The issue of Palestinian sovereignty

Dhaka,  Thu,  24 August 2017
Published : 06 Aug 2017, 18:37:49
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Tension in Al-Aqsa Mosque compound

The issue of Palestinian sovereignty

Muhammad Zamir
The Al-Aqsa Mosque and its compound, a holy site, of great importance to both Muslims and Jews, has turned into a flashpoint over the last few weeks. It has witnessed daily demonstrations and confrontations between Israeli forces and Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories. This round of tensions has been the latest in occupied East Jerusalem's Old City since Israel shut down the Mosque compound for the first time since 1969 in the aftermath of a deadly gun battle between Palestinian citizens of Israel and Israeli forces.

The problem started on July 14 which caused the deaths of two Israeli police officers and three Palestinian attackers. The number of dead increased to eight over the next few days. Subsequently, Israel closed the site for Friday prayers and reopened it on July 16 with new measures of control, including metal detectors and additional cameras, at the compound's entrances. Palestinians interpreted this measure as interference with their religious freedom and refused to enter the compound until Israel removed the new measures, which were seen as the latest move by Israel to impose control aimed at Judaising the city. They started praying in the streets outside of Lion's Gate, one of the entrances to the Old City as a show of protest for more than a week. Tensions raged after peaceful demonstrations were violently suppressed by Israeli forces, resulting in hundreds of injuries. Four Palestinians were also shot dead in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

It would be pertinent to point out that the Al-Aqsa mosque, located inside a 35-acre compound, is also referred to as al-Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary, by Muslims, and as Temple Mount by Jews. The compound lies in the Old City of Jerusalem and has been designated as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. It has special importance to all three Abrahamic religions. It has also been the most contested piece of territory in the Holy Land since Israel occupied East Jerusalem, including the Old City, in 1967, along with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This illegal Israeli control of East Jerusalem, including the Old City, violated several principles of international law, which outlines that an occupying power does not have rights of sovereignty in the territory it occupies. 

Since then, the Israeli government has taken further steps towards controlling and Judaising the Old City and East Jerusalem as a whole. In 1980, Israel passed a law that declared Jerusalem the "complete and united" capital of Israel, in violation of international law. 

It may be mentioned here that the Palestinians in Jerusalem, who number around 400,000, hold only permanent residency status, not citizenship, despite being born there - in contrast with Jews who are born in that city. In addition, of the three million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, only those over a certain age limit are allowed access to Jerusalem on Fridays, while others must apply for a hard-to-obtain permit from Israeli authorities. The restrictions already cause serious congestion and tension at checkpoints between the West Bank and Jerusalem, where tens of thousands must pass through security checks to enter Jerusalem to pray. Experts have been critical in this regard and have described such measures as being a violation of the international legal principles related to freedom to worship. 

Since 1967, Israel has also embarked on a quiet deportation of the city's Palestinians by imposing difficult conditions for them to maintain their residency status. Demographers have observed that Israel has built at least 12 fortified Jewish-only illegal settlements in East Jerusalem, housing some 200,000 Israelis, while rejecting Palestinian building permits and demolishing their homes as punishment for building illegally. 

It may be recalled that in 2000, instability in the area was created when Israeli politician Ariel Sharon entered the holy site accompanied by some 1,000 Israeli police, deliberately reiterating Israeli claims to the contested area in light of then Prime Minister Ehud Barak's US-brokered peace negotiations with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, which included discussions on how the two sides could share Jerusalem. Sharon's entrance to the compound unleashed the Second Intifada, in which more than 3,000 Palestinians and some 1,000 Israelis were killed.  

TENSION DESCALATES: Tensions have been simmering near al-Aqsa for the past two years. In 2015, clashes occurred after hundreds of Jews tried to enter the mosque complex to commemorate a Jewish holiday. A year later, protests also erupted after visits by Jewish settler groups at the compound during the last 10 days of Islam's holy month of Ramadan, in contravention of tradition. This was seen as a direct violation of the status quo. Similarly, most recently in May, the Israeli cabinet raised tensions when it held its weekly meeting in tunnels below al-Aqsa Mosque, on the 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, "to mark the liberation and unification of Jerusalem" - a move that infuriated the Palestinians. 

However, reason and good sense appear to have gained ground since July 27 when the Israeli authorities removed new security installations - railings; gates and scaffolding where cameras were previously mounted at the entrance of al-Aqsa Mosque compound.  Two days earlier Israel had removed metal detectors from the entrance.  Palestinians have celebrated these developments.

Commenting on this situation, Khaled el-Gindy, Fellow at Brookings Institution, has significantly mentioned that "those who say this is only about security issues, reducing it to a relatively minor technical issue, really miss the narrative here". He has asserted that "... giving in to metal detectors would in a way be seen as conceding to Israel's assertion of its sovereignty over the holy site and by extension to whole of Jerusalem."  

The spike in violence triggered international alarm and prompted the United Nations Security Council to convene a meeting to seek ways of calming the situation that had "potential catastrophic costs well beyond the walls of the Old City". This was done because of apprehensions that the dangers on the ground could further escalate if the Muslim Palestinian population had to go through another cycle of Friday prayer without a resolution to this current crisis. 

King Abdullah II of Jordan, the custodian of the al-Aqsa shrine, undertook a correct step and discussed the crisis with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, stressing the need to remove the security measures. 

SINAI PLAN: This latest round of unrest has revealed another dynamics which is apparently being carried out behind closed doors for some time. Jonathan Cook, an award-winning British journalist based in Nazareth, Israel, has drawn attention to confidential discussions with regard to finalisation of a plan that could see most of Gaza's population end up in Sinai, alongside millions of Palestinian refugees. 

A humanitarian crisis has been unfolding in the coastal enclave after the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas has been refusing to finance essential services in heat -stricken Gaza in its effort to weaken the Hamas rivals who rule Gaza.

 In the background, is the ominous deadline indicated by the United Nations that predicts that Gaza will be 'uninhabitable' within a few years. Its economy has already broken down because of years of Israeli military attacks and a joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade. This has left its population mostly destitute, and its aquifers increasingly polluted with sea water. In May, the International Committee of the Red Cross warned that Gaza was on the brink of "systemic collapse". 

Israel knows that another round of fighting with Hamas, and heavy casualties among ordinary Palestinians, will further damage its image. They also realise that with deteriorating conditions, seeing no other option, desperate ordinary Palestinians might end up taking on the security fences set in place to keep those in Gaza in virtual detention. This, in all probability is beginning to persuade Israel and its patrons in Washington - as well as the Arab states - to desperately find a remedy.

As a consequence of this scenario, Cook is suggesting that secret talks are underway - known to be much-favoured by Israel - that could engineer the creation of a Palestinian state in Gaza and then pressure Egypt to allow it to expand into the neighbouring territory of northern Sinai. According to this plan, not only would most of Gaza's population end up in Sinai, but also millions of Palestinian refugees. This scenario would be acceptable to Israel as it clearly wants Gaza permanently separated from the West Bank. 

It also needs to be remembered in this context that the new Trump Administration will not be averse to some sort of a settlement, that Hamas is at its weakest point ever and that Israel is increasingly close to Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The plan will, however, require Cairo to accept a humiliating compromise of its sovereignty by surrendering territory in Sinai, possibly in a swap for Israeli land in the Negev. It would also undermine long-standing Arab demands that a Palestinian state be realised in historic Palestine.

Indications that such a Sinai plan is being considered at a high level have come from Ayoub Kara, a government minister and ally of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. This was confirmed in February, shortly before Netanyahu and Trump met in Washington, by a Kara tweet that the two leaders would review the plan for creation of "a Palestinian state in Gaza and Sinai".  Kara added that this would provide a regional solution of the kind that "will pave a path to peace, including with the Sunni coalition [of Arab states]."

The writer, a former Ambassador and Chief Information Commissioner of the Information Commission, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance. 

muhammadzamir0@gmail.com
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