The Navigator from CGP

Web of Chaos in the Wake of Al-Aqsa Crisis

PUBLISHED July 26, 2017

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By Kamran Bokhari
Senior Fellow

In recent weeks the locus of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has shifted to the al-Aqsa Mosque crisis. The latest cycle of violence forces key regional stakeholders into positions that they would rather – but cannot – avoid. It has particular implications for Jordan, which is already under tremendous strain from the wars raging in Syria and Iraq. This dynamic, however, has the potential to greatly exacerbate the region’s already deteriorating security conditions.

For the most part, Israeli citizens of Palestinian origin (Israeli Arabs) have steered clear of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Armed conflict and popular unrest have largely been limited to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, respectively. But that all changed about two weeks ago when three armed Israeli Arab men from the town of Umm al-Fahm shot dead two Israeli policemen belonging to the country’s small Druze community in the north. These policemen were on security duty at one of the entrances to the al-Aqsa Mosque compound. While this town is known as a hotbed of Islamist activity, it is not clear if the assailants belonged to any organized group.

The precise motivations of the assailants, who were killed by Israeli security forces during the incident, remain unclear; however, it is quite possible that they were radicalized by elements trying to exploit the conditions of occupation. But regardless of their affiliation, their identity reinforces Israeli fears of a fifth column among those Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship. For decades the Jewish state has struggled to manage its occupation of the West Bank and, since 2005, has had to counter armed attacks from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The last thing Israelis want to see is Palestinians inside its borders engaging in such type of action. But once such incidents occur, Israeli authorities have an imperative to crackdown on the perpetrators and implement measures designed to prevent further attacks.

The Israeli response includes temporarily closing down the al-Aqsa complex. The perpetrators of the attack had to have known that this is how Israeli authorities would respond. In fact, they may have gamed out and actually sought this very outcome. Irrespective of their intent, Israel is forced to respond.

Closing the mosque complex to worshippers, even if only temporarily, has an unintended but disruptive regional and global ripple effect: It elicits a strong negative reaction from those who regularly pray there; and immediately feeds into the Palestinian, Arab, and wider Muslim view of the conflict and the perception that Islam’s third holiest site is once again besieged. Matters worsen when Muslims try to pray in makeshift spaces near the mosque, for doing so sometimes leads to scuffles with Israeli security personnel.

A Trapped Jordan

In this age of social media, pictures and videos of Palestinians being prevented from accessing al-Aqsa go viral very quickly, which further fuels anti-Israeli sentiment. The geographic scope of the chain reaction of subsequent events also rapidly begins to expand. In this case, the first place to be affected is the Hashemite kingdom, because not only is the country formally responsible for al-Aqsa’s upkeep, but Amman also has diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv.

For decades the kingdom’s intelligence and security services have had a close working relationship with their Israeli counterparts, a relationship that has served their respective national interests. Although this official bilateral relationship is politically and economically mutually beneficial, after twenty-three years it is becoming quite unpopular among the Jordanian public – at least half of which is of Palestinian origin. Thus, closing the mosque places Amman in an awkward position.

The Jordanian government is being pressured to take a tougher stance against Israel. While the kingdom does criticize the Jewish state from time to time, this latest event has particularly forced Amman to issue a stronger-than-usual response. But the kingdom is hesitant to go down this path because it can have a deleterious effect on its national security. In addition, the kingdom’s bandwidth to deal with problems is already being stretched to the maximum.

On a normal day Jordan has to worry about Palestinian unrest, especially in the West Bank, given that it shares a long border with the territory. In the last six years or so, Jordan has also struggled to provide adequate services (e.g., food, shelter and education) to as many as 700,000 Syrian refugees – in addition to the approximately 350,000 Iraqi refugees that were already present in the country. Given its strategic location, Jordan cannot escape the reality that it borders the two countries in which Daesh established its transnational caliphate and both of which are experiencing major armed conflict. The al-Aqsa crisis has only made life more miserable for the Jordanian state, as evidenced by the June 24 incident at the Israeli embassy in which a handyman’s attack on a guard led to the death of two Jordanian nationals.

The Jordanian leadership has no choice but to publicly assume a position critical of the Israelis while at the same time trying to negotiate an immediate solution to the crisis. According to media reports David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, has been involved in mediating between Israel and Jordan in an effort to defuse the situation. Neither country wants unrest on both sides of the Jordan River. Both of them need to act judiciously with regard to the security situation and the growing volatility in public opinion among their respective populations.

Jordan definitely needs to show its people that it is taking a strong stance against Israel’s closure of al-Aqsa to counter any potential social unrest and/or exploitation by Islamists and jihadists. Such posturing, however, could also send the wrong message and actually encourage unrest instead of containing it. More importantly, many other players have a stake in this crisis, most notably Egypt and Turkey, which also have diplomatic relations with Israel.

The Wider Web

Egypt’s situation somewhat resembles that of Jordan. For example, Cairo is already trying to manage domestic political and economic unrest and counter jihadist activity, especially in the Sinai and against Coptic churches. Seeking to avoid any manifestation of greater agitation, the government of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi needs to be perceived as taking a tough line against Israeli moves regarding al-Aqsa.

What is most disturbing for both the Jordanians and the Egyptians is the state of affairs in the Palestinian Territories, particularly the status of the two rival Palestinian movements in their respective domains. Fatah, currently led by President Mahmoud Abbas, faces no challenge from rival groups in the West Bank. And yet it is in a state of decay and marred with internal power struggles – as well as facing ongoing problems caused by Tel Aviv’s policy of expanding Jewish settlements. Meanwhile, Hamas will want to exploit the current situation in the West Bank. However, it faces its own limitations of scant assets in the territory to foment trouble.

Meanwhile in Gaza, Hamas has very little interest in another war, at least for the time being, given that it is trying to rebuild the area. Providing its people with some semblance of normal life, despite the continual power shortages and other economic pressures stemming from Gaza’s isolation seems to be its current priority. This past Spring Hamas managed to somewhat improve relations with Egypt, which has once again opened border crossings and allowed the resumption of commerce (albeit in a limited way). But its major challenge lies with the Salafists and jihadists in Gaza who represent a threat to its rule, especially given the rise of Daesh activity in the Sinai. Therefore, Hamas too is caught between the need to take a tough stance on the al-Aqsa crisis and the fear of creating conditions that could undermine its own position.

Arab state and non-state actors are not the only ones with a stake in this game. Clearly, Iran will do whatever it can to further its own interests. Turkey, the key regional player, has its own reasons for wanting to get involved, as is clearly evident from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s statements. Ankara, which sees itself as the leader of the region and the wider Muslim world, cannot pass up this opportunity. But there is also another driver: Ankara has close relations with Israel and thus cannot afford to be seen as staying on the sidelines.

It may well be the case that this latest crisis is defused. However, the underlying conditions in the Palestinian Territories are beginning to generate unrest among those Palestinians living inside Israel. This trend, if it persists, has the potential to exacerbate the situation in the region, which is already in the throes of an incredible level of violence, instability, and insecurity. Ultimately, the al-Aqsa crisis consists of many moving parts, each of which represents the respective imperatives and constraints of the various internal and external actors. Washington will have to carefully navigate this minefield in order to minimize the risk of aggravating the region’s pre-existing state of pandemonium. Does the Trump Administration have the wherewithal to deal with the expanding arc of anarchy in the region?

The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the institutional position of the Center for Global Policy.

About The Navigator 

The Navigator – CGP’s latest policy product – provides objective analysis of the week’s most pressing U.S. foreign policy issues related to Muslim geopolitics. Every Wednesday, the Navigator will: 1) Identify a significant geopolitical development; 2) Offer a rigorous analysis of the event; and, 3) Forecast what to expect next regarding the issue.

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