‘Jerusalem Is Not the Explosive Device—It’s the Detonator’

December 6, 2017

President Trump’s announcement on the status of the holy city may be perceived as a threat to sacred space—and could spark a crisis across the Middle East.

Even before reports suggested President Trump will declare that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and eventually move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, officials were predicting that the announcement would create chaos. By predetermining the final status of Jerusalem, Trump’s announcement would derail any hope for an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and spark violent protests across the Middle East.

Foreign leaders from across the Arab world have been warning the Trump administration of the potential for violence. King Abdullah II of Jordan, which has custodianship of Christian and Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, told U.S. lawmakers that the move could be exploited by terrorists to stoke anger in the region. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to cut diplomatic ties with Israel if the U.S. moves its embassy, and Saudi Arabia also condemned the plan. Saeb Erekat, the general secretary of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, said the move would “promote international anarchy and disrespect for global institutions and law.”

But for all the warnings that Trump’s embassy announcement could cause unrest, the biggest drivers of violence are actually threats to Jerusalem’s holy sites, said Daniel Seidemann, a left-wing attorney who runs the NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem, which maps developments in the city. While he believes there’s a possibility of mass demonstrations and violence in the broader Arab world, “the threat that this is going to cause an explosion and a bloodbath on the streets of Jerusalem is misplaced,” he said. “Jerusalem is not usually the explosive device. It’s usually the detonator. There is almost invariably one thing, and one thing only, that creates that spark, and that is the real or perceived threat to sacred space.”

When Jews all over the world pray, they face Israel. Those in Israel face Jerusalem, and those in Jerusalem face the Temple Mount, the site of Judaism’s two ancient sanctuaries, which once stood on the same patch of land now occupied by the Al-Aqsa mosque. “This is all because we believe this is our capital,” said Arieh King, a right-wing member of Jerusalem’s City Council. “For the Orthodox Jew like me, Jerusalem is not just a place to live. It’s a way that you live. It’s in a place close to where everything important of our history happened … also in the future, [where] we believe the third Temple will be built.”

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