The whipping up of unrest around the Temple Mount is part of an insidious campaign to cast Jewish people as modern interlopers
The Temple Mount, or al-Haram al-Sharif to Muslims, must rank as one of the most sensitive religious sites in the world. The sporadic riots of the past month at the site are therefore particularly alarming, as such incidents have the potential to ignite much wider unrest.
For that reason, it would seem to be in everyone's interest to reduce as far as possible tensions and friction at the Temple Mount to an absolute minimum. But the statements and actions of a number of Muslim clerics based in Israel, Palestinian politicians and even foreign governments have only inflamed and exacerbated an already explosive situation.
Of even greater concern is the underlying sentiment behind the recent riots, protests, declarations and denunciations. Whether or not "Jewish extremists" went up to the Temple Mount (and they did not) and irrespective of whether or not they planned to, the violent and vitriolic response to these rumours is indicative of a fundamental lack of tolerance for the religious beliefs of the Jewish people.
And the incitement has been widespread, coming from both political and religious sectors. The Islamic Movement in Israel, in particular, has made strenuous efforts to inform its flock that Jewish groups were planning to "desecrate", "storm" or otherwise "endanger" the al-Aqsa mosque and arranged buses for worshippers to come and "protect" the site.
Sheikh Raed Salah, head of the Islamic Movement's northern branch and one of the principal provocateurs, declared to a crowd, "We'll liberate al-Aqsa with blood and fire" and stated that Israel was seeking to build a synagogue on the al-Aqsa mosque. Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad told a meeting of foreign ambassadors that the riots were due to "an assault by extremist religious settlers on the Temple Mount compound". The Syrian foreign ministry decided to stir the pot too, stating "[Damascus] believes the Israeli security forces' invasion of al-Aqsa was part of Israel's scheme to Judaise Jerusalem and destroy the mosque."
Not one shred of evidence has been presented to back up any of these accusations, the reason being that there simply is none.
Such baseless incitement over one of the most sensitive places of worship in the world is incredibly irresponsible. The destabilising effect of this agitation undermines whatever small amount of trust there may be between Israeli and Palestinian interlocutors. Additionally, it further inflames wider Arab and Muslim opinion, which is similarly deleterious to the project of tolerance and coexistence in the region. Inventing wild myths about Jewish designs on Muslim holy places can only harm any prospects for the normalisation of ties between Israel and its Arab and Muslim neighbours.
Aside from the agitation is the disturbing notion that Jews seeking to visit, or even pray at, their holiest place of worship (the Temple Mount and not merely the Western Wall) should be seen as provocation, desecration or in any other way unacceptable. Jerusalem and the Temple Mount are an indelible part of the Jewish national consciousness. The very term for the movement to re-establish the Jewish national home, Zionism, derives from a synonym for Jerusalem, Zion. Every day, three times a day, Jews all over the world turn towards Jerusalem and pray for it to be restored to its former glory; they have done so for nearly 2,000 years. That Jews are actually banned by the Israeli government from praying on the Temple Mount is a quite astounding concession to the demands of the Islamic waqf that administers it.
But preventing Jews from praying at the Temple Mount is not the only goal. A far more insidious campaign is afoot, one that rewrites history by arguing that there never was any Jewish temple at the site, thereby seeking to delegitimise any connection that Israel and the Jewish people may have to it, and by extension, the land as a whole. In a region in thrall to an epidemic of conspiracy theories, the irrefutable archaeological and historical evidence attesting to the Second Temple alone is sadly deemed insufficient.
The failure to acknowledge the connection the Jewish people have to Jerusalem is symptomatic of a problem which goes to the heart of the political conflict; that the Palestinian body politic has never reconciled itself to the fact that the Jewish people have deep-rooted historical ties to the land and are not simply foreign invaders who wandered in a few decades ago.
However politically expedient, Palestinian and Muslim leaders must desist from the incitement against Israel and the delegitimisation of the Jewish people's connection to the land, if there is ever to be any political accommodation between the two sides. If the Palestinian public never appreciates the depth of feeling Jews have for their holy places and their historical homeland, then the state of Israel, within any borders, will forever be illegitimate in the eyes of the Palestinians and will remain a target for eventual removal. Such an attitude poses a tremendous obstacle to the future prospects of peace between the two peoples.