Repeated claims in recent weeks by Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas that Israel was attacking or otherwise threatening the Al Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount, and Abbas’s calls for Palestinians and other Muslims to take action to defend Al Aqsa and "purify" the Temple Mount, have been a key factor in the latest spate of deadly Arab assaults on Israelis.
Other PA officials have echoed and elaborated on Abbas’s message, with some calling explicitly for murdering Jews in response to supposed provocations against Al Aqsa. Palestinian Authority media have conveyed the same message, punctuated by cartoons depicting Jews attacking Al Aqsa and Palestinians defending it.
A number of those involved in the assaults against Jews in Jerusalem and elsewhere have asserted that they were acting in response to the calls of their leaders to protect Al-Aqsa.
The false claims of Jewish threats against or damage to Al Aqsa have a long pedigree. They have been made by Abbas many times in the past and were a staple of Yasser Arafat’s screeds against Israel and against Jews more generally. Arafat labeled the terror war he launched in 2000 the "Al Aqsa Intifada." He did so to cast the onslaught not as an aggressive campaign of mass murder of Israelis but as a struggle in defense of the Islamic holy site and to render the war not simply one of Palestinian pursuit of Israel’s destruction but as an Islamic fight against hostile, Al Aqsa-defiling non-believers.
But such anti-Jewish libels have a still older history, pre-dating Arafat, pre-dating Israel’s gaining control over the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967, even pre-dating Israel’s creation.
In 1929, during the British Mandate, the rabidly anti-Jewish, British appointed Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el-Husseini, claimed that Jews were threatening Al-Aqsa and sought to end Jewish prayer at the Western Wall (a Temple Mount retaining wall, which had become a place of Jewish prayer in the context of Jews being barred from ascending to the Temple Mount itself - the site of the First and Second Temples - for much of the preceding 2,000 years). According to the Mufti, the Western Wall was an Islamic holy place and Jewish prayer there was both an affront to Islam and a step towards Jewish attacks against Al-Aqsa. The Mufti is also reported to have distributed doctored photographs showing a damaged Al-Aqsa, with claims that the Jews were responsible.
The Mufti’s incitement was accompanied by calls for the murder of Jews as revenge. Ensuing attacks by Arab mobs in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Mandate territory resulted in the death of 133 Jews and major injury to over 200 others. The most severely affected community was that of Hebron, where 64 Jews were slaughtered and another 85 injured.
British authorities did virtually nothing to stop the attacks. They did evacuate the surviving Jews from Hebron. They also exonerated the Mufti from any responsibility for the murders and took almost no steps against those who actually carried out the carnage.
(Only in 1937,when The Mufti began to instigate attacks against British forces, did the authorities seek to arrest him. El-Husseini, however, escaped and fled the Mandate, eventually making his way to Berlin, where he spent much of World War II as Hitler’s guest. Among his activities while in Europe were recruiting Balkan Muslims and Muslims in Nazi-occupied Soviet territory to Nazi SS units and broadcasting in Arabic to the Middle East and north Africa calling on Arabs to support the Nazis and to destroy the Jews in their midst.)
Abbas has praised the Mufti as an inspiring hero of the Palestinian cause worthy of emulation.
In reality, far from threatening Al Aqsa, Israel has repeatedly bowed to Arab claims of exclusive rights on the Temple Mount. In the wake of Israel’s gaining control of the Old City and the Temple Mount in 1967, the Israelis, with then defense minister Moshe Dayan delineating the policy, granted the Muslim religious authority, the Waqf, control over the Temple Mount. Jews would be allowed access to the Mount but forbidden to pray there. Christians and other non-Muslims would also be allowed access. The Israel Antiquities Authority was to oversee any construction or other physical changes on the Mount that would have an impact on this most sensitive of archaeological sites.
The prohibition of Jewish prayer on the Mount has been strictly enforced by Israeli governments. While there is increasing support among Israelis for a small area of the Mount - far from Al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock - to be set aside for Jewish prayer, no such arrangement has won government backing. Furthermore, Jewish and other non-Muslim visitors to the Temple Mount have commonly been harassed by Waqf guards and other Muslims, and Israeli officials have responded typically not by countering such harassment but by restricting non-Muslim access.
Also, particularly between 1999 and 2001, the Waqf, in the context of establishing and expanding additional places of Muslim worship on the Mount and seeking to destroy evidence of historic Jewish (and Christian) connection to the Mount, brought heavy earth-moving equipment onto the Mount and dug up and hauled away thousands of tons of material. This material contained the remains of structures and other relics from pre-Muslim epochs, most notably from the First and Second Temple periods. In the context of any archaeological excavation of such a sensitive and historically rich site, the work would have been approached with archaeologists’ hand trowels and brushes. Yet the Israeli government - led for most of this period by Ehud Barak - did nothing to block this desecration of the Temple Mount, and the Israel Antiquities Authority likewise did nothing. A broad coalition of Israelis, drawn from across the nation’s political and religious spectra and including such luminaries as Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, formed "The Council for the Prevention of Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount" and urged the Barak government to stop the desecration, but to little avail.
So the Al Aqsa libel stands truth on its head: Muslim supremacism on the Temple Mount has not only been maintained since Israel gained control of the Old City, but has been expanded through aggressive Muslim actions and general Israeli acquiescence.
Bur the anti-Jewish libel lives on, because it, and the violence it generates, serve its purveyors. Abbas uses it to build up his own anti-Israel and anti-Jewish bonafides against the popularity of Hamas among Palestinians. He also employs it to draw wider Arab attention away from the bloody chaos enveloping much of the Arab world, chaos that has led some Arab leaders to at least temporarily relate to Israel as an ally confronting shared threats. Abbas seeks to resurrect the focusing of Arab enmity on Israel.
Abbas is also using the Al Aqsa libel and the accompanying bloodletting to advance his pursuit of UN and European "recognition" and international pressure on Israel for unilateral concessions, particularly withdrawal to the indefensible pre-1967 armistice lines. Abbas, like Arafat before him, seeks to achieve Israeli withdrawal while avoiding any bilateral agreement with Israel that would entail formal acceptance of Israel’s legitimacy within any borders.
The Grand Mufti’s Al Aqsa libel and his incitement to the murder of Jews ultimately served him well. An investigating commission sent from London found the Arabs fully responsible for the bloodshed but then recommended steps be taken against the Jews so as to assuage Arab hostility, steps that violated Britain’s obligations to the Jewish community under the terms of its League of Nations mandate.
European and some American media coverage of the recent violence, and the reactions of United Nations officials, various European governments and, with rare exception, the Obama administration, downplay or ignore entirely Abbas’s cynical use of the libel and incitement of murderous violence. Some distort the realities surrounding the violence into an indictment of Israel. And so again the libel and its murderous fallout redound to the perpetrator’s gain.
Kenneth Levin is a psychiatrist and historian and author of The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People under Siege.