AsOperation Pillar of Defense continues to escalate we have now witnessed a potential game-changer in Hamas’s methods. After years of pounding southern Israel, for the first time, Hamas rockets are now aimed at Jerusalem and its surrounding neighborhoods. This begs the question, just how holy is Jerusalem to the Islamic faith?
Sunni groups like Hamas, the Al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and alQaeda, and Shia Hizballah, all operate against Israel on the basis of shared Islamist doctrine. An integral part of this is declaring jihad to liberate Jerusalem from its occupiers. Radical Islam expert Emmanuel Sivan quotes one of Anwar Sadat’s killers, Abd al-Salam Faraj, as saying, “there are some who say that the jihad efforts should concentrate nowadays upon the liberation of Jerusalem. It is true that the liberation of the Holy Land is a legal precept binding upon every Muslim…but let us emphasize that the fight against the enemy nearest to you [Israelis] has precedence over the enemy farther away.”
A Jewish governed Jerusalem may thus be holy to the Islamic faith at large, but while under “occupation” by a hated enemy even it may be targeted for the purposes of liberation.
In term of the quest of a two state solution, both Israelis and Palestinians see Jerusalem as their nations’ legal and religious capital. But in the manner in which Muslims treat Jerusalem shows the inextricably bound up nature of religion and politics.
The uniqueness of Jerusalem as the eternal capital for Israelis and Palestinians demands explanation. Jews have remained loyal to Jerusalem for over three thousand years, when King David made her the capital of his kingdom and home to the Temple. During two millennia of exile Jews looked to Jerusalem as the focal point for their enduring relationship with God. Religious yearning was practically separated from political possibility, and it was not until the 19th century that a large-scale Jewish return to the land and to Jerusalem was realized.
Jerusalem, on the other hand, is not mentioned once in the Qur’an, and there is no explicit connection between the city and Muhammad’s life. The location of the “farthest mosque”, which he visited on the flying steed Al-Buraq, was not specified in the Qur’an but only later when Jerusalem was already under Muslim control. Muslim tradition preserves the idea that the earliest mosques originally faced Jerusalem not Mecca, but that Muhammad himself changed this. Still, the 7th century Al-Aqsa mosque was built atop an earlier Christian church, which in stood astride a Roman temple, all of which stood on the platform built by king Herod to house the second Jewish temple, which itself replaced the temple of Solomon, built around 900 BCE.
The Muslim connection is thus chronologically later than those of its predecessors. Muslim interest in Jerusalem has also fluctuated over the centuries, always as a result of politics. Though early Muslims regarded Jerusalem as one of three sacred cities, after Mecca and Medina, the 14th century legal scholar Ibn Taymiyya downgraded the sanctity of Jerusalem, pointing to the Caliph Abd al-Malik’s political efforts to elevate Jerusalem over Mecca as the primary Muslim pilgrimage site. Jerusalem’s significance for Muslims fell and was resurrected only when it was used as a rallying call by Saladin, who wrested it back from the Crusaders.
The pattern of Jerusalem being promoted to a central place in the Muslim psyche only when it was fully or partially under the control of non-Muslims persists until today. The vociferous calls for Jerusalem’s liberation, and denials that there were ever Jewish temples or even any Jewish connections to the city at all, began after the 1967 and intensified during the 1990s. Jerusalem’s liberation has now been elevated to the level of a global Islamic imperative.
Though Israel controls Jerusalem, sensitivity regarding the city’s Muslim heritage has always been high. Moshe Dayan, Minister of Defense during the Six Day War, foresaw the delicacy of the situation when Israel was in the process of capturing the city from the Jordanian Legion. In order not to create an international crisis, Dayan made it clear that the army would not attack the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and immediately returned the keys to the Temple Mount to the Muslim authorities. After the war, it was Dayan who removed the barbed wire, the minefields, and the walls that divided Jerusalem in order to give each holy place the dignity it deserved. Israel opened the places sacred to Muslims, Christians and Jews hoping that by exhibiting respect Muslims would reciprocate, thereby creating a basis for the city’s unification.
The results of these and later policies have been mixed. Israel has presided over the immense growth of Jerusalem, including its Arab neighborhoods, which have grown faster than Jewish ones. But with this has come the growing radicalization of the global Islamic community over Jerusalem, which has now culminated in Hamas’ rocket attacks against the city. Everything that is under Jewish control, including Islam’s third holiest city and its Muslim residents, are in the crosshairs. In the end it is theology, not land, that is the largest obstacle to peace.
Asaf Romirowsky an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Forum and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Alex Joffe is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum.