Police vs politicians on the Temple Mount

(This post was originally published in the Jerusalem Post weekend magazine on December 4th, 2014)

One gets the impression as of late that if left up to the top command of the Israel Police and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), the entire Temple Mount would be sealed off to all visitors, left to gather dust atop the Old City.

The Temple Mount. (Wikipedia Commons)

The Temple Mount. (Berthold Werner – Wikipedia Commons)

That’s not possible, of course, as it would entail a radical change in the status quo, and banning access to one of Islam’s holiest sites would only inflame tensions further. Still, this past week, Israel Police commissioner Yohanan Danino blew away whatever illusions were left about how his agency feels about recent visits by right-wing MKs to the Mount, finally saying out loud what police have said behind closed doors and in off-the-record comments to journalists throughout Israel’s recent tensions.

On Tuesday, Danino sparked the ire of many on the Right when he said, “Anyone who wants to change the status quo on the Temple Mount should not be allowed up there,” leveling criticism at what he called an “extreme right-wing agenda to change the status quo” there.

His comments recall ones made earlier in November by Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, who said that while the status quo will remain unchanged, they will ban visits by inciters of any faith – including MKs. Late last week, following criticism by MK Moshe Feiglin – whom he called out by name; and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein – who said Danino is “not suited” to give advice on issues related to the Temple Mount; Israel’s top cop doubled down, repeating his feelings about those MKs he believes are playing with fire on the Mount.

On the one hand, Feiglin and Edelstein are right; the responsibility for policy is with lawmakers, and it is up to police only to enforce the law. To police commanders like Danino, though, the issue of the Temple Mount isn’t only about what is within the confines of the law, but also who is responsible. After all, one could argue that the status quo shouldn’t be a suicide pact and that they shouldn’t ensure these visits continue, no matter the cost in public security.

In recent police efforts to stop the violence, they’ve been grasping at straws, proposing all types of plans and enacting policies – the end result of which we have no way of knowing at this point. Earlier in November, Aharonovitch lifted some of the regulations on firearm ownership, a move whose details are unclear and has the potential to create further public security problems down the road if the number of Israeli gun owners increases. They’ve proposed expanding the use of administrative detention, the holding of terror suspects without charge or trial, much like they did a year ago when Israeli mafiosos were killing each other repeatedly in public in Israeli cities.

In a sense, their grappling with the “lone wolf” terror attacks and the riots in Jerusalem and elsewhere is similar to their war on organized crime. At the peak of the mob wars last year, when a bomb exploded inside a car belonging to a Tel Aviv prosecutor (no one was harmed), Aharonovitch came to the scene and called for the use of administrative detention in the fight against organized crime. It was part of a package of measures that he and police commanders proposed, along with increased wire-tapping, looser restrictions on search and seizure, and sealing evidence in trials so they don’t have to reveal police informants in court. The message was clear: We have every intention of defeating organized crime, we just don’t have the tools or the law on our side. Also, as with the current wave of violence, no matter how much police are able to calm things down, it only takes one violent incident to inflame tensions across the Arab sector and the West Bank – just like sometimes you only need to miss one car bomb for the Israeli underworld to again go up in flames.

We see a similar voice coming out of national police headquarters in Jerusalem these days, in regard to what some are calling the third intifada. As opposed to organized crime, in this case they believe they have a single address to focus on, a single tinderbox that is kicking everything off – The Temple Mount. Police, like the Palestinians on the street, have been very clear about what they perceive as the cause of the violence.

They both say it’s al-Aksa Mosque, with their feeling being that Israelis coming after the mosque and looking to change the status quo are the reason behind the violence. The symmetry between the police and the Palestinians in this assessment is hard to miss.

Still, for Knesset Speaker Edelstein, it’s the law, the status quo and the politics that matter most. The Temple Mount may be the greatest example of a case where police are forced to deal with the fallout of political calculations of Israeli politicians, ones that don’t seem to take into account the warnings or suggestions of police – the very people responsible for picking up the pieces.

There’s a dual role played by police in the recent violence: They, along with the IDF, are part of the propaganda images that circulate across the Arab and Muslim world, especially of police storming the Temple Mount. At the same time as they are being used as symbols of oppression in the recent round of violence, they are also the body most committed to stopping it, the ones with the greatest interest in changing the right-wing policies and gestures by politicians who they feel are pouring gasoline on the fire.

In the recent bloodshed, two police officers have been killed – both of them Druse – one a Border Police officer, one a traffic cop. Both were killed at the scene of Palestinian terror attacks in Israel’s capital, and in the case of Zidan Saif, after rushing to the scene to face two terrorists on a killing spree. Cops like them are heroes of the Israeli people when they fall in the line of duty, when they put their lives on the line and never go home again. When their commanders – like Danino – speak up, however, they are to be seen and not heard, and by no means must they comment on what they think is driving the security situation they themselves must deal with.

At the end of the day, despite their warnings, police will continue to rush in to stop the riots at the Temple Mount, east Jerusalem, the Old City and beyond, with the full knowledge that their ability to control the situation is not entirely in their hands.