Apr 12, 2023 - World

Tensions boil between Israel and Jordan over Jerusalem

Israeli police detained some Palestinians after Israeli police again raided the Al-Aqsa Mosque complex in East Jerusalem early Sunday in Jerusalem on April 5, 2023

Israeli police detained some Palestinians after raiding the Al-Aqsa Mosque complex in East Jerusalem on April 5. Photo: Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Escalating tensions and violence at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque compound over the last few weeks have exacerbated the already strained relations between Jordan and Israel, two U.S. and two Israeli officials said.

Why it matters: Jordan’s King Abdullah II is the custodian of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. Because of Jordan's huge Palestinian population, any tensions in Jerusalem, and specifically at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, immediately become a domestic political issue.

  • The Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, also known as Haram al-Sharif, is the third holiest site for Muslims. It is also the holiest site for Jews who call it the Temple Mount. This reality has long made it one of the most sensitive and explosive areas in the Middle East.

Driving the news: Israel, Jordan, the U.S. and other key players in the region ramped up their efforts to de-escalate tensions ahead of the holy month of Ramadan, which also coincided with Passover.

  • The first two weeks of Ramadan were largely calm, but the situation escalated last week when Israeli police raided the compound to remove Palestinians who had barricaded themselves inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
  • Jordan harshly condemned the raid and blamed Israel for the escalation. Since then, the Jordanian Foreign Ministry has issued at least 11 statements and tweets condemning and criticizing Israel's policy regarding the holy site.
  • Jordan initiated an emergency meeting of the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. It also pushed for a UN Security Council meeting on the situation in Jerusalem. A press statement by the council condemning Israel was blocked by the Biden administration, Israeli and U.S. officials said.

The big picture: Tensions continued to escalate as the Jordanian and Israeli governments exchanged statements blaming each other for being responsible for the escalation.

  • Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi on Thursday accused Israel of unprovoked aggression against peaceful Palestinian worshippers. "Israel is pushing us into the abyss of violence and undermines the peace treaty with Jordan," he told CNN.
  • The Israeli Foreign Ministry fired back, claiming the Jordanian Waqf, which administers the mosque, didn’t take steps to stop violence by Palestinian worshipers.
  • "We call on Jordan, through the Waqf guards, to immediately remove from the Al-Aqsa Mosque these extremists who are planning to riot," the Israeli Foreign Ministry tweeted on Saturday night several hours before a major Jewish prayer service was about to take place at the adjacent Western Wall.

Israeli officials specifically pointed to Safadi's recent comments as stoking tensions.

  • They told Axios that meetings between Safadi and several Israeli officials before Ramadan went well. But they accused him of taking an extreme line when tensions began to escalate.
  • “Safadi acted as if he was Jordan’s Ben-Gvir," one Israeli official said, referring to the far-right Israeli national security minister who has previously stoked tensions, including in Jerusalem.
  • Senior U.S. officials said Safadi was livid and saw the Israeli police raid on the mosque as a provocation by the Israeli government.

Behind the scenes: The Israeli government asked the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates to ask the Jordanian government and Safadi, in particular, to calm down the rhetoric and work to de-escalate the situation, Israeli and U.S. officials said.

  • Jordanian and U.S. officials said Safadi asked the Biden administration and the Emiratis to say the same to the Israelis.
  • The Jordanians at a certain point refused to receive the messages they were given by the U.S. and the UAE, claiming Israel was lying about what was happening at the mosque and stressing they are only willing to hear from Israel directly that it is committing to stop its violations of the status quo at the compound.
  • The Biden administration and the Israeli government were concerned that the tensions with Jordan would create a flare-up on Sunday, but both Jewish and Muslim prayers ended calmly with the Israeli police not raiding the mosque and Palestinian worshipers not using violence.
  • “The Israelis told the U.S. afterward that things didn’t explode because the Biden administration pressed Jordan and the Waqf, and the Jordanians told the U.S. things didn’t explode because the Biden administration pressed Israel," a source with direct knowledge of the situation said.

State of play: Israeli officials say that in recent days Safadi has refused to talk to Israeli government representatives and that tensions with the Jordanians are still high.

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