Michael Bell was twice Canadian ambassador to Israel. He is the co-director of the Jerusalem Old City Initiative.
The situation in East Jerusalem now, more than ever, reflects deep religious conflict underwritten by contesting collective memories and sacred myths. Efforts are being made by responsible Muslim and Jewish leaders to control the escalation in violence, but ultimately none trusts the other. Activists on both sides are pursuing a destructive agenda. This raises the question of fair-minded outside involvement, if a sustainable solution is to be found
The crisis is more than ever a question of holy writ, its embodiment being the Sacred Esplanade in the Old City, regarded as sacred for three millennia. For Judiaism it is the place where the ancient Temple once stood. For Muslims, it is the third-holiest place in Islam, where Mohammed ascended into heaven, housing the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque. The Esplanade is the core of both Jewish and Muslim identity. These counternarratives and overlapping claims stand in stark
Wariness, if not hatred, fills the air at the best of times. The Esplanade is controlled as an uneasy condominium under a 1967 "status quo": its management by the Jordanian religious trust, the Waqf; its security by the Israeli police and Israel Defence Forces.
Zealots increasingly challenge the "status quo" by expanding the Jewish presence and control over the city's sacred sites: Initially to populate the Esplanade through visits and then pray on the platform, they are striving to Judaize its surroundings, for example, by connecting the settler-run City of David, cutting through the Arab village of Silwan, to the Esplanade itself. Those at the far extreme ultimately plan to destroy the Muslim shrines and construct a new Temple in their place.
Such is the zealots' growing legitimacy that they command the parliamentary seats necessary to bring down Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government if they believe he will ultimately frustrate their objectives.
The Palestinians live in trepidation that their rights are being eroded. In reaction to these perceived Jewish "encroachments," frequent knifings by Palestinians and other attacks directed at Israelis in and around Jerusalem are becoming the norm. Suspicions are growing that a new, albeit unorchestrated, intifada, an "intifada of knives," is at hand.
Over the past six months, Palestinian violence began with Muslim activists attempting to prevent the entry of Jewish religious nationalists to the Esplanade. The Israeli authorities, in an effort to control the escalation, resumed age- and gender-based restrictions on Muslim entry to the Esplanade. One proposal has been to ban Muslim presence three hours daily to facilitate Jewish visits so as, the theory goes, to minimize the risk of violence. Muslims see these as steps toward dividing this sacred space, a clear violation of the "status quo."
The spate of frequent and growing knife attacks has been provoked by the perhaps unsurprising misperception that Mr. Netanyahu plans to change the "status quo" step by step, given the pressures he is subject to.
The risks of a complete breakdown prompted U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to intervene. After a series of difficult meetings, he announced on Oct. 24 that the Jordanian and Israeli governments had agreed to observe strictly the "status quo" – to be enhanced by cameras on the site. That said, such observance is subject to goodwill and trust, commodities in very short supply.
Both Fatah and Hamas are looking over their shoulders at the Muslim world. They do not want to go down in history as the people who "lost" the Esplanade. Nor can they afford to be seen as such today. Israeli intelligence experts suggest the current fetish for stabbing attacks is inspired by Islamic State iconography. While still judged to be unlikely at this point by the Shin Bet, a growing Islamic State presence is possible – which is the last thing either Muslims or Jews need.
These tremors raise the question of whether a third-party management regime, with teeth, committed to fair-minded governance, is the only way out of the abyss. This despite the resistance such an idea would encounter from these many conflicted