Jerusalem's Old City and the Dome of the Rock. Photo: Reuters / Ammar Awad

The recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital by the United States has thus far been met with (by Middle Eastern standards) a relative lack of excitement. Some have concluded that Jerusalem is not that important to the Palestinians anymore and others to speculate that co-existence in the city is strengthening. This is false optimism. Just this summer, Jerusalem Palestinians battled to force Israel to remove metal detectors set up outside the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount. The depth of grass-roots Palestinian dissatisfaction with the move translated into a campaign of civil disobedience alongside several attempts at terror attacks. The upshot of the process was that the Netanyahu government, which has a political interest in portraying itself as tough, backed down by removing the metal detectors. The incident was viewed as a Palestinian triumph and a humiliation for Israel.

It is the religious significance of the city that makes it an international powder-keg. Its diplomatic status is merely theoretical.

Had the Palestinians lost interest in Jerusalem over the last few months? Has rapturous co-existence suddenly blossomed? Hardly. Jerusalem is a tension filled city with perennial potential for violence. This is nothing new and unlikely to change. The Zionist-Palestinian conflict started on its streets. The Nebi Musa riots, the first politically organized violent events of the conflict, broke out in the old city in 1920. Nine years later major riots commenced when religious Jews used a collapsible screen to separate male and female worshippers at the Wailing Wall. Jerusalem was at the center of the conflict again when Ariel Sharon, a man utterly detested by the Palestinians, visited the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount in September 2000. The move played a role in the lead up to the horrifically violent Second Intifada.

If so, are the Palestinians in Jerusalem irrational and ready to explode at any provocation? Not at all. A clue to what motivates escalation in the holy city is the most glaring non-reaction to change in the status of the city. In the Six Day War Israel took over East Jerusalem. The Levi Eshkol government announced plans to incorporate the part of Jerusalem previously controlled by Jordan alongside a large part of the West Bank within new municipal borders. Israel insisted, to mute international criticism, that this was not annexation but rather “municipal fusion.”

No one bought it. Three quick resolutions were passed in the United Nations. Persistent complaints from the Arab capitals put pressure on the US to modify Israeli policies. The pro-Israeli Johnson administration refused to recognize the new reality (at least officially), sticking to its position that Jerusalem should be internationalized. The international outcry at that time, dwarfed the current one.

The Palestinian population remained quiet. Why was this far more significant change, not accompanied by violence? Part of the reason was shock at the outcome of the war and fear of Israeli military power. Just as important, and more significant in the long term, was the policy Israel pursued regarding the sites holy to Islam. When the Israeli military took over the old city, the 55th Paratroopers Brigade placed the Israeli flag on the Dome of the Rock. The commander of the unit, Mordechai “Motta” Gur, who later as Chief of Staff almost scuttled the peace agreement with Egypt, was no diplomat and did not foresee the potential consequences.

Luckily, Gur did not call the shots. The occupied territories were the de facto fiefdom of the troubled but brilliant defense minister Moshe Dayan, a man with a deep understanding of Arab culture. The former general immediately radioed Gur, asking “do you want to set the Middle East on fire?” The flag was lowered. Dayan allowed the Muslim Wakf, who governed the holy site, to retain religious control. Most importantly, non-Muslim prayer was banned at the site. As a result, a relatively stable status quo surrounding the holy sites was attained and maintained for three decades.

The main lesson from the history of spontaneous violence in Jerusalem is simple. The Palestinian public of Jerusalem is moved to violence by its religious significance, not by its diplomatic status. Palestinian and other Muslim leaders are aware of this fact. Those who have an interest in inflaming the situation have tried to frame Trump’s decision as one of religious rather than political significance.

Hassan Nasrallah, the head of the Lebanese pro-Iranian militia Hezbollah, says that the Al Aqsa mosque is “in real danger, and it may be demolished at any time.” Meanwhile Arab actors with an interest in de-escalation such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have emphasized the diplomatic repercussions rather than the religious ones. Israel is also aware of this and while provocative elsewhere, has generally shown restraint regarding the holy sites of Jerusalem.

Wide protests, stopping short of a full out confrontation, serve the needs to the Palestinian Authority to show that it is doing something and therefore have been encouraging protests in the West Bank. Meanwhile, Hamas is increasingly, after a falling out over the war in Syria, doing the bidding of Iran. It is not surprising therefore, that they have been allowing a certain amount of rocket fire to be launched at Israel from Gaza. However, both Hamas and the Fatah have been disappointed with the unenthusiastic participation of Palestinian society in Jerusalem.

The reaction of Jerusalem Arabs is easily explained. They are neither stupid nor irrational and refuse to be manipulated by outsiders into a costly confrontation they do not believe in. It is their blood that is in question and they are understandably selective in determining why to shed it. They know what they care enough about to die for: the holy sites in Jerusalem and their religious status. They know what they do not care enough about to die for: the theoretical status of Jerusalem in a peace agreement that seems increasingly unlikely to ever be attained. All future moves in the city should take this clear dichotomy into account.

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Shaiel Ben-Ephraim

Shaiel Ben-Ephraim is a postdoctoral fellow at the Nazarian Center for Israel Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Shaiel is the 2015 winner of the Kimmerling Prize. He recently finished his PhD at the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.

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