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Testimony

Words Have Consequences: Palestinian Authority Incitement to Violence

Testimony for House Foreign Affairs Committee
22nd October 2015

Download full testimony here.

Chairman Royce, Ranking Member Engel, members of the committee, on behalf of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, thank you for the opportunity to testify.

My testimony will analyze the current wave of Palestinian violence in the West Bank and Israel, with a focus on the recent campaign by the Palestinian Authority to draw attention to the Temple Mount. I will then analyze the role and calculus of the various Palestinian players in the current violence. Finally, I will provide some policy recommendations for this committee to consider.

A Third Intifada?

Mr. Chairman, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has flared again. The violence can best be characterized as a concerted campaign of knife attacks against Israeli civilians and military personnel, peppered with other attempts at vehicular homicide and even bombings. Since October 1, eight Israelis have been killed while dozens have been wounded in no less than 44 attacks.  It’s unclear yet whether we can call this a third intifada. For it to be characterized as such, it would require the full backing of Palestinian leaders across the political spectrum. Despite the incitement of both the Fatah and Hamas factions, it’s safe to say that neither has committed fully to an all-out conflict right now with Israel. I will explain below why they are holding back.

Temple Mount Tensions

Mr. Chairman, the Palestinian narrative right now focuses on their rage over purported Israeli attempts to change the status quo on the Temple Mount/Haram ash-Sharif, the site holy to both Jews and Muslims. There are troubling signs that this unrest was premeditated. Indeed, it looks like the resumption of the unrest that erupted in June 2014 before last summer’s 50-day war between Israel and Hamas. The name given to the unrest, then as today, was the “Jerusalem Intifada.” The epicenter of that violence, then as today, was the Temple Mount.

The Temple Mount is one of the thorniest issues in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It is a deeply meaningful and holy site to both Muslims and Jews. Keeping the peace at this site has been a delicate issue since Israel conquered the Old City in 1967. The Israelis control the territory, but they have allowed for Jordan, with input from Palestinian religious authorities, to administer the site.  For years, Israeli law prohibited Jews from praying on the site, but Israel’s Supreme Court overruled this in 1993.  In recent years, the number of Jews that have gained access to the site during hours proscribed by Israel and the administering authorities has increased. This includes some Israeli politicians and religious groups who seek to assert Israeli sovereignty.  But according to Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, access to the Temple Mount compound is still overwhelmingly Muslim. Indeed, over the last year, there have been approximately four million entries by Muslims, 200,000 by Christians, and just 12,000 by Jews.

To be clear, the status quo has not changed. Israel controls access to the site as a means to maintain the delicate peace, but it does not involve itself in matters of religious practice or prayer. Yet, over the last year, a disturbing pattern has developed. Palestinian elements, apparently led by the PLO, have led an effort to stoke religious tensions at the sensitive site with wild reports that Israel is trying to “Judaize” or undermine Muslim rights to pray there. At the forefront of this campaign to foment hate is WAFA, a news agency effectively controlled by the PLO. As one Arab newspaper noted, WAFA is one of the Palestinian “governmental media institutions.” 

In January of this year, the chairman of the PLO’s Jerusalem Affairs Department, Ahmed Qurei, warned of an Israeli plan to register the al-Aqsa Mosque as an Israeli state property to be officially run by the so-called Tabu (land registration) office. The Al-Aqsa Foundation for Endowment and Heritage (AFEH) claimed this was setting the stage for a Jewish synagogue over parts of the holy Mosque. Qurei further stated that Israel was “Judaizing” the mosque and re-building the “alleged” Jewish Temple. “This is the most serious [action taken by Israel] that jeopardizes the future of the holy city,” he said.

The following month, WAFA cited Qurei warning about assessments made by Israeli engineers and contractors for new archeological excavations under the Temple Mount. In a press release, Qurei said that the Israeli government was trying to “empty the area [of] its indigenous citizens as a prelude to take over the land for the sake of settlement expansion.”  The PLO news agency, WAFA, added to the tensions claiming that nearly a thousand Israelis “stormed” the al-Aqsa compound during the previous month.

In March, WAFA issued a report stating that Jewish settlers were preparing to storm the al-Aqsa compound. The report alleged, “Jewish groups that define itself by the name of the alleged ancient Temple are preparing for the Jewish holiday Passover by mobilizing the largest number of settlers to enter Al-Aqsa Mosque and perform religious prayers in its yards.”  This was followed by a report that Israeli police, “physically assaulted and beat up [a ten-year-old girl], who along with other worshipers chanted religious slogans against a group of Jewish fanatics who entered the Mosque to perform religious rituals.” 

The wild and unsubstantiated charges continued through the spring. WAFA in April claimed that, “Jewish settlers…broke into Al-Aqsa Mosque Compound through [the Dung Gate] bridge, and toured its yard under the heavy protection of Israeli police units.” In May, the PLO mouthpiece claimed several Palestinians were arrested “at the gates of al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the Old City for chanting religious slogans to fend off settlers’ attempts to tour the mosque’s yards. The two elders…were physically assaulted by the police before they were arrested.”

During the summer, the Palestinian leadership called for an emergency Islamic summit “in light of latest Israeli escalations at al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem.”  This came on the heels of reports that Israel had seized land adjacent to the eastern wall of the al-Aqsa mosque,  and that settlers were continuing “attacks against al-Aqsa mosque,”  and insulting the Prophet Mohammed while on the al-Aqsa compound.

In September, Mahmoud Abbas complained to the UN General Assembly that, “extremist Israeli groups are committing repeated, systematic incursions upon Al-Aqsa Mosque, aimed at imposing a new reality and dividing Al-Haram Al-Sharif.”  Soon after, Hamas declared a “day of rage” in the West Bank. Several Palestinians were wounded in clashes with Israelis.  Abbas took this as a cue to warn of an “intifada that we don’t want” if escalations at al-Aqsa continue. 

As violence gripped Jerusalem, WAFA continued to complain that, “Jewish fanatics resumed their provocative visits to al-Aqsa Mosque.”  The rhetoric has only increased, fanning the flames of conflict as Palestinians have taken to lone-wolf style attacks to stab Israelis on the streets.

In an effort to calm tensions, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently ordered police to prevent Israeli ministers and members of Knesset from entering the Temple Mount.  The Israelis continue to make it clear that even when Jews visit the Temple Mount, they are not to pray there. Israeli security personnel enforce this strictly. However, the PLO continues to fan the flames of conflict. Their problem appears to be the very presence of Israelis and Jews on the Temple Mount.