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Jewish holy sites under fire as ‘classical terrorism and political warfare’ collide

A Palestinian rioter raises his hands in a "V" for "victory" near the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Photo by Sliman Khader/Flash90.
A Palestinian rioter raises his hands in a "V" for "victory" near the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Photo by Sliman Khader/Flash90.

By Alex Traiman/

Operating on a parallel track to the wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians and security personnel, a physical and diplomatic war against Jewish holy sites is also underway.

Last week, a Palestinian resolution was passed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in a vote of 26-6 with 25 abstentions, to list two revered Jewish holy sites—the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and the tomb of the matriarch Rachel in Bethlehem—as Muslim holy sites. Jewish holy sites are also under siege physically, including the recent firebombing of Joseph’s Tomb.

“This ongoing assault is the merging of classical terrorism and political warfare,” said Dan Diker, director of the Political Warfare project at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) think tank.

The UNESCO bill, which also condemned Israel for archaeological excavations in the Old City of Jerusalem, was a watered-down version of an earlier bill that sought to officially claim that the Western Wall Plaza—the most heavily visited modern-day Jewish prayer site—is “an extension” of the Al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount compound. That language was roundly rejected by UNESCO and the international community.

“[The Palestinians] are trying to demoralize the Israeli public, first by fear of terror, and second by mobilizing the international community against the legitimacy of the Jewish state,” Diker told

For weeks, Palestinian leaders have alleged that the current wave of terror was sparked by Israeli violations of a longstanding and fragile status quo on the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Al-Aqsa Compound. The site is recognized by Jews and Muslims alike as the site of First and Second Jewish Temples.

Since the Six-Day War in 1967—in which Israel conquered the Temple Mount, only to return the site days later to a defeated Muslim custodianship—Jews have been permitted under Israeli law to visit Judaism’s holiest site, but are not permitted to pray there. Muslims are allowed to both gather and pray on the site. Palestinians contend that Israel seeks to revoke Muslim rights on the Temple Mount and permit Jews to pray there, with the intention of replacing Al-Aqsa with a third Jewish Temple.

While Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have continuously denied any change to the regulations and visitation patterns of Jews on the site, Palestinians have used Al-Aqsa as a rally cry to incite Arabs to violence against Israelis.

Before a recent trip to address the U.N. Security Council, Netanyahu stated, “Israel wants peace with the Palestinians, but regretfully lies continue to be spread about our policy towards the Temple Mount. Israel is maintaining the status quo. It is the Palestinians bringing weapons to the Temple Mount who are harming the site’s sanctity and disturbing the status quo.”

This week, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin stated at a joint press conference with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “The Temple Mount is held captive by people who want to ignite a religious war. Israel won’t let this happen, and won’t change even a single letter of the status quo.”

According to Diker, the narrative that Al-Aqsa is in danger has been used by Muslims as a “pretext to incite violence” against Jews for nearly a century.

“The ‘Al-Aqsa is in danger’ libel traces back to the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini.  This is the same Husseini who conspired with Hitler on the Final Solution,” Diker told  “He mobilized thousands of Arabs to the Temple Mount in the 1920s and ’30s using the Al-Aqsa Mosque as a staging ground for terror against the Jewish communities of that time.”

More recently, said Diker, “Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have adopted this rhetoric, and have used it regularly. In September 2000, Yasser Arafat rallied terrorists under the false claims that Al-Aqsa was in danger. They named their terror wave the Al-Aqsa Intifada. It’s the same libel.”

Earlier that same year, in July 2000 at the Camp David Summit, Arafat famously denied that any Jewish Temple ever stood at the Jerusalem complex—despite the fact that a guide to the Temple Mount published by the Supreme Muslim Council in 1925 (and again in subsequent years) states explicitly, “Its identity as the site of Solomon’s Temple is beyond dispute.”

“That was Arafat using Al-Aqsa to mobilize Muslims in Israel and throughout the Muslim world.  And today we are seeing the exact same thing,” Diker said. “Instead of condemning the Palestinian Authority for incitement to murder, the international community buys the current Islamic narrative….For decades, Arabs have used the Al-Aqsa mosque compound as a sanctuary for terror.”

While the Temple Mount has been at the epicenter of Arab terror and narrative warfare, other significant Jewish holy sites have been dragged into the militant and diplomatic assault. Over the past two weeks, nearly a dozen separate incidents have been recorded near the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron (the burial site of Jewish forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob); the tomb of the Jewish matriarch Rachel in Bethlehem; and the tomb of Joseph in Shechem. Attacks have included stabbings, firebombings, pipe-bombings, and an attempted lynch mob.

On a tour of Joseph’s Tomb following the recent firebombing attack there, Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel Yitzchak Yosef cited a verse from Psalms stating, “‘The nations came and desecrated your sanctuary.’” The chief rabbi himself added, “What was done here was quite simply the work of ISIS. The heart cannot grasp the evil.”

At the same time as the Jewish sites are being attacked by Palestinian rioters, the Palestinian Authority’s diplomatic team is trying to claim that the sites are part of Islamic heritage.

Harold Rhode—a retired adviser on Islamic affairs in the Office of Net Assessment at the U.S. Department of Defense, as well as the department’s former Turkish Desk Officer—suggests that the key to understanding these moves is wrapped up in the narrative.

“From an Islamic point of view, there is only one narrative. And it is the Islamic narrative,” Rhode told

According to Rhode, claims that Jewish holy sites such as Joseph’s and Rachel’s tombs also are holy to Muslims have no historical significance in Islam.

“The claims are invented in the battle to de-Judaify Israel,” Rhode said.

Rhode notes that Muslims have historically made claims on Christian and Jewish sites across the Middle East, including in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey.

“This is taking place all over the Middle East,” he said. “They take places holy to other religions and they Islamify them. The goal is to snuff out, slowly but surely any other religions.”

Rhode adds that Israel and other societies have difficulty coming to terms with false Muslim claims on other religions’ holy sites, as it would be uncommon for any Judeo-Christian society to manufacture such claims about another religion without historical basis.

“They are not using reason. They are using Islam. This is not right and wrong in the way Westerners would understand it. According to Muslims, if it advances Islam, it is right,” Rhode said.

That phenomenon is now taking hold in Israel, said JCPA’s Diker.

“It’s the total inversion of history to detach by force of terror, as well as by force of non-military means, any Jewish connection to Jewish holy sites in the land of Israel,” he said.

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