Five cops edged the Street of the Chain carrying riot batons and shields. A few meters away, in the shadows of a covered alleyway, four more cops were doing what police do so often, which is wait. The Street of the Chain is one of the main thoroughfares of Jerusalem's Old City, a narrow, stone-paved walkway descending toward the entrance to Haram al-Sharif, a.k.a. the Temple Mount. It's lined with Palestinian-owned shops selling scarves, t-shirts, the trinkets of three faiths, and anything else that might catch a tourist's eye. On Tuesday afternoon, police reinforcements were deployed along the street, on the lawn outside Jaffa Gate, and throughout the Old City.
At a checkpoint a block from the entrance to the Haram, a police commander with a very small vocabulary insisted that non-Muslims, even those with press cards, could not go any closer to the holy site. For that matter, Muslim males under the age of 50 were also barred from entering the wide plaza where Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock stand. Somewhere high in the line of command, someone has decided that testosterone and sanctity are too dangerous a mix.
Once again, trouble is smoldering around the Temple Mount, threatening to ignite a new round of violence between Palestinians and Israelis. For a week and a half, there have been sporadic clashes at the Haram and elsewhere in East Jerusalem. There's reasonable fear of a more serious blow-up during Friday prayers -- at Al-Aqsa, or wherever Israeli police block worshippers trying to reach the mosque. The proximate cause of the tension is jockeying by extreme Palestinian and Jewish groups that fuse nationalism with religion. But when a fire begins at the Mount, it is always fueled by wider issues. Right now those issues include continued Palestinian disappointment with American diplomacy and Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas's precipitous loss of public credibility.
The Mount's role as sacred blasting cap is an old story. In the 1920s, Palestinian leader Hajj Amin al-Husseini turned Al-Aqsa -- the third holiest spot in Islam -- into an emblem of Palestinian nationalism. Al-Husseini renovated the Haram with funds raised internationally; he also accused the Zionists of plotting to destroy the Islamic shrines in order to rebuild the Temple.. In 1929, after right-wing Jews demonstrated at the Western Wall to assert Jewish rights at the traditional Jewish place of prayer on the outer edge of the Mount, Arab rioters attacked Jews throughout Palestine. It was the first country-wide outbreak of violence between the two. It was also a brutal psychodrama: Consciously or not, the fears and accusations over holy space stood for fears about the future of the country as a whole.
The pattern has repeated itself since the Israeli conquest of the Old City in 1967, despite the Israeli policy of consigning worship to separate areas. Non-Muslims are usually permitted to visit the Haram as tourists, but not as worshippers. Instead, Jewish prayer takes place at the Western Wall. Nonetheless, Al-Aqsa under Israeli rule has become Palestinians' most powerful symbol of occupation. Among Palestinian citizens of Israel, the radical wing of the Islamic Movement has built support with the slogan "Al-Aqsa Is In Danger."
For most Israelis, the extreme rightwing Jewish groups that want to build the Third Temple on the Mount are somewhere between insignificant and invisible, too strange to be worthy of notice. For Palestinians, the same groups are a looming threat to the Islamic shrines. In 1990, an announcement by the tiny Temple Mount Faithful group that it would lay a cornerstone for the Third Temple led to a Muslim riot at the Haram. An unprepared, outnumbered Israeli police contingent used live fire, killing a score of Palestinians.
On the other hand, as the site of the First and Second Temples in ancient times, the Mount is the holiest spot in Judaism -- and a very tangible symbol of Jews' historical connection to their homeland. Right-wing politicians have exploited that symbolism with disastrous consequences. In 1996, in his first term as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu opened a tunnel along the side of the Mount, setting off a week of pitched battles. Then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon's demonstrative visit to the Mount in 2000 was the spark for the Second Intifada.
In each case, though, an incident at the holy site was a detonator because the atmosphere was already explosive. The 1990 violence was an escalation of the first Palestinian uprising. Diplomacy was deadlocked in 1996 after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the election of Netanyahu. Sharon's visit followed the failure of the Camp David summit.
At first glance, the spark for the latest incidents is a case of mistaken identity. Last week, on the eve of Yom Kippur, Muslim worshippers at the Haram surrounded a group of French tourists and began throwing stones at them, setting off clashes with the police in and near the compound. The angry crowd at the Haram apparently mistook the tourists for a group of far-right Israelis. Sheikh Kamal Khatib, the number two figure in the radical wing of the Islamic Movement, told me this week that "Jewish groups want to destroy Al-Aqsa Mosque." Before Yom Kippur, he claimed, a Temple Mount Faithful leaflet called on Jews to "conquer Al-Aqsa."
Since the Faithful is seen as a fringe group even by the Jewish far-right fringe, it's no surprise that the leaflet didn't make it into the Israeli press. Then again, the Hebrew media has paid little attention to the growing number of religious rightists visiting the Mount to assert Jewish ownership. A publicist for far-right organizations told me that "hundreds of Jews" have been visiting the site weekly, usually in organized groups.
In recent days, the Islamic Movement has seized on the tensions, calling on Muslims to come to defend Al-Aqsa. Interviewed in Hebrew on Israeli radio, Khatib reiterated the common Palestinian claim that Jews have no historical connection to the site – a claim that can infuriate Israeli Jews across the political spectrum. As if determined to offend listeners, Khatib added, “What we want is that when a Muslim comes to the mosque to pray, no policeman from Ethiopia - some black guy - says, ‘You can’t go in. Show me your identity card.’” Many Ethiopian Jews serve in a branch of the police that guards the Mount. The Hebrew word that Khatib used for "black guy" has the same racist force as an unprintable term in English.
Still, the lack of an obvious catalyst -- a tunnel, a cornerstone -- only underlines wider political tensions. Until recently, says Palestinian political analyst Hani al-Masri, Abbas had strong public support. The Obama administration's diplomatic push and demand for an Israeli settlement freeze justified Abbas's dependence on diplomacy and American support for gaining independence. But American inability to achieve a freeze before last month's summit between President Obama, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Abbas dashed Palestinian hopes. Al-Masri says flatly that "the effort by the United States to resume [peace] negotiations has failed," and it's clear that Israel is intent on continuing to build settlements.
Abbas undercut his remaining credibility by agreeing last week to defer a vote in the U.N. Human Rights Council on the Goldstone report on last winter's battles in Gaza between Israel and Hamas. The report charges both sides with war crimes, and could potentially lead to action by the International Criminal Court. Abbas agreed to a six-month deferral under heavy American and Israeli pressure. The delay was reportedly an Israel condition for going ahead with negotiations. But domestically, the decision made him look far too weak to negotiate about anything. Even within his own Fatah movement, he has come under furious criticism.
When diplomacy appears deadlocked, the chances of violence rise, and Jerusalem's most holy space is always available as a pretext. Deploying extra police along the Street of the Chain might keep the calm for now. After all, the city does have a reputation for miracles But if Netanyahu, Abbas and Obama are looking for a practical way to avoid a new blow-up in Jerusalem, they need to restore faith in peace negotiations as an alternative.