The Threat Posed by Al-Aqsa Mosque Closing in Jerusalem

The mosque was at the heart of the Second Intifada.

October 30, 2014, 12:18 PM

— -- The closing of al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem has diplomats holding their breath because the site has been a flashpoint for violence in the past and was the trigger for a five-year long spasm of bloodshed known as the Second Intifada.

The mosque was closed this week after a prominent right-wing rabbi Yehuda Glick was shot and critically wounded. Glick was part of a growing movement among religiously militant Jews demanding more prayer rights at the al Aqsa compound.

The closure so infuriated Palestinians that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called it “a ­declaration of war.”

The mosque is intrinsically entwined with volatile Mideast politics. The compound is located at what Muslims call the Dome of the Rock, the site they believe where the prophet Muhammed ascended to heaven. It is the holiest site in the Muslim world outside of Mecca and Medina.

The Israelis call it the Temple Mount and consider it to be where Judaism began and the site of two previous temples.

Control over these sites, and perceptions of encroachment, make for volatile politics.

Jews have been barred from the mosque's compound since Israeli politician Ariel Sharon went there in 2000 to assert Jewish rights to have access to the area. Sharon, who later became prime minister, was surrounded by hundreds of Israeli police. The move was seen by Palestinians as an incursion and triggered what became known as the Second Intifada or the Al-Aqsa Intifada.

The fighting derailed a U.S. sponsored peace process and raged until 2005, resulting in the deaths of about 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis.

The closure this week comes while anger still simmers over the Israeli invasion of Gaza earlier this year.

Ofer Zalzberg, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, said he does not believe the current closure will prompt another uprising, but he warned it could add to the growing violence against Israelis by individual Palestinians.

"What we have been seeing for a few years now, but with more force in the last few months, is a kind of unstructured violence, attacks on civilians," Zalzberg said. He cited as an example the Palestinian man who drove his car into a crowd of Israelis earlier this month.

"They are people who are not affiliated with groups like Hamas," he said, referring to the militant group that has dominated Gaza in recent years. "And because it's individuals, it's incredibly difficult for the Israeli police to prevent."

Closing the mosque "will feed this," Zalzberg said. If the mosque compound remains closed for any length of time, Zalzberg predicts, "We will see riots."