The clashes witnessed atop the Temple Mount this week as the Jews’ mourning day of Tisha B’Av coincided with the start of the Muslims’ festival of Eid al-Adha were a reminder of how explosive the holy site remains.
The Palestinian leadership needed no reminding. For the past several years, amid waning interest in the “two-state solution,” Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has been trying to reignite the situation primarily by issuing urgent warnings that Israel plans to divide the sacred plateau in preparation for rebuilding the Jewish Temple. These belligerent statements, combined with ongoing institutionalized incitement, have resulted in numerous acts of violence and terror.
But Abbas is reading from an old playbook. The alleged conspiracy of the Jews against the Al Aqsa Mosque was first utilized a century ago by the Nazi-affiliated Palestinian Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini.
In fact, it was al-Husseini’s goal to expel the Jews from Palestine and to prevent any more from arriving. But conventional methods were ineffective in the face of waves of incoming Jewish immigrants and initial British support for the Zionist movement. At the time, the Mufti’s power was weak, and those loyal to him were in the minority. The surrounding Arab countries were still too preoccupied with their own problems following independence from the colonial powers. The Mufti knew he had to do something dramatic to catch the attention of and mobilize the Arab and Muslim world to aid his cause.
To accomplish this, the Mufti sought to convince the Arab world that the Jews intended to demolish the Al Aqsa Mosque and replace the Dome of the Rock with the Third Temple. “Palestine does not satisfy the Jews, because their goal is to take control of the rest of the Arab countries, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, and even the Khyber region in Saudi Arabia on the pretext that this was the homeland of the Jewish tribes in the seventh century,” al-Husseini repeated to as many Arabs as would listen.
By the late 1920s, clashes between Jews and Arabs near the Western Wall had increased greatly. On September 23 and 24, 1928, rioting Arabs attacked Jewish worshippers on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. The Mufti took advantage of the riots, claiming that the Jews were trying to seize control of the Temple Mount. He presented the British authorities with what he insisted was conclusive evidence that the Jews were trying to destroy Al Aqsa, which by that time Muslims had deemed their third holiest site.
This same “evidence” was conveyed to leaders across the Arab world to persuade them that the Jews sought to “defile” the holy places of Islam. One piece of evidence the Mufti’s envoys carried were leaflets from religious Jewish organizations soliciting donations, but which also made reference to Jerusalem and the Temple. Similarly, the religious symbolism present in local synagogues and the fact that the Jews were revering the Western Wall as a remnant of their ancient Temple was all exploited by the Mufti to engender anxiety among other Muslim leaders.
Thanks to the Mufti’s ploys, the Palestinians came to see the Temple Mount and Al Aqsa Mosque as a potent weapon in their struggle against Israel’s restoration. While the situation is today somewhat different, and Abbas can no longer summon a mob of Muslims from across the region to massacre Jews at the Western Wall (as the Mufti did in 1929), the conspiracy theory that al-Husseini invented has become a mainstay of Arab political discourse. The phrase “Al Aqsa is in peril” is still routinely used by Abbas and other Palestinian leaders to solicit support from Arabs and Muslims around the world.