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How fault lines in the PA and the Arab world affect Jerusalem
By Pinhas Inbari
In a general sense, east Jerusalem is disengaging from Ramallah and the West Bank and connecting with Israel. However, tensions over the Temple Mount are hard to control and may change this situation completely. The process of connecting to Israel shapes the city, but undermining the order on the Temple Mount may affect the whole of Jerusalem.
The process of connecting east Jerusalem to Israel runs parallel to the crumbling of the Palestinian Authority. Divided Hebron has close connections with Jordan, there is tension between Jenin and Ramallah, and Ramallah, which represents the “Palestinian concept” more than anywhere else, vigilantly watches over a headstrong Nablus, following the appointment of prime ministers from Nablus.
It will not be surprising if east Jerusalem residents decide to participate in the next Jerusalem municipality elections, an act that some Palestinians toyed with in the past but were discouraged by Palestinian Authority threats.
At the same time, the West Bank is also drawing away from east Jerusalem. It is hard to find any Facebook posts by West Bank residents identifying themselves with Jerusalem. Whatever goes on in the city does not interest residents of the other cities in the West Bank. During the crisis over the security magnetometers on the Temple Mount in July 2017, for example, the conflict was waged by east Jerusalem residents only. No other city cared.
Sources in Nablus have reported that the Palestinian Authority tried to recruit public figures in Nablus to join the conflict over Khan al-Ahmar, a squatter camp on the road to Jericho, but they refused.
Public institutions in east Jerusalem report that the Palestinian Authority has stopped financing them. This includes hospitals such as Makassed, which receives patients from the Palestinian Authority, and the Augusta Victoria hospital.
Al-Quds University has requested to join Israel’s Council for Higher Education, and as a result, the Palestinian Authority fired lecturers from east Jerusalem, supplanting them with lecturers from the West Bank who support Fatah.
Former university president Sari Nusseibeh is a top lecturer known for advocating the integration of east Jerusalem with Israel. The schism between Nusseibeh and Ramallah is seen in his appointment by Abu Dhabi as the head of an economic fund for east Jerusalem that has no connection with Ramallah. Since Mahmoud Abbas’ main rival in Fatah, Muhammad Dahlan, has his powerbase in the Gulf, it is assumed in east Jerusalem that Nusseibeh has also become part of Dahlan’s network in east Jerusalem.
At present, the economic fund concerns small sums, but it should be noted that in the fund’s mission statement there is no mention of any national disputes, such as saving the Al-Aqsa Mosque and opposing Jewish “settlements”– only financial objectives for supporting the residents of the city.
The youth of east Jerusalem are still connected to Ramallah by the Arab cultural events that Ramallah offers and its good restaurants, which are cheaper than those in Jerusalem. Israeli Arabs are also attracted to this aspect of Ramallah, which offers them the Arab culture that is hard for them to find in Israel.Corrupting Influence
This connection to Ramallah on the part of the youth of east Jerusalem and Israel is not seen in a positive light by the Palestinian Authority. From their point of view, the Israeli Arabs and residents of east Jerusalem are “corrupting” the spirit of the struggle that the Palestinian Authority wants to nurture among the younger generation of Palestinians.
This was expressed sharply at two large festivals in the new West Bank town of Rawabi that were held at the same time as other significant national events. One of them took place on the day the U.S. embassy was transferred to Jerusalem in May 2018, and the other was held on the day of a general strike protesting the new Israeli Basic Law declaring Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People.
The Muqata (the PA headquarters) was particularly incensed by the fact that on the “global day of rage” marking the transfer of the embassy, east Jerusalem and Israeli Arab youths partied with drinking and dancing in Rawabi instead of attacking IDF checkpoints. Moreover, it was Gaza with its “Return Marches” that filled the world’s screens.“The [Rawabi] scene is disgusting and shameful and disgusts the souls of the honorable people,” was one Facebook posting.
As a result of failing to react to the embassy opening, the Palestinian Authority dismissed all Fatah activists from their positions in Jerusalem and appointed a disreputable governor, Adnan Ghaith. This caused further distancing between east Jerusalem and Ramallah.
Senior officials sacked by Ramallah, such as Khatam Abdel Khader and Adnan al-Husayni, were later appointed by Jordan as members of the Waqf council to oversee the Temple Mount.
The events in Rawabi shocked the Muqata, and the whole issue was passed on to its security branches. As a result, then-Prime Minister Hamdallah’s government circulated an order requiring Israeli Arabs and east Jerusalem residents to report to the police if they want to rent an apartment in Ramallah or the West Bank in general. In other words, for the first time, the Palestinian Authority has recognized that residents of east Jerusalem are part of the Israeli Arab community and could be potentially recruited by Israeli intelligence against the Palestinian Authority.
These processes erasing the West Bank Palestinian identity require Ramallah to leverage the tension on the Temple Mount to put a stop to them. From the PA’s point of view, it is essential that the youth preserve the spirit of resistance for the next generations, with the knowledge that the present generation of leaders has failed in their mission of liberation.
In the face of Hamas’ success in leveraging the tensions on the Gaza border, the Palestinian Authority is pushing to the forefront the protection of the Temple Mount, as well as other issues related to Jerusalem, such as the potential demolition of the Khan al-Ahmar Bedouin shanty town on the Jerusalem-Jericho road.
The Khan al-Ahmar Bedouin camp astride the Jerusalem-Jericho highway
In this regard, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan have similar interests. Both are watching Jewish activity on the Temple Mount. Jordan and the Palestinians appear to believe that the Jews want to open a synagogue on the Temple Mount and claim that Jewish organizations are “encroaching” on the Gate of Mercy (Shaar HaRachamim/Bab el-Rahma).
The Palestinian Authority wants to incite Jerusalem. For its part, Jordan seeks to prevent the opening of a synagogue on the Temple Mount because it considers itself the guardian of the holy sites, and such an event would strike a harsh blow to the honor of the Hashemite royal family and its legitimacy to rule over Jordan at a time of discord between the various Bedouin tribes in the kingdom.Jordan versus the PA over a Synagogue?
In other words, the Palestinian Authority sees a synagogue or Jewish presence on the Mount as a means to stir up riots and as an address for counter-clashes against Hamas in Gaza, while Jordan wants to prevent it from happening at any cost.
The efforts of Ramallah to provoke actions to protest Temple Mount events has, until now, triggered terror attacks by individuals in the West Bank or on the fringes of the eastern part of the city. However, east Jerusalem has not reacted to Ramallah’s incitement, including during the magnometer crisis. Most of the recent stabbings in Jerusalem were carried out by men from the West Bank or villages on the periphery. Radical activities in the villages on the edge of the city have not been translated into widespread activities that undermine the stability of the city.Saudi Arabia’s Shadow over Jerusalem
Apart from the concerns of Ramallah and Amman regarding Jewish intentions toward the Temple Mount, there is another cause of tension in the area – the fear regarding the intentions of Saudi Arabia toward the Temple Mount.
This tension stems from Trump’s plan for Jerusalem, and primarily the fear that he wants to make Saudi Arabia responsible for the holy sites within a general Arab administrative body. These concerns, along with the worries over the intentions of the Jews, have created new strains around the new Waqf council and the Gate of Mercy (also called the Bab el Rahma, Shaar HaRachamim, and Golden Gate).
On March 18, 2019, disturbances broke out in Jordan’s Parliament when a member with Palestinian origins, Mohammed Hudaib, who comes from the villages around Bethlehem, stated that Jordanian guardianship over Jerusalem “is dying.” He sent out a message to Palestinians in Jerusalem, “You are alone.” He was removed from the chamber after his opponents accused him of serving foreign interests (madsus).
By this, they were referring to Saudi Arabia’s interests. No one in Jordan would formally say this, but in private conversations with sources at the Waqf, Jordan, and also Palestinian circles on the Temple Mount, they are very concerned that Israel will bring Saudi Arabia to the Temple Mount. Furthermore, they believe that Trump’s plan will establish an intra-Arab council there, led by the Saudis. This would change the current status quo, with new arrangements transferring responsibility for the Temple Mount from Jordan to this Saudi-led council.
King Abdullah cannot accept this. The loss of Jordan’s special status on the Temple Mount would remove the source of the legitimacy of his rule over Jordan.
Thus, Abdullah II perceives two dangers to the role of the Hashemites on the Temple Mount: the alleged Jewish aspiration to open a synagogue next to the mosques and Israel’s readiness to bring Saudi Arabia to the site.
Due to this dual concern, the king has extended the Waqf council by adding members of Fatah, which began the current round of tension over the Gate of Mercy.
When the Jordanian member of Parliament said that Jordanian guardianship over the Temple Mount is dying, he meant that Israel on the one hand and Palestinian pressure on the other are eroding Jordanian authority over the Mount. This, in my opinion, is the reality, but these things were interpreted in the Parliament as preparing the groundwork for the claim that if Jordan cannot fulfill its role as guardian of the Islamic holy sites, it would be better if it transferred it to someone else. This “someone” cannot be the Palestinians as “they are alone;” the other “someone” is Saudi Arabia.
When Hudaib said the Palestinians were alone, he burst through an open door. This is what the PLO feels. One of the most common slogans of the PLO is directed toward the Arab world: “Where are the millions? Where? Where?” In other words, where are the Arab armies that were meant to liberate Jerusalem?
The Saudis See Jerusalem as a Rival to Mecca, the Epicenter of Islamic Devotion
According to sources in east Jerusalem, an emergency delegation from the Waqf visited the Gulf, and when they said that Jerusalem was in danger, the Gulf leaders answered, “No problem. If the Al-Aqsa mosque collapses, we will build a new one that is much nicer.”
This answer demonstrates the main problem with Saudi Arabia. It perceives the Al-Aqsa mosque as a rival to its own holy city of Mecca and does not support it. Saudi Arabia does not provide any assistance to Jerusalem, and the Saudis prevented the Arab League from carrying out its decision to transfer $500,000,000 to Jerusalem.
Recently, Saudi Arabia took a significant step with regard to the Palestinian issue that observers in east Jerusalem say is part of the Trump deal and demonstrates its direction. Saudi Arabia refused to recognize travel documents that are not proper passports. This means that residents of east Jerusalem need to choose between a Palestinian or Israeli passport, and they are choosing the Israeli option. The Saudis call for Jordan to give full citizenship to many Palestinians who are not yet considered nationals, and Lebanon is obliged to absorb its Palestinian refugees.
Arab apathy regarding the fate of Jerusalem has given the Al-Aqsa Mosque new importance for the Palestinians. From being a holy site to all Muslims, it has become a Palestinian national symbol that accentuates their isolation. They consider themselves as Murabitoun, guardians of Jerusalem, defending Jerusalem on their own until the Arab world wakes up. Mahmoud Abbas told the Egyptian weekly Al-Youm Al-Sabea, “Jerusalem is our eternal capital. The Jerusalemites are Murabitoun (defenders) of Jerusalem, and they have not been harmed by whoever has neglected them.” Saeb Erekat recently said that the Arabs could not neglect the place of the Isra and the Mi’raj (a night journey taken by Mohammed to the Al-Aqsa mosque, according to Islam). For example, in this clip, he explains why Israel’s new Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People is evil – because it nullifies the Arabic tradition that Mohammed ascended to Heaven from Jerusalem. Just as the Al-Aqsa Mosque is the legitimate source of the Hashemite dynasty, it has also become the source of honor for the Palestinians and a symbol of their isolation.
These sentiments have brought Jordan closer to the Palestinians, as demonstrated by the new Waqf inaugurated at Jordan’s initiative. It is intended to block the transfer of the guardianship from Jordan to the “Arabs,” meaning Saudi Arabia, and to prevent the alleged opening of a synagogue on the Temple Mount.
It was Jordan that chose the members of Fatah, and they were selected from among those whom Ramallah had previously dismissed, such as Khatam Abdel Khader and Adnan al-Husayni, after they failed or did not even try to incite the city on the day of the transfer of the U.S. embassy. When they joined, the council changed from being a body responsible for Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem and the West Bank in general to a body that has the potential to be a credible address for east Jerusalem as opposed to Israel. The selection of Fatah members shows the potential for creating a credible address for Jerusalem that could be acceptable to Israel and Jordan.
What dashed this chance was the pressure to include on the new Waqf council the extremist cleric Sheikh Ekrima Sa’id, who was not on the original list.
Sheikh Ekrima Sabri was appointed by Yasser Arafat as Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, a position he held from 1994 to 2006. Today, he is Turkey’s senior representative in Jerusalem and an ally of the firebrand Raed Salah, the leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel. From here, the participation of the Islamic movement in Israel can be seen in the incitement of riots around the Gate of Mercy.
Matters can be described in the following way: regarding the bureaucratic power of the council, Jordan has a strong position because it pays salaries, and adding Fatah members who are angry with Ramallah only reinforced Jordan’s administrative status. However, in terms of the effect of extremist pressures from below, the council is weak. It is not prepared to get into conflict with the radicals, and the entry of Sheikh Sabri, much to Jordan’s chagrin, demonstrates this. His ability to manage events on the Temple Mount from within the council will not just cause harm to Israel but also to Jordan.
Sheikh Sabri and Raed Salah are not favored personalities in Ramallah and Amman, and they have destroyed any chance of the new council developing into a body that Israel can work with to manage the Temple Mount and east Jerusalem in a rational manner. The opposite is the case. It may specifically become a body that will advance the position of Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood (but not Hamas, if Fatah and Jordan are involved.)
The joining of Fatah members to the Supreme Muslim Council cannot be perceived as a true unification of forces with Ramallah, but more as a Jordanian attempt to establish a body that will represent it and go beyond the narrow religious framework of the Waqf. It would be more of a Jerusalem body than a body representing an assembly for the PLO and Jordan, expressing the establishment of a kind of “municipality” working on behalf of east Jerusalem. Adding Sheikh Ekrimah Sabri undermines these aspirations.
However, sources in Ramallah reported to us that the Palestinian Authority wants to advance the status of cleric Sheikh Mohammed Hussein, and interactions between Jordan and Sheikh Ekrimah Sabri to thwart this effort have taken place. Jordan is now interested in advancing Sabri’s position to obstruct Sheikh Mohammed Hussein, who is supported by Ramallah.
The PLO versus Jordan and Saudi Arabia
To understand the sources of the dispute between Jordan and the PLO and the origin of the dispute between Jordan and Saudi Arabia, it is necessary to look at the 2013 agreement between Mahmoud Abbas’ and King Abdullah.
This agreement was arranged by Mahmoud Al-Habash, who was then minister of religious affairs in Abbas’ administration. When the Palestinian Authority joined UNESCO, the need for this agreement was essential. Jordan wanted to present the question of Jerusalem before UNESCO, which raised the question of who should present the problem at this time – Jordan or the Palestinian Authority. Tension grew between them, and the agreement was meant to dispel this. The basis of the agreement was the understanding that the Palestinian Authority would receive complete responsibility for Bethlehem, while Jordan would be responsible for the Al-Aqsa complex. The Palestinians took on Bethlehem, but they breached the agreement about Jerusalem and initiated the resolutions regarding the Temple Mount that ended with the resignation of the United States and Israel from UNESCO in January 2019.
The agreement stated that the Hashemites have guardianship and patronage, while the Palestinians reserve the right of sovereignty based on the right of self-determination in Jerusalem. They have no role on the Temple Mount beside occasional consultations with Jordan when necessary. East Jerusalem is not defined as the future capital of Palestine, but the Palestinians would exercise their right to sovereignty over part of it as part of their right to self-determination.
However, how Jordan defines itself has aroused the suspicions of Saudi Arabia. In the document, the Jordanians trace their authority to the Sharif (descendant of the prophet Mohammed) Hussein bin Ali, King of Hijaz (1854-1931), who was the “guardian of the holy places.” The Hashemite King/Sharif was driven out of Arabia by Saudis in 1924. Jordanians today do not say that their right to guardianship of Al-Aqsa stems from his status as Sharif of Mecca and Medina, but they use this exact wording when they describe their role in looking after Al-Aqsa. While the expression, “guardian of the two holy places (Mecca and Medina) is reserved for the House of Saud, the Hashemites use the term, “guardian of the holy places in Jerusalem.”
Since the Hashemites adamantly refuse to give up their historical legacy in Mecca, the use of the terms Sharif and “guardian of the holy places” alarms the Saudis. Use of these terms in Jerusalem preserve the right of the Hashemites to return to Mecca and Medina, and their right supersedes that of the House of Saud as they are descendants of the prophet Mohammed.
Currently, there may be a concern in Jordan that when Saudi Arabia was Israel’s enemy, Israel agreed to give Jordan preference concerning the Temple Mount. However, now, as Israel and Saudi Arabia move closer to each other, Israel may change its position and give preference to Saudi Arabia over Jordan regarding the status of the Temple Mount.
Why would Israel favor Saudi Arabia? Saudi Arabia can ignore the needs of the Palestinians, unlike Jordan, where half of its residents are Palestinians. The Hashemite kingdom needs the cooperation of the Palestinians to maintain its position on the Temple Mount. This does not have to be the case, but this is what Jordan may suspect.
Pinhas Inbari is a veteran Arab affairs correspondent who formerly reported for Israel Radio and Al Hamishmar newspaper, and currently serves as an analyst for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.