The last couple of weeks in Israel have been as hard to watch as many feared they would be leading up to the confluence of Ramadan and Passover. The Israeli government is in turns incompetent or careening out of control, Palestinian terrorism is on the rise and taking innocent lives in increasingly heartrending ways, and rocket attacks have been launched not only from the usual suspects in Gaza but from some unusual suspects in Syria and Lebanon. Unsurprisingly, the spark for much of what has happened was the Temple Mount and competing claims of who was to blame for violating understandings and behaving badly. But each side absolutely deserves some measure of blame, and until each acknowledges its share of making things worse, nothing will get better.

By now nearly everyone has seen the clips of Israeli police beating worshipers in al-Aqsa Mosque with clubs and rifle butts, videos that raced around social media and provided the excuse for Palestinian rockets from Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria. The Israeli government says that it was necessary for police to enter the mosque in order to evict Palestinian men who had barricaded themselves inside with explosives, weapons, and fireworks, and who were not to supposed to stay overnight prior to the last ten days of Ramadan. Furthermore, the Israeli government pointed a finger at the Jordanian waqf for not evicting the men themselves, and accused those who were inside al-Aqsa of infringing upon Muslims’ freedom of worship by appropriating the mosque for their own nefarious purposes.

Even if one grants the Israeli version of events complete accord, there is no world in which the police brutality evident in the videos of Palestinians repeatedly being beaten while on the ground is justifiable or necessary use of force. Israeli Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai conceded as much, and anyone who pretends otherwise is blowing past the bounds of credulity. With the Israeli police allegedly sensitive to how such scenes in al-Aqsa during Ramadan can cause instant security and diplomatic crises, it is difficult to understand how so many officers can simultaneously behave so recklessly. It is also yet another reminder that for all of the talk about higher Israeli moral standards, Israeli soldiers and Israeli police are like soldiers and police everywhere—no better and also no worse—prone to abusing their power, particularly when encountering those to whom they feel they owe no accountability.

Israeli police on the Temple Mount following a terror attack, July 2017 by Israel Police, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (License linked to image)

While the outsized focus has been on the behavior of Israeli police inside the mosque, perhaps more focus should be on why Israeli forces were inclined to be there in the first place. I don’t doubt for a moment that some Palestinians inside the mosque had malign intentions and indeed were stockpiling Molotov cocktails, guns, rocks, and who knows what else in order to battle the Israeli police who they knew would arrive. But the police intended to evict all Palestinians from the mosque who wanted to stay overnight, and as can be clearly seen and heard in the video clips in addition to eyewitness accounts, those included plenty of worshipers beyond the few hundred who were gearing up for a fight. The reason that the Israeli government wanted to prevent Muslims from staying to pray overnight during Ramadan, religious beliefs and customs be damned, is because Jews would be arriving at the Temple Mount early the next morning, and thus the area had to be cleared ahead of time. There might be grounds to justify this, but it should be clear that when Israel’s argument in the aftermath of the ensuing public relations disaster is that it was simply concerned with protecting freedom of worship, it is talking about curtailing Muslim freedom of worship for thousands during their holiest month at the sole site in Israel where Muslims believe they have the upper hand in order to improve freedom of worship for a few hundred Jews. As I said, there are plausible arguments for this, but it is absolutely not about protecting the rights of Muslims, who are universally outraged not only by Israeli behavior on that specific night but about Israeli policies throughout Ramadan. 

The Palestinian side has its share of the blame as well. The idea that the al-Aqsa compound is defiled by Jews visiting the holiest site in Judaism is emblematic of the worst impulses exhibited by Palestinians across the entirety of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Every Palestinian media report on Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount that refers to “settlers” who were “storming al-Aqsa” should be deeply insulting to Jews everywhere, and the zero-sum attitude regarding a site that is holy and an important nationalist symbol to both sides is why so many Israelis believe that Palestinians will never accept Israel’s legitimacy or right to exist. Jews get a couple of hours on the Temple Mount each day, what they are allowed to do and where they are allowed to go while up there is tightly curtailed, and Jewish interest in even visiting—let alone upending the status quo—is barely a blip. Yet Palestinian social media would have the world believe that hordes of Jews are threatening al-Aqsa, and that Israelis are a hair’s breadth away from seizing the compound and rebuilding the Jewish Temple. When Palestinians treat any Jewish presence on the Temple Mount as an illegitimate and offensive affront, it is all too easy to connect the dots between that attitude and the one that led to the abhorrent gunning-down of three innocent women—Maia and Rina Dee, and their mother Lucy—in cold blood on Friday because they happened to be driving while Israeli on a West Bank road through the Jordan Valley.

Jewish visitors entering the Temple Mount, December 2013 by Miriam Mezzera, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 (License linked to image)

It is a profound problem that Israeli security officials have cause to believe that Muslims staying overnight to pray at al-Aqsa creates a threat to Jews who want to come to the compound the next morning. That belief is not mere paranoia, and however much deserved criticism can be laid at Israelis’ feet for all manner of things, even the most radical Israeli extremists aren’t using synagogues as staging grounds for violence against Palestinians. When Israel treats its own bad actors with kid gloves, it gets roundly—and rightly—condemned, yet in this situation the Waqf is unwilling to confront the bad actors over whom it is supposed to exercise authority and immediately blames Israel for its own unwillingness to act. Just because the Israeli government should act at all times as if al-Aqsa is the most sacred of sacred ground does not abrogate the responsibility of Palestinians who are there to act that way too. 

It should be deeply shameful to both Israelis and Palestinians that the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif is so often a place of violence, hatred, and exclusion rather than a place of peace and understanding. Surely it is not meant to be like this. And the more that each side mistreats it or uses it as a pawn in a larger battle over competing claims, the more that a place that is meaningful to millions around the world is desecrated daily.

The Western Wall and Temple Mount, Jerusalem