It was supposed to be a moment of celebration and reflection for one of those too-rare occurrences in the Mideast — popular protests by Palestinians had stymied the imposition of a new facet of Israel’s 50-year-long occupation. Instead, even after Israel backed down on the changes it had imposed at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, the situation in Jerusalem continued to spiral into familiar scenes of security forces chasing scrambling demonstrators.
Throngs of Palestinian worshippers flooded through the gates to Al Aqsa Mosque in Occupied East Jerusalem’s Old City last Thursday. They reveled in victory after almost two weeks of boycotting Islam’s third holiest site to oppose new Israeli security measures on the compound.
After a brazen assault on July 14, using weapons smuggled into the holy site by three Palestinian citizens of Israel and leaving two Israeli border police dead, Israel had installed CCTV cameras, turnstiles, and metal detectors. The mosque compound is under Jordanian control and administered by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, a Jordanian-Palestinian Islamic trust. The Waqf had called for the boycott and protests sprang up opposing Israel’s changes to the delicate — and perpetually tense — status quo.
It was only after Israel had removed all the new equipment installed at the site that the Waqf had called for people to return to Al Aqsa, which doubles as a Jewish holy site called the Temple Mount, where the two ancient biblical temples are said to have stood. As the returning worshipers planted a Palestinian flag over Al Aqsa Mosque – a symbol as nationally significant to Palestinians as it is religiously significant to Muslims around the world – Israeli border police crashed into the compound, firing rubber bullets and stun grenades. It was a new iteration, indeed, of the status quo.
Since Israel defeated the Second Intifada in 2005 – a Palestinian uprising sparked by a visit to the Al Aqsa compound by former prime minister and then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon — Israel has sought to send a message to Palestinians that opposing the occupation in any way will worsen their condition. It is the message punctuated by every home demolition, land confiscation, arrest, beating, killing, siege, and military assault. Yet in the mass action that forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government to blink last week, Palestinians halted their occupier’s plans with a determined collective voice, one that the recent spate of violent Palestinian attacks had failed to find.
Although Israel stated that placing metal detectors and cameras at the entrance to Al Aqsa was solely a security measure, Palestinians saw it as a bold, public expression of Israeli sovereignty in the heart of an occupied city they hope to make a future capital.
Occupied by Israel along with the rest of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza 50 years ago, the “status quo” at Al Aqsa was negotiated for control of the compound. Over the past weeks, Israel has consistently denied its new security measures at the site had changed the status quo. However, the unilateral decision came on the heels of months of increasing Israeli checkpoints in the city, closures, a beefed-up presence of security forces, and an upswing in stabbing attacks by lone Palestinians, mostly against Israeli forces.
In an interview, Israeli officials did not rule out imposing further measure on the Al Aqsa compound down the road. “Basically it’s gone to the period it was before the deadly attack on the Temple Mount. But what will be implemented in the long term is [that] there will be other security measures that will be used and implemented,” said Micky Rosenfeld, spokesperson for the Israeli police just prior to Thursday’s prayer inside the mosque. “It’s a government decision,” he added.
Still, David Baker, a spokesperson in Netanyahu’s office, was unwilling to comment on why the government had, after nearly two weeks of letting tensions build, taken the advice of Israel’s Internal Security Service, Shin Bet, and reversed policy amid mounting Palestinian protest.
Netanyahu’s rightwing cabinet, the most rightwing in the country’s history, exacted a swift political price, as hardline political rivals moved to denounce his government’s decision.
“Every time the state of Israel folds in a strategic way, we get hit with an intifada,” Naftali Bennett, Israel’s education minister and head of a far-right party, told Israeli Army Radio Thursday, referring to Palestinian uprisings. “You seemingly benefit in the short term but in the long term, you harm deterrence.”
The Al Aqsa protests came at a time when large-scale mass protests for the Palestinian cause have been few and far between; even the commemorations of 50 years of Israeli occupation in June were quiet. Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders were caught off guard by the eruption of the largest mass demonstration since the death of a Palestinian teenager at the hands of Israeli settlers in 2014.
Palestinian discontent has been mounting for years yet none of the traditional leaderships have been willing or able to channel it, especially in Jerusalem. Hamas leaders in Gaza and Fatah leaders in the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority – the two main factions that dominate Palestinian political power — have been more consumed with internal divisions that are increasingly shaped by tensions in the Arab world. But when the Waqf, traditionally a center of religious – not a political – leadership, issued a call for mass civil disobedience against an act of intensified Israeli control, it filled a void and rallied people around the latest manifestation of a long-held grievance.
Palestinians across Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza came together to pray in public while abstaining from going inside Al Aqsa. Pouring into the streets, going to checkpoints and gathering around Jerusalem, people sent a message of refusal to comply with Israeli dictates in their city regardless of their leaders’ preoccupation with using Israel’s Gaza blockade as leverage – cutting Gazan’s electricity to exert political pressure.
“I’m astonished! This is a very historical moment,” said Amany Khalifa last Wednesday. She’s a community coordinator with Grassroots Jerusalem, an organization that networks Palestinian social and community groups throughout the occupied east of the city.
Sitting in Grassroots Jerusalem’s offices just off Salah Al-Din Street, in the cultural heart of Palestinian Jerusalem, in June, the 31-year old was pessimistic just ahead of the 50th anniversary of the occupation. Despite several “very local” protests against particular Israeli settlements in the city, she conceded that the occupied city offered an ideal situation for Israeli rule. Under direct Israeli rule and physically cut off by Israel’s wall from the rest of the West Bank – and even some East Jerusalem neighborhoods — Jerusalem can be a lightning rod for instigating widespread political action, but it is isolated from the center of Palestinian political life.
Khalifa was there during the 2014 protests when the brutal murder of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir sparked a wave Palestinian protest in Jerusalem against settler violence and expanding settlements, spreading throughout the West Bank. Thousands of young people poured onto the streets for days. They marched to the edges of settlements, engaging in fierce clashes with Israeli security forces. Then Netanyahu launched a war in Gaza, deflecting Palestinians’ energy and attention away from a budding popular uprising.
At the time, Khalifa believed it was the beginning of her generation’s response to unending Israeli rule — the start of a new era of struggle. Yet, by this past June her optimism had crumbled. “Perhaps we’ll have to wait for the next generation,” she said then. Now, the mass public prayers and protests that filled the streets outside her organization’s office seems have rekindled her sense of immediate possibility. “There is something grassroots now happening in Jerusalem,” she says about the Al Aqsa demonstrations. “People were communicating through Twitter and Facebook to mobilize.”
Khalifa doesn’t see the Waqf as a religious power center that is going to replace the political representatives that have disillusioned so many Palestinians. Instead, she described the trust as having put out a rallying cry around the specific aim of maintaining control of the compound.
It was a position essentially echoed by the Waqf’s director of the Al Aqsa Mosque, Sheik Omar Al-Kiswani, who welcomed the idea of Palestinian politicians resuming a leadership role. “We are demanding the status quo, before [the metal] detectors,” Al-Kiswani told The Intercept last week, amid rumors of a deal with Israel to remove the security equipment. “If Israel removes all the changes inside and outside Al Aqsa, we have no problem to return. We actually look forward to return to our place.” Hours later, following a meeting with the Palestinian Authority, the Waqf declared the end of the boycott on prayer at the compound.
By the time Israel removed the last of the cameras early on Thursday morning, Palestinians had spent 13 days praying in the occupied streets outside the compound. As the public prayers had grown, so had the crackdown; clashes, arrests, injuries, and protester casualties grew more frequent. Israeli border police raided East Jerusalem hospitals in search of injured young people accused of involvement in the skirmishes. While the repression mounted, the crowds continued to swell.
According to the Palestinian Red Crescent, 1,090 people were injured and four killed between during the time that the heightened security measures were in place. And, amid the heightened tension, a Palestinian attacker stabbed three settlers to death.
The crackdown and protests even continued after the policy reversal and the end of the Al Aqsa boycott. Palestinian discontent has yet to been ameliorated while Netanyahu has responded to his political crisis by striking a hardline tone, calling for the death penalty for the Palestinian who stabbed the settlers, while imposing new security measures that barred men under 50 from praying at Al Aqsa.
At Thursday’s return to prayer, however, there was only one major difference in the demonstrations: People barricaded themselves inside Al Aqsa as Israeli forces fired stun grenades and tear gas, rather than refusing to enter the compound as the blasts rang out. The following day, Palestinians across the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem came out in a second Day of Rage on Friday, after having protested en masse a week before.
“This is all provocations from Mr. Netanyahu personally,” said chief Palestinian negotiator and senior PLO member Nabil Shaath, on the phone from Ramallah on Thursday evening as post-boycott clashes raged at Al Aqsa. “He just doesn’t want his people or the Palestinians to feel there was victory for those in Jerusalem.” He added, “There has been a feeling of euphoria here.”
Having not lead the protests or had them originate under Palestinian Authority jurisdiction, Shaath and the rest of the PLO have very limited influence and little control over the direction of the demonstrations. Now, however, if they don’t support the protest, they risk quickly becoming its target. It is a far less stable situation for them than it has been in recent months.
In June, while marking the 50th anniversary of the occupation, the PA leadership was focused on President Donald Trump’s attempts to restart talks with the Israelis. Speaking to reporters in his Ramallah office to mark the occasion, Shaath’s policy priorities focused on Trump’s negotiation process and the PA’s decision to get Israel to cut electricity to the besieged Gaza Strip.
“Hamas are our brothers, but we will still put pressure on them,” Shaath said in June. At the time, he acknowledged that the PLO had little choice but to engage in a U.S.-sponsored negotiations process. Later, in a one-on-one interview, he conceded that the PLO couldn’t endorse the international boycott movement against Israel because of its economic agreements with the country, and said that Palestinians need to find “creative nonviolent solutions” to use as leverage against the occupation.
“Because they are creative, they have not yet been created,” Shaath said with a chuckle when pressed on what “creative solutions” the PLO had for ending the occupation after decades of failed talks.
After Israel backed down at Al-Aqsa Thursday, however, Shaath’s tone changed and he couldn’t overstress the importance of renewed protest and was eager to illustrate the role of PA in pressuring Israel to relent. Highlighting how Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had suspended the PA’s much-loathed security coordination with Israel, he put forward a defiant tone.
“We stopped coordinating with the Israeli armed forces and security! We stopped exchanging information! We stopped the actions that have been going on for the last 20 years or so,” Shaath boomed through the phone. “We are not going to resume security coordination the way it was,” he asserted, confirming that no coordination has resumed since.
With Israel backing away from even its latest restrictions on Al Aqsa — men under 50 returned to prayers at the compound Friday evening — Palestinians are learning that even the most modest demands are being won in the streets with mass actions.
Even as the usual level of tense, relative calm of Old City returned around the Al Aqsa compound, the campaign appears to have already galvanized Palestinians into new fronts for popular protest. Since the end of demonstrations in Jerusalem’s Old City on Friday night, fresh clashes erupted over the weekend in the Israeli city of Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv and part of its municipality. Demonstrators poured into the streets after a police killing of a Palestinian citizen of Israel and wounding of another.
It still may be too early to know if these two weeks of protest will spark a broader popular revolt, but Palestinians have rediscovered the power of their collective voice — and both their leadership and their occupiers have taken notice.
Mariam Barghouti contributed reporting.