Regardless of claims and counter-claims behind yesterday's violence in Al Aqsa Mosque, the images of armed Israeli police clubbing Palestinians and leaving dozens of worshippers face-down on the floor of the prayer hall with their hands bound by zip-ties are shocking.
It is not the first time Al Aqsa has witnessed such scenes. The mosque, which is also Islam’s third-holiest site, has seen several cycles of unrest in recent years, and this week’s violence did not spring out of nowhere. Extremist voices in Israel have been chipping away at the site’s delicate religious status quo for years, heedless of the antagonism and instability that it has brought.
What is different this time is that those who place religious conviction over peace, pragmatism and coexistence have been emboldened by the presence of some ministers who have built a career appealing to the extremes of Israeli society.
There was some backtracking this week by far-right Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who dismissed Jewish activists’ thwarted attempt to hold a Passover sacrifice at the Al Aqsa compound as a “protest stunt”. But repeated attempts by others in Mr Ben-Gvir’s camp to breach restrictions on Jewish worship at the sensitive complex have angered not only Palestinians but many Muslims worldwide.
Sadly, an atmosphere of intolerance has been growing in Jerusalem against other communities, too. Christians have faced incidents of violence and intimidation. Speaking last week, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa said: “What we are seeing is that what we call the status quo, the balance between the different communities — Jews, Muslims, Christians — is not respected any more.
“That aspect is problematic for me, that they consider Christians as guests. We are not guests. We are part of the identity of the city.”
Meanwhile, Palestinian militants have been firing rockets from Gaza into Israel. Not only do such actions fail to help Palestinians in Jerusalem, they bring an overwhelming response from one of the most powerful militaries in the Middle East. Gaza’s civilians have already suffered more than enough.
There is a way out of this. Respecting the careful status quo at Al Aqsa and not allowing the loudest voices to dictate the pace of events should be a starting point. Germany’s recent call for a peace conference on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is an important one and should be taken seriously.
Israel’s Arab partners should also be listened to. Dialogue between the UAE and Israeli leaderships, even in times of tension, remains a valuable way of raising important Palestinian concerns at the highest level and of defusing difficult situations.
It is a time of considerable unease and Israel is confronting challenges at home and abroad. Political tensions and street protests over controversial judicial changes have laid bare the deep divisions that have developed among Israel’s Jewish majority. Meanwhile, near daily air strikes on targets in Syria run the risk of leading to an uncontrollable escalation.
Given this atmosphere of hostility and unrest, it is more important than ever for responsible leaders to make their voices heard over those whose agenda threatens to deliver only more conflict. There is time to pull back and de-escalate. It is no less than Palestinians and Israelis deserve, especially in these holy days.