Palestinians have demonstrated en masse against Israel’s demolition work in Jerusalem, which could lead to the eruption of a third intifada.
The dangerous events unfolding this week in Jerusalem are reminiscent of Ariel Sharon’s “storming” of the al-Aqsa sanctuary in September 2000 and the consequences that followed are likely to be equally as volatile this time. Following a build-up of Israeli troops around Jerusalem’s old city over the weekend and the restrictions on Palestinians from entering the holy al-Aqsa sanctuary, the Palestinian community went on high alert and requested neighbouring Arab states to intervene.
While access restrictions are nothing abnormal in Jerusalem, this is no ordinary security operation. Israeli bulldozers moved to the Moroccan corner of the al-Aqsa compound and on Tuesday morning, began demolishing a ramp and two rooms considered part of the al-Aqsa sanctuary. This area gives direct access to the holy site, and it is historically known as the Meghribi quarters, after the Moroccan inhabitants who lived there prior to the 1967 Israel/Arab war. Since then, the Israeli occupation and illegal annexation of Jerusalem meant its Arab residents were forced to leave and this part of the old city which overlooks the western wall is now exclusively Jewish.
Palestinians have demonstrated en masse against Israel’s actions, and the Palestinian prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, took it seriously enough to specifically issue a statement saying that he suspected Israel was trying to directly harm the al-Aqsa compound. The destruction of Islamic holy sites constitutes a violation of international humanitarian law and international law, especially the fourth Geneva convention (1949), which prohibits the destruction of civilian properties.
Israel on the other hand denies all such charges and stated that it is undertaking recovery work after the footpath was damaged by a snowstorm and an earthquake in 2004. This means the work is entirely in the interests of the compound. However, Palestinian suspicion rests on a number of factors, including the fact that they were denied by Israel the rights to repair the damage themselves and it is widely suspected that Israel’s excavations beneath the al-Aqsa sanctuary have led to grave structural weaknesses which could lead to a collapse of the Mosque buildings.
In addition, Israel will not begin repairing the damage and building a new walkway leading to al-Aqsa before they have completed a “salvage excavation”. This ulterior motive to recover artefacts that may or may not exist in the area is doing nothing to stem Palestinian suspicion and could lead to the eruption of a third intifada. It was Ariel Sharon’s desecration of the sanctuary that led to the al-Aqsa intifada in 2000, which lasted more than five years. This showed the world that despite the long-term oppression and suffering undergone by the Palestinian people, they will still defend the al-Aqsa sanctuary, which is the holiest Islamic site in Jerusalem. One of the main reasons the world’s Muslims are greatly concerned about the Palestinian cause is because of the al-Aqsa sanctuary.
Arguably at a time when critical political discussion are underway between Hamas and Fatah, and world attention diverted, there could not be a better time for the Israeli bulldozers to begin their damage. Although Palestinian protests have been taking place, they have gone almost unnoticed internationally. Even our own foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, said this week that our government would not recognise any government that does not recognise Israel. At a time when an international heritage site is being threatened, Ms Beckett has made no mention of this in favour of Israeli political rights. Interestingly, the Israeli defence minister, Amir Peretz, called on the prime minister, Ehud Olmert, for the digging to be halted immediately, which was rejected.
While tensions are running high between Fatah and Hamas, Israel may have hoped to further strengthen its stranglehold over the al-Aqsa Sanctuary, but in reality, is likely to have given the Palestinians a greater reason to unite once again in their struggle against the occupation.