“I don’t know anymore who is right and who is wrong.” I was talking with a Palestinian man from Jerusalem, about a confrontation between Palestinian Muslim protesters and Israeli police taking place less than a mile away. The man was in his forties and Armenian Orthodox. He was the owner of a high-end antique store. He seemed naturally impish, but the violence had exasperated him, and he didn’t want to talk politics. He offered me a cigarette, and showed me a funny picture on his phone. I pointed out that his shop sells gold and silver menoras. He tensed up. “Jewish is human, Arab is human, we are human, we wear the same shoes.”
His comment expressed the frustration of many Christians in Jerusalem. This past summer they once again found themselves caught between camps in a religiously charged standoff in the Holy City. It began on Friday, July 14, with a shooting on the Holy Esplanade (or Temple Mount), which is sacred to Jews as the historical site of the First and Second Temple, and to Muslims as the site of Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Three Israeli-Arab gunmen ascended the Esplanade looking to kill Israeli police: two policemen died, two were injured.
But the crisis that followed was less the result of the shooting itself than of the Israeli reaction to it, which provoked organized Palestinian resistance. Following the shootings, Israeli forces closed the Esplanade until Sunday, and raided Al Aqsa, where the shooters were alleged to have stored weapons. The following day Israeli police installed metal detectors outside two entrances to the Esplanade. Palestinians saw this as an affront to Islamic sovereignty over the Esplanade. Since the Six Day War in 1967, when Israel took over the Old City of Jerusalem, Muslims have continued to control the Esplanade through the Jordanian Islamic Waqf—a religious trust that has overseen the site for over a century. The metal detectors had been installed without consultation with the Waqf.
For almost two weeks, Muslims refused to pass through the metal detectors to enter Al Aqsa for daily prayers. Instead, outside the entrances to the Esplanade, hundreds of Muslims congregated to pray twice a day in a series of protest liturgies that often descended into clashes with police.
Neither local Christians nor Christian pilgrims from abroad could ignore these events. Lion’s Gate, one of the entrances to the Esplanade, opens onto a road in the Old City that local Christians know as Via Dolorosa—the path Christ took to his Crucifixion on Golgotha. The protests occurred a few yards from the First Station of the Cross (now inside an Islamic school), the Franciscan Monastery of the Flagellation, the Church of the Condemnation, and several other important Christian sites. Lion’s Gate is also used by Christians leaving the Old City to go to the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, and the Chapel of the Ascension.
By the end of what came to be called the “Temple Mount Crisis,” fifteen people had died. Among the dead were Palestinians mortally wounded during protests and three members of a Jewish family murdered in the West Bank by a young Palestinian who claimed to answer “the call of Al Aqsa.” More than a hundred people were injured, most of them Palestinians. The standoff finally ended when the Israeli government removed the metal detectors on July 25.