When “Alternative Facts” Kill

What sense can we make of the recent crisis at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem? It began on 14 July when, having smuggled automatic weapons into Al-Aqsa mosque, terrorists emerged from what is frequently called “the third holiest site in Islam,” and killed two Israeli security guards. Far from oppressing anybody, at least one of the guards (also Arabs, Israeli Druze), had their backs turned to the killers because they were protecting the Muslims inside the Mosque. But when the Israeli government, deeply shaken by this egregious act of violence so close to the Holy Sanctuary, erected metal detectors to prevent any further killings, the roof of the world fell in on… Israel’s head.

As David Horovitz, editor of centrist newspaper The Times of Israel, said: “To put it really crudely...Arabs killed Arabs at a holy place, the Jews are trying to ensure that it doesn’t happen again, and the Arab world is furious with the Jews about it.”

It is impossible to explain that misdirected fury without understanding that alongside the facts—that Israel has protected access to the Holy Places of the three major religions in Jerusalem for 50 years and has absolutely no intention of changing the status quo on the Temple Mount on which Al-Aqsa sits —there were what we now call the “alternative facts,” in this case, long-standing and outlandish claims about a devilish Jewish plot to destroy the Al-Aqsa mosque. 

Only in the lurid light cast by those “alternative facts” was the installation of metal detectors after a double murder—measures long in place at Mecca and the Western Wall by the way—able to cause such fury.

Fatah’s Facebook page screamed “Allah, liberate our mosque from the occupation's filth" while the official PA daily, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida quoted the [PA] Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah’s attack on “an Israeli plan that is targeting the identity, heritage, and faith of the Palestinians in Jerusalem.” The Ramallah and El-Bireh District Governor Laila Ghannam posted “O Allah, Master of the Universe, we ask of You to guard Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque from evil ... grant us the prayer of the conquerors, or Martyrdom-death (Shahada) at its threshold.”

Conspiracism and hysteria about Al-Aqsa has been rife since the late 1920s. Today, the “Inciter-in-Chief” (as the former Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe Arens has dubbed him) is Sheikh Raed Saleh, leader of the Northern branch of the Islamic Movement. In 2016 Salah warned, as he does every year, that "al-Aqsa mosque is in danger," because "the occupation is … digging beneath al-Aqsa”. Above ground, the Israelis are engaged in the “daily Jewish storming of the mosque, the expelling of young Muslims stationed in al-Aqsa to protect the mosque and the propaganda according to which Israel should impose its sovereignty on Temple Mount."

Panic about these non-existent threats to Al Aqsa (which is often cast as a violated woman whose honor must be restored by violent revenge) went viral on Palestinian social media and this was a factor in the so-called stabbing intifada of 2015-16. Writing about this in Fathom the Israeli journalist Elhanan Miller cited the case of Mohannad Halabi, a law student at al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, who wrote on Facebook shortly before killing Nehemia Lavi and Aharon Bennett, that “what is happening to the women of al-Aqsa and to al-Aqsa will not be stopped through peaceful measures.”

The radicalized Palestinian teenager Omar al-Abed slaughtered three Israelis at their Shabat dinner on 21 July because he thought the Jews “desecrate the Al-Aqsa mosque and we sleep.”

In the two weeks of the crisis some Muslim leaders dipped their pens in the blood. The Speaker of the Jordanian Parliament, Ataf Tarawneh, was condemned by Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein after he called the 14 July attackers “martyrs,” saying “Their blood watered the pure land.”

Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan claimed that Israel was “using the fight against terrorism as a pretext to take al-Aqsa Mosque from the hands of Muslims. There is no other explanation.” Israeli soldiers “carelessly pollute the grounds of Al-Aqsa with their combat boots,” he complained, “by using simple issues as a pretext and then easily spill blood there.”

Everyone loses when these demonizing narratives are allowed to take hold. Since the 14 July attack, six Palestinians, five Israelis, and the three residents of the Israeli Arab town of Umm al-Fahm who carried out the attack have died.

Calm was restored on the Temple Mount only because Israel removed every single security measure. But that is no answer because, as Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams famously told the Nationalist people about the IRA, those who would again bring murder to the Temple Mount “haven’t gone away, you know?” Those who worship at Al Aqsa, and those who protect the worshippers, need a very different kind of conversation about security at Al Aqsa, and they need it quickly. Because the “alternative facts” are killing people. And next time they might kill an awful lot more.

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