The violence on and around the Temple Mount since the day before Rosh Hashanah has demonstrated again that Israel is losing the battle for international support.
Palestinians stockpiled stones and explosives at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound for what Israeli intelligence learned were plans to riot. For the safety of visitors of all faiths to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall plaza below, police moved in to seize the weapons without entering the mosque and thus fell into a propaganda trap.
The Palestinians’ stated reasons for unrest involve rumors that Israel plans to change the status quo by dividing the Temple Mount, allowing Jews to pray there or even rebuilding the Temple — proposals that are not real. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reiterated that Israel has no desire to change the rules that have been in place since 1967 or the Jordanian governance of the site that was secured by the 1994 peace treaty.
Under that status quo, the only people with religious freedom at the Temple Mount are Muslims. Muslims administer the mount. Muslims are free to pray on the mount. Jewish access is limited, and Jewish prayer is banned.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — the supposed voice of Palestinian moderation — fed the incitement by declaring that Jewish feet defile what Muslims refer to as Haram Al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary). Palestine Liberation Organization official Saeb Erekat, a fixture in any Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, accused Israel of trying to start a religious war.
Israel’s actions have focused on protecting civilians: tourists who want to visit the holiest site in Judaism, the third-holiest site in Islam, and the site that drew Jesus to Jerusalem; people who want to pray at the foot of the Western Wall below; and even those who want to worship in peace at the mosque.
While discussing changes in the rules of engagement to allow live ammunition in limited situations, Israel has stuck to nonlethal methods — tear gas and rubber bullets — to quell Palestinians wielding low-tech but deadly stones and homemade explosives such as Molotov cocktails.
As of this writing, the violence in Jerusalem since Sunday, Sept. 13, has resulted in one death: a 64-year-old Jewish man named Alexander Levlovitz, who was killed when he crashed while driving through a hail of Palestinian-hurled stones.
Yet the criticism and condemnation have, of course, been directed at Israel.
Egypt has called on Israel to ease the tensions, and Jordan has threatened to suspend its peace treaty with Israel. The U.N. Security Council issued a one-sided statement Thursday, Sept. 17, that referred five times to “Haram Al-Sharif” and emphasized the importance of Muslims being able to worship in peace but never referenced “the Temple Mount” or Jewish ties to the site.
Israel is stuck with the dual responsibility of ending the violence and ensuring the safety of visitors and worshippers, a no-win situation. Do nothing, and Palestinian rioters will hurt or kill people. Act against the instigators, and the world will blame Israel for provoking the violence. Resorting to deadly force would only increase the condemnation.
Netanyahu’s plan to increase the punishment for stone throwers is overdue, but it’s a mistake to use live ammunition. In a frustrating situation, Israel’s best option is to respond as little as possible, ignore the international criticism, and let the Palestinians grow bored with this one of their deadly games.