The “al-Aqsa Crisis” was the name given my media outlets to the July 2017 situation in Jerusalem. Everyone in the city and throughout the Middle East knew something significant was happening, but it was difficult to pin down exactly what that something was. Not for the first time in the history of Jerusalem, the crisis was centered on the Abrahamic holy site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as either Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) or, more simply, al-Aqsa Mosque.
On the morning of Friday, July 14, two Israeli Druze police officers were shot and killed by Israeli Palestinian citizens at a main entrance gate to the Mosque compound. The attackers then retreated back into the compound, where they were pursued and killed by other Israeli police.
Shortly afterwards, Israeli Security Forces announced that al-Aqsa would be closed for investigation, thus disrupting Friday prayers (Salāt al-jum’ah). During the closure, Israel began unilaterally installing security measures, including metal detectors and cameras.
When Israel reopened the site, local Muslims refused to enter, saying that unilaterally installed security measures were a violation of the historic Status Quo governing the holy sites of Jerusalem. The Waqf (the Islamic trust that operates under Jordanian auspices as the custodian of the site) instead urged Muslims to pray on the streets around Al-Aqsa.
Prayers were not held in al-Aqsa for two Fridays in a row. While Israel’s closure of the Holy Esplanade for Friday prayers had not happened since 1969, the two-week closure had not occurred since the Crusades. The significance of these developments weighed heavily on predominantly Muslim East Jerusalem and attracted the attention of Muslims throughout the region.
Throughout this period, many other incidents intensified the sense of crisis. Several Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces and armed settlers. One Palestinian entered a West Bank settlement and stabbed to death three members of one family enjoying a Shabbat meal.
Soon after, the crisis was further regionalized when a guard at the Israeli Embassy in Amman, Jordan, shot and killed two Jordanian citizens. The resolution to the crisis involved intensive shuttle diplomacy by American negotiators, involvement from the leaders of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, and Israel’s eventual decision to remove the metal detectors from the site. The crisis was finally capped off with Jordanian King Abdullah’s August 8 visit to Ramallah for meetings with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas.
These headline-grabbing developments overshadowed the local reality in Jerusalem: that for two weeks in a row, tens of thousands of Palestinian Muslims engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience by praying in the streets of Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem rather than entering the mosque, an act of civil disobedience in rejection of Israeli actions.
Since its beginning, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a struggle over sovereignty, a struggle over control of territory. The year 2017 is the anniversary for the struggle, which has been ongoing for at least 50 years (since Israel’s June 1967 occupation of the Old City) or 100 years (since the Balfour Declaration was issued to Lord Rothschild).
Throughout this century-long struggle, al-Aqsa has been at the center. Nevertheless, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has most often been approached as a political struggle between Jewish and Palestinian nationalisms. This July 2017 crisis marks a turning-point in which the Palestinian struggle for sovereignty became both national and religious.
The Perennial Max Weber
The ideas of German sociologist and philosopher, Max Weber (1864–1920) are still relevant for untangling the relationship between the state and religion. As collected in his Essays on Sociology, Weber defined the state as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” (78) This basic understanding informs official Israeli policy, both domestic and foreign.
Immediately following this definition, Weber explores why people “obey the authority claimed by the powers that be…. Upon what inner justifications and upon what external means does this domination rest?” He begins with three “inner justifications” or “basic legitimations of domination.” (78)
While Weber touches on the reality of a state’s maintaining “dominion by force,” he likely could not have imagined the situation in East Jerusalem, where the State of Israel annexed territory to itself in 1967 without extending citizenship to the people living in that territory, preferring instead to treat them as “permanent residents.” Such a population has little “inner justification” for compliance with Israel as a hostile occupying power.
Weber’s reflections on the relationship between religion and state help get to the heart of the July 2017 al-Aqsa crisis. In a separate essay, Weber again returns to the management of violence: “It is absolutely essential for every political association to appeal to the naked violence of coercive means in the face of outsiders as well as in the face of internal enemies. It is only this very appeal to violence that constitutes a political association in our terminology. The state is an association that claims the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, and cannot be defined in any other manner.” (334)
Because of its “depersonalization,” the inner logic of the “bureaucratic state” can be incomprehensible to citizens as much as to non-citizens; the state’s “political functions, of justice and administration” are mystified behind “the objective pragmatism of ‘reasons of state’” (most often signified by official Israel as “security reasons”). Nevertheless, Weber asserts, the state’s “absolute end is to safeguard (or to change) the external and internal distribution of power.”
The state’s claim on legitimate coercion is absolute. Given this totalizing claim, the state’s monopoly on coercion and violence, Weber says, “must seem meaningless to any universalist religion of salvation.” Any conflict with the state is thus necessarily a conflict over power and territory, a struggle over sovereignty. The al-Aqsa crisis helps demonstrate that religiously-motivated confrontation with a state involves religious assertions of sovereignty, a threat to the essence of the state itself.
Israeli State Security Logic
This Weberian understanding of the state helps us understand some of the dynamics present in the al-Aqsa crisis. First, on a fully ‘secular’ basis, the State of Israel sought to respond to the initial security incident—a disordered use of violence against agents of the state by its own citizens—by asserting its monopoly on the use of physical force within territory it claims for itself. Closing al-Aqsa to prayers on that first Friday was an assertion of Israeli sovereignty, but one with immediate religious implications.
Israeli sovereignty in East Jerusalem is not total. In order to not inflame the passions and potential violence of the entire Islamic world, Israeli military and political leaders decided in June 1967 to respect Jordanian custodianship of the Haram al-Sharif / Temple Mount. The site is governed by an Ottoman-era “Status Quo” established originally to regulate the relation of various Christian denominations to various Christian holy sites. This pragmatic decision—supported with religious legitimation from Israel’s government-appointed Chief Rabbis—is a self-imposed limit on Israeli sovereignty.
Such “reasons of state” are not immediately comprehensible to citizens of a state; for citizens steeped in “basic legitimations of domination” (an outcome of mandatory military service), any hint of limitation on state sovereignty is a step too far.
In the face of Palestinian nationalist and Islamic religious claims on al-Aqsa, Israeli public figures doubled down on assertions of sovereignty over the Temple Mount. The Israeli security cabinet dismissed Palestinian rejections of the metal detectors, solidifying their place as symbols of this crisis.
When the Israeli Cabinet finally voted to remove the metal detectors and other measures, politician Naftali Bennett interpreted Palestinian actions as a threat to recognition of Israel’s claims on the Temple Mount. “Israel comes out weakened from this crisis,” Bennett said. “Instead of sending a message about Israel’s sovereignty on the Temple Mount, it sent a message that Israel’s sovereignty can be questioned.” Apart from the obvious legal questions surrounding Israel’s acquisition of East Jerusalem by war in 1967, the crisis showed other challenges to Israel sovereignty as well.
Toward the end of the crisis, Jerusalem Police Chief Yoram Halevi reiterated concerns for the perception of Israeli sovereignty and, in Weberian fashion, promised a display of raw power for people who disrupted that perception. “If,” he said, “there are people who try tomorrow to disturb the peace, to harm police or citizens, they should not be surprised: There will be casualties and people injured.”
This threat of violence is part and parcel of the state’s claim to the monopoly on violence, the chief expression of sovereignty: “Those who tried to claim differently should know there is Israeli sovereignty on the Mount,” he said. “This is a place that we will protect under all circumstances, at any stage, in any situation.”
Palestinians without Israeli citizenship—such as those in East Jerusalem (with permanent residency that can be revoked for reasons of state) and those in the West Bank and Gaza (living under direct military occupation)—cannot approach the State of Israel as anything but a monolith of violence intending their subjugation. This is a stance borne of experience rather than Weberian theory.
With no state of their own (controlling no territory with no hope of a monopoly on violence), Palestinians political resources for achieving sovereignty are limited. In the political sphere, they can appeal only to other states or super-state structures such as the United Nations.
Having faced decades of Israeli and international efforts to thwart their political possibilities, many Palestinians have located their hopes in the sphere of civil society, including religion. The al-Aqsa crisis provided a unique opportunity within the Palestinian national struggle for self-determination and sovereignty to be energized by an explicitly religious impulse. As such, this crisis marks a turning-point for Palestinian popular resistance not just to Israel but to the concept of the state itself.
Palestinian National-Religious Logic
When the people finally returned to al-Aqsa for prayer on the afternoon of July 27, a Weberian algorithm could have predicted what happened: Palestinian jubilation was met immediately with Israeli police violence. Unprovoked, Israeli police lobbed concussion grenades into an enclosed crowd waiting to enter the gates; the police then stormed and reoccupied the Haram al-Sharif, their Temple Mount. The first order of business was to remove the Palestinian flag that had been mounted on the top of Al-Aqsa.
The police violence occurred within a context of nearly continual mass nonviolent protests by Palestinians over the previous two weeks. While there had been some instances of violence committed by Palestinians within the time of the crisis, including an attack on a Jewish family in the West Bank settlement of Halamish, Palestinian resistance was primarily characterized by praying in the streets leading to al-Aqsa, both inside the Old City and in the surrounding areas of East Jerusalem. This highly disciplined, nonviolent movement, largely missed or ignored by Israeli and international media, embodied the religious response to the al-Aqsa crisis.
The mass nonviolent demonstrations were the voice of the people, primarily Muslim Palestinian Jerusalemites. When Islamic leaders entered al-Aqsa when it was first partially reopened by Israeli authorities, they realized they were alone in the space as their people waited outside. The leaders—from the Waqf and the Sharia courts—quickly left the compound to join the people, their legitimacy at risk. The people, unwilling to cross the metal detectors, directed their leaders in how to respond to the situation.
This first manifestation of popular civil disobedience, a sign that “basic legitimations of domination” were not holding, was directed not just at Israel but at the Islamic authorities as well. In response to the demands of their people, the Islamic leaders of Jerusalem called for area mosques to be closed that coming Friday to encourage people to join prayer on the streets leading toward al-Aqsa.
The lesson here is that just because Israel opens the space does not mean it was legitimately open to the people, on the terms of the status quo. From that point on, religious motivations would inform this latest manifestation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was not until Israeli politicians relented and removed the metal detectors that it was clear this religious approach would secure a victory.
Mass nonviolence upends the raison d’être of the state itself. Refusal to participate in the violence claimed by the state changes the rules of the game. In the specific case of Palestinian resistance to the State of Israel, mass Palestinian nonviolence delegitimizes the racialized tropes that Islam is inherently violent and that the only language Palestinians understand is force.
Mass Palestinian nonviolent resistance — evidenced by tens of thousands of Palestinians joining highly disciplined, nonviolent, prayerful action on the streets of occupied East Jerusalem — demonstrated that the opposite is true: it is the state that only understands the language of violence and force. Any other response to the state throws the state into disarray.
Palestinian Christian participation in these mass nonviolent, prayerful demonstrations demonstrates the blend of religious and nationalist motivations on the Palestinian side of the al-Aqsa crisis. One of the early “viral” images from prayers on the streets showed a young Christian man—wearing a rosary and holding a Bible—standing in a line of Muslims prostrating themselves in prayer. This was a potent symbol of potentially costly Christian solidarity with Muslim neighbors.
On July 27, as the al-Aqsa gates were finally opened, several prominent Christian leaders, many of them associated with the Kairos Palestine movement, entered as a group. While they were there to demonstrate a Palestinian national bond that transcends religious affiliation, the group also was motivated by specific church interests: the Status Quo that prompted Israeli defenses of its questionable sovereignty and prompted Muslim religious protections of a significant holy site also protects church properties from state domination. These Christian leaders visited al-Aqsa to assert their sovereign claims as well.
Religiously-motivated Palestinian mass nonviolent resistance shook state logic to its core. This religious challenge to the state did not affect Israel alone. Even when the Waqf declared the site open and Muslims streamed in for prayer, the regional leaders who had negotiated the deal—Kings of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, along with the military dictator of Egypt—were met with chants of derision.
In that moment, it was not just the Jewish state, but the regional community of states and their balance of interests,along with the hegemonic logic of American empire, that was called to account. The people had spoken through prayer, that most religious of expressions. Finally, when the Holy Esplanade was declared open (first by Israel and then by the Waqf) it was the people who ratified the decision by entering the mosque for prayer.
According to Weber, “The state’s absolute end is to safeguard (or to change) the external and internal distribution of power; ultimately, this end must seem meaningless to any universalist religion of salvation.” In the al-Aqsa crisis of July 2017, the “universalist religion of salvation” known as Islam, with a strong supporting role from Christianity, openly declared the state meaningless. Remarkably, religiously-informed resistance to the state won this particular battle in what has been a decades-long war.
The validation of religion as an effective component of resistance to state domination again changes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Religion has always been a potential component. Now, with this clear victory, religion will not likely shrink from the scene. While the conflict will continue to be about national self-determination and sovereignty, religion now has an undeniable role.
Because they were manifested in mass nonviolent protest, these religious claims demonstrated their ability to disrupt the essence and legitimacy of the state itself. If a state as powerful as Israel is susceptible to this dynamic, the 21st Century may be in for some very interesting theopolitical developments.
The geographic area known various as al-Aqsa / Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif is one of the most contentious and therefore potent religious sites on the planet, sacred to nearly 4 billion people, over half of humanity. The State of Israel has the unenviable responsibility of having this site under its control, if not absolute sovereignty.
As much as Israel factors religious claims into its models of governance and security, it does so from a distinctively ethnocentric perspective, thus structurally underestimating the real challenges of religious (specifically Islamic) claims to its sovereignty. Even then, a significant number of religious Jews view the State of Israel has a mere means to a religious end. Religion will continue to present internal and external challenges to the State of Israel, each of them in their own way seeking to render state power and authority “meaningless” in any ultimate sense.
The July 2017 al-Aqsa crisis was a significant moment where religion came into conflict with the state, and religion won. The next phase of this trajectory will be determined by the creativity of religious actors; the state is stuck in its violence. While any return to violence, even tied to religious motivations, feeds the logic of the state and its sovereignty, continued mass nonviolent resistance—motivated by religious commitments—promises to be effective since it erodes the legitimacy of the state itself.
Robert O. Smith is Director of the University of Notre Dame’s Jerusalem Global Gateway. He holds concurrent faculty appointments in the Keough School of Global Affairs and in the Department of Theology. He is a Citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and , Smith is author of More Desired than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism (Oxford, 2013) and editor, with Swedish scholar Göran Gunner, of Comprehending Christian Zionism: Perspectives in Comparison (Fortress, 2014). He is a Co-Moderator of the World Council of Churches’ Palestine-Israel Ecumenical Forum.
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