrest erupted after a group of tourists entered the mosque compound. The visitors were probably mistaken for Jewish worshippers because a group of some 200 mostly religious and right-wing Jews had gathered in the early morning at the gate through which police allow tourists access to the holy site. AFP PHOTO/STR
So this source also says that the visitors who actually went up to the Temple Mount were not the religious Jews who had gathered earlier in the day. What happened to them, in that case? Did they go up to the Mount?

The next AFP/Getty Images photo shows Israeli border guards just outside the entrance to the Al Aksa mosque:

Another AFP/Getty Images photo shows masked Palestinians carrying rocks and glass bottles:

The Maan (Palestinian news agency) report is somewhat different from the New York Times in some details, but notes the inconsistency between the reports of 150 (or 15) Jews and a group of French tourists:
But there were also conflicting reports about the group spotted prior to the clashes. An Israeli police spokesman, who initially said the visitors belonged to the Jewish group, later insisted it was actually a group of French nationals that toured the compound.

In any event, Palestinians were seen throwing stones and other objects at police sent to the mosque area, reportedly hurting several. Using police batons and stun grenades, Israeli forces injured dozens during attempts to forcefully disperse the gathering crowds.

Clashes later erupted near Majlis Gate, one of the main entrances to the mosque, after police prevented worshippers from entering the area, according to witnesses. More clashes followed noon prayers near the Lions' Gate entrance to Al-Aqsa.

Israeli police closed all entrances in what they said was an effort to contain the fighting. However at one point Palestinians aged over 50 were briefly allowed to return, but the main gates toward the compound were again sealed later in the afternoon.

Hundreds of Jerusalemites and Palestinians living inside Israel arrived at the mosque compound when word of the clashes spread. They gathered outside several sealed entrances, chanting and denouncing the occupation and what they called assaults against holy places and residents in Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, Israeli police prevented Islamic notables such as Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, chief of the Islamic Supreme Committee and grand mufti of Jerusalem and Palestine, from entering the Al-Aqsa area.

Also denied access was Hatim Abdul Qader, former PA minister of Jerusalem affairs and current Fatah representative on Jerusalem. Israeli police produced an order preventing Abdul-Qadir from accessing Al-Aqsa until further notice, under the pretext that he urged demonstrators to gather at the compound.
(One wonders if it really was a pretext, or if he actually urged demonstrators to gather at Al Aksa). Below is a photo from Maan of Border Policemen gathering in the Al Aksa compound.

The Maan report raises the question of whether the Israeli police were telling the truth (that it really was a group of French tourists) or were trying to cover up for a Jewish group going onto the Temple Mount before Yom Kippur. The original report I linked to said that the group of Jews went up with police escort. This is not usual. When tourists go to the Temple Mount, there is no special police escort.

A Ynet report from today is also confusing.
Palestinian leaders warned Israel on Sunday not to stoke tension in Jerusalem in the hope of thwarting peace talks, after clashes at a sacred site in which Palestinians and Israeli police were injured.

"At a time when (US) President (Barack) Obama is trying to bridge the divide between Palestinians and Israelis, and to get negotiations back on track, Israel is deliberately escalating tensions in Jerusalem," chief peace negotiator Saeb Erekat said.

"We've seen this before, and we know what the consequences are," the Palestinian minister added, in a statement that recalled the visit of then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the site in Jerusalem's Old City in 2000. Sharon's presence at al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, triggered the second Palestinian uprising and dealt the biggest setback to peace efforts in years.

The reasons behind Sunday's clash were disputed.

According to legislator Hathem Abdel Kader and other Palestinian sources, the clash erupted in the early morning when Palestinians inside the complex - sacred to both Islam and Judaism - saw a group of 15 religious Jews trying to enter. The Jews never managed to get into the complex, because several hundred Palestinians, who were on alert for such a possibility, began a loud protest. Israeli police responded with tear gas then stun grenades.

The clash occurred hours before the start of Yom Kippur, the solemn "Day of Atonement" which is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. Police were on alert for violent protests in several flashpoints where Jews and Arabs live side by side.

Palestinians: No tourists were involved

Protesters threw stones, chairs and whatever they could lay hands on as riot police rushed to the scene. Video showed them trying to drive police away from the doorway of the al-Aqsa mosque, but there was no sign that police entered it. Police said 17 officers were hurt and 11 rioters arrested, and medics said 13 Palestinians were treated for injuries. There were no reports of serious injury or death.

Israeli police said it began when religious Palestinians angered by immodestly dressed tourists grew violent. Palestinians dismissed that account, saying no tourists were involved. There was no further comment from Israeli authorities, who were observing the Yom Kippur silence.

"Providing a police escort for settlers who are against peace at all costs, and whose presence is deliberately designed to provoke a reaction, are not the actions of someone who is committed to peace, but of someone who will go to extraordinary lengths to scuttle all hopes of peace," Erekat said.

He said it was "deliberately timed to coincide with the eve of the anniversary of that visit" by a government "emboldened by its ability to fend off calls for a settlement freeze."
These accounts raise a lot of questions:

1) Was there a large group of religious Jews waiting to get into the Temple Mount in the morning?
2) Or were there only 15?
3) Or was it actually a group of immodestly dressed tourists?
4) Or a group of French tourists (perhaps the same as #3)?
5) Did Palestinians react when the Jews/tourists reached the Temple Mount via the Mughrabi Gate (which is the only entrance non-Muslims can use), or did they prevent people from coming onto the mount altogether?

I find it hard to imagine that even if this were a group of religious Jews, that they had come there specifically at the behest of the Netanyahu government to cause trouble before Yom Kippur. I think that if Netanyahu wants to cause trouble about the Temple Mount, he will do something similar to what he did in 1996 (when the Kotel tunnel was opened at its northern end at the Via Dolorosa, sparking riots in which 80 people died) - that is, act openly, not in a hidden fashion. Groups of religious Jews do now go up to the Temple Mount, in defiance of the ban imposed by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate on Jews' entering the site. They do this on their own, however, not at the government's urging. I hope this gets untangled, since the Temple Mount is such a flashpoint that even the mistaken belief that this was planned by the Netanyahu government could lead to much worse clashes between Palestinians and the Israeli government than have already happened yesterday and today.

1 comment:

  1. This is nothing new in Israel Members of the "Generation Jihad" always try stage riots before and during Yom Kippur.