JERUSALEM — Thousands of Palestinian Muslims have been praying in the streets of Jerusalem every evening — creating a new, surprisingly effective form of protest in their long conflict with Israel.
Since the crisis over the city’s most contested shrine erupted more than a week ago, they have set up neat rows of prayer rugs after sundown, kneeling and bowing on the hard asphalt in the set rituals of worship.
The evocative scenes reflect a newfound unity among Jerusalem’s Palestinians, who make up almost 40 per cent of the city’s residents. The protesters say they have found their voice after years of being sidelined or ignored by Israel as well as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ self-rule government in the West Bank.
The protests were triggered by Israel’s decision to install new security measures, including metal detectors and cameras, at a major shrine in Jerusalem’s Old City in response to a July 14 attack by Arab gunmen who killed two Israeli police guards.
The 37-acre compound — the third holiest site of Islam and the most sacred one of Judaism — has served as the emotional centerpiece of rival religious and national narratives of Muslims and Jews, Palestinians and Israel.
For many Muslims, the new security measures were just the latest proof of their suspicions that Israel gradually wants to expand its control over the Muslim-administered holy site, home to the Al Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques.
Israeli denials have not dispelled such views, nurtured by the daily frustrations of life under Israeli occupation; Israel captured traditionally Arab east Jerusalem in the 1967 war and annexed it to its capital, a move not recognized by most of the international community.
Palestinians in Jerusalem, who see themselves as the defenders of the holy site, felt Israel crossed a red line with its latest measures. Israel took down the metal detectors Tuesday, but kept in place several newly installed cameras overlooking the sacred compound.
“The pressure cooker has exploded,” said Khalil Abu Arafeh, a 67-year-old Palestinian retiree, explaining the intensity of the protests. The Israeli authorities “kept pressing until it exploded, and there is no turning back.”
Abu Arafeh spoke as he and his son Amjad, 37, sat on the ground near the Old City’s Lion’s Gate, the main area for the street prayers, on Tuesday evening.
Heavily armed Israeli riot police stood to the side and watched. As on other nights, brief clashes erupted as worshippers dispersed after the second evening prayer. Some Palestinians threw stones, and police fired stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets.
But for most of the evening, the gathering had the vibe of a community get-together. Some brought large quantities of food or water from home, distributing it among the worshippers. Others sang Islamic songs or delivered speeches during prayer breaks.
Some said they were drawn by the experience of shared purpose, rare in east Jerusalem’s fractured society, where Israel has clamped down on Palestinian efforts to organize politically. The prayer protests drew men and women, young and old, lawyers and labourers.
Mohammed Abu Ziad, a 34-year-old engineer, said he has participated every evening, believing it’s up to ordinary Palestinians to take a stand.
“We cannot rely on anyone,” he said, bemoaning what he said is the ineffectiveness of Abbas and his Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank. At one point, Palestinians hoped east Jerusalem could be the capital of a future state, but Abbas’ efforts to negotiate the terms of independence with Israel ran aground a decade ago.
“The Palestinian Authority is doing nothing in Jerusalem, and Israel is changing east Jerusalem from a Palestinian city to an Israeli city,” he said.
Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli expert on the city’s geopolitics, said large parts of civil society have spontaneously merged into a coherent campaign.
“This is basically the Arab Spring coming late to east Jerusalem,” he said.
Over the past week, Palestinians in Jerusalem have increasingly sought guidance from the traditional Muslim leaders in the city — four men in their 60s and 70s.
They have looked to the clerics to make the tactical decisions, such as calling on worshippers not to enter the shrine until Israel restores the situation to what it was before the July 14 attack.
After Israel removed the metal detectors, the clerics asked the faithful to keep praying in the streets until other — seemingly trivial — installations had been removed. This includes metal railings, the type used for creating orderly lines, at the entrance to Lion’s Gate.
It’s a two-way relationship, noted Mahdi Abdel Hadi, a Jerusalem analyst. The clerics enjoy a newfound standing in the community, mainly because of their religious authority, but only as long as they “reflect the pulse of the street and (people’s) national aspirations.”
Members of the Muslim leadership quartet formally report to different bosses. Two are employees of Jordan, the Muslim custodian of the shrine, one reports to the Palestinian Authority and another represents civil society in Jerusalem.
In recent years, Abbas has often deferred to Jordan on matters concerning the shrine, banking on the kingdom’s greater leverage in dealing with Israel.
Israel views its security ties with Jordan as a strategic interest, and has repeatedly backed down in disputes over the holy site to avoid harming this relationship.
In the current standoff, Jordan was key to getting Israel to dismantle the metal detectors. Jordan was aided by an unexpected bargaining chip — an Israeli security guard who shot and killed two Jordanians when one of them attacked him during an argument at the Israeli Embassy in the kingdom on Sunday.
Jordan initially said the Israeli guard could not leave before being questioned, but eventually let him go. A few hours later, the metal detectors came down.
However, Jordan cannot dictate to the Palestinians what their next move should be, Abdel Hadi said. Jordan cannot go against the popular consensus in the city if it wants to preserve its custodianship — a key source of legitimacy for the kingdom’s Hashemite rulers, he said.
In a similar dispute in 2015, Jordan backed away from an initial agreement with the U.S. to install more video cameras in the holy esplanade, after Palestinians objected.
Abbas has been trying to find a role for himself in the dispute over the Jerusalem shrine, but is widely viewed by city residents as irrelevant.
In recent days, he offered several million dollars in Palestinian Authority funds to support Jerusalem residents and declared he was freezing all ties with Israel for now.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, has paid a high price politically.
Many Israelis viewed the removal of the metal detectors as a shameful surrender. Others criticized him for making hasty decisions at the Holy Land’s most sensitive site.
Now it seems, he is under pressure to make more concessions.
“Young Palestinians have found their voice,” said Seidemann. “They are not going to put it away with less than a decisive victory.”