Tensions Simmer, Hamas Makes Threats As Obama’s Israel Visit Approaches
Jerusalem’s Temple Mount is not included on the tentative itinerary for the March 20-22 presidential visit released by the Israeli government, but that has not stopped radical groups from warning that if Obama does enter the site it would be a “declaration of war on the Muslim world” and trigger a third Palestinian intifada (uprising).
Hamas official Musheer al Masri made the threat during a demonstration in Gaza City on Friday, according to a report on the Hamas news website, Al-Resalah.
The warning were echoed by Khalid al-Batash, a leader of a smaller terrorist group, Islamic Jihad.
The Temple Mount, location of the biblical temples built by Solomon and Herod, is the most-revered site in Judaism, while Muslims regard the al-Aqsa mosque located there as Islam’s third-holiest site, after Mecca and Medina. Although under Israeli sovereignty the area is administered by a Muslim authority, the Waqf.
The small site at the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City is arguably the most hotly-contested in the broader Arab-Israeli conflict, and rumors in Palestinian media that the American president intended to visit were highly speculative.
(A visit to the Temple Mount in 2000 by Israel’s then opposition leader Ariel Sharon was attributed by Palestinians as the spark for the second intifada – years of suicide bombings, shooting and other attacks that cost more than 1,000 Israeli lives, while more than 4,000 Palestinians were killed. Israel said Sharon’s visit was used as a pretext for pre-planned outbreak of violence.)
According to the tentative itinerary for Obama’s visit, he will hold talks in Jerusalem with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres; tour the Israel Museum, home to the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial; and visit the graves of Zionist pioneer Theodor Herzl and Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who was assassinated in 1995.
The itinerary also includes a reference to a visit to the Palestinian Authority, no details given, but press reports indicate that Obama will visit Ramallah, where P.A. chairman Mahmoud Abbas is based, and Bethlehem. (President Bush visited Ramallah and Bethlehem during his visit in January 2008.)
The White House has yet to release its program for the visit to Israel, the P.A. areas and Jordan. Press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday he was unable to give specific details, although a briefing would be given “prior to the trip.”
For Hamas, the notion of Obama visiting Israel’s disputed capital at all is unacceptable.
Its mouthpiece, Al-Resalah, quoted Hamas spokesman Salah Al Bardawil as calling it a “very serious disaster” that would “legitimize the judaization of Jerusalem.”
Meanwhile tensions continue to simmer in some parts of the disputed territories as the visit draws closer.
A Palestinian was killed and two others wounded in clashes with Israeli security forces near Hebron on Tuesday night. The Israeli army said they took place after Palestinians began throwing petrol-bombs at Israeli vehicles.
On Friday, clashes occurred on the Temple Mount. with Muslims throwing rocks at police and police responding with stun grenades. Police said nine officers and five protesters were injured.
On Monday, an activist group called “Palestinians for Dignity” called for protests during Obama’s visit, saying that it was “naïve to presume that U.S. policy toward Israel has changed since Obama took office.”
According to the Palestinian news agency Wafa, the group also criticized the P.A. for planning to receive Obama in Ramallah rather than Jerusalem – despite the fact that the P.A. views Jerusalem as “the capital of Palestine.”
In comments possibly intended to respond to that criticism, P.A. foreign minister Riad al-Malki told Palestinian National Radio Tuesday that “Jerusalem is occupied Palestinian land and so any visit there should be coordinated with the Palestinian side with Palestinian presence and participation.”
Israel’s public security minister, Yitzhak Aharonovich, has warned that there would likely be an uptick of violence in the coming days, as some Palestinians try to “take advantage” of the presidential visit.