Radical Palestinian Muslims today assaulted the Western Wall plaza in Jersualem with rocks and bottles, forcing Israeli security forces to to clear out and close down the holiest religious site in the Jewish faith and then storm the Temple Mount compound above from where the attack was launched. Why has this area suddenly become a tinderbox of inter-religious strife?
Ostensibly, the riots in Jerusalem are supposed to be in reaction to Israel's attempts to re-build a damaged access ramp to the western side of the Temple Mount. Before any construction project can be approved, it must be inspected by the Israel Antiquities Authority to make sure that no valuable archaeological artifacts are being destroyed or covered up. In reality, the latest eruption is part of a larger campaign by radical Muslim groups to place all of Jerusalem under Islamic control.
Since Israel re-united Jerusalem nearly 40 years ago in the 1967 Six Day War, its governments have agreed to allow the Muslim shrines on the Temple Mount -- the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock -- to remain under Islamic religious administration, even though the territory in now under Israeli national sovereignty. During the period that Yasser Arafat ruled the Palestinian Authority, he sought to infiltrate that Islamic adminstration with more radical figures, who clearly have left their mark.
A number of radical movements have infiltrated the compound in recent years as a result. In my new book, The Fight for Jerusalem, I have a photograph of one such movement, Hizb ut-Tahrir, which held a demonstration on the Temple Mount in 2006 with a huge banner calling for the establishment of a new global caliphate. Its members were involved in an attack on the Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmad Maher, when he came to the al-Aqsa mosque for prayers several years ago. They also made threatening moves in the direction of First Lady Laura Bush, before security men pulled her away during her visit to the Temple Mount. Western analysts regard the group as an al-Qaeda precursor, which does not violate the law, but nonetheless prepares individuals ideologically and then passes them off to other organizations for military action.
An Israeli radical sheikh named Raad Salah, who has served a prison term, has been at the heart of much of the trouble on the Temple Mount. He was present during the latest riots last week until an Israeli Courts ordered him to stay away from the area of controversy. Salah calls for the establishment of a new worldwide caliphate based in Jerusalem and he has been behind projects to bring holy water from the Zamzam spring in Mecca to Jerusalem , in order to elevate the city's religious importance to Muslims (something which the Saudis, as protectors of Mecca, should oppose). His men have provided the manpower to destroy Temple Mount antiquities and build new subterranean mosques inside the Temple Mount area. Salah has been connected to leading figures in the Muslim Brotherhood abroad as well as with leaders of the Hamas movement.
All these radical movements are aware of a growing belief in certain Middle Eastern circles that Jerusalem plays a key role in radical Islamic "end of times" literature. The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been fueling some of this speculation with his talk about the imminent arrival of the Mahdi, an Islamic messianic figure in both Shiite and Sunni Islam. Radical movements in the Middle East are seeking to play on these sentiments and beliefs in choosing to stage a crisis in Jerusalem at this time.
The Iranians also have an interest in backing a crisis in Jerusalem. Iran hopes to divert attention away its their steady infiltration into Iraq with Revolutionary Guards and advanced weaponry for the insurgency by getting the world to focus on Israel at this time. Currently there are two interpretations about the root causes of instability in the Middle East. Those aware of what is going on in Iraq, as well as in Lebanon, and in the Persian Gulf understand that Iran's drive for regional hegemony is the main factor threatening the Middle East at this time. Alternatively there are voices that play down Iran and still harp on the Arab-Israeli conflict as one of the the main problems (eg, the Iraq Study Group). Iran is seeking to get the world to focus on Israel and the Palestinians, alone.
The attack on the Western Wall today illustrates once again the dangers of ever letting Jerusalem fall into the hands of radical Islamic groups, like Hamas. Since 1998, when the Buddhist statues in the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan were first attacked, an "evil wind" has been blowing across the Middle East and South Asia, stripping holy sites of the immunity they have enjoyed in the past. Shiite Mosques in Iraq and Pakistan have been blown up, Joseph's Tomb in the West bank was set on fire by Palestianian mobs, the Church of the Nativity was invaded by a joint Hamas-Fatah unit.
By Friday sundown. Israel stabilized the situation on the Temple Mount. Since 1967, it has been determined to protect Jerusalem, while respecting autonomy of its various churches and Islamic religious bodies. Radical Islamic groups have exploited Israel's policies on the Temple Mount. Nonetheless, it is now clearer than ever that only a free and democratic Israel can ultimately protect the access of all faiths to the Holy City and prevent it from becoming the tinder box that others hope to create.