( Middle East Monitor) – Back in 2017, two Israeli advisors to the Jerusalem Municipality, David Koren and Ben Avrahami, shared their concerns about Turkey’s increasingly visible role in the Holy City. These two figures oversee all of the municipality’s interactions with Muslims and Christians in Jerusalem. They are fully aware of the fine details of the incongruous interests, discrepancies and tensions among all segments of the local population.
Their article, “Eastern Jerusalem Arabs between Erdogan and Israel” was a wake-up call for Israeli decision makers regarding what they called “countervailing toxic trends in Jerusalem” and a warning about the symbolism of the Turkish flags flying across East Jerusalem and, especially, on what Israelis call the “Temple Mount”, the Noble Sanctuary of Al-Aqsa. They argued that the Turkish presence is intended to weaken Israel’s hold on the city. Hence, Koren and Avrahami recommended Israel to shield itself by not only limiting the Turkish presence but also by thwarting the “Turkish incursion to Jerusalem”. Since then, Israel has reportedly spared no effort in developing plans to obstruct the Turkish presence in Al-Aqsa and East Jerusalem.
Interestingly, media reports have revealed discussions between Israel and Saudi Arabia about limiting the role of Ankara in Palestinian affairs and replacing it with Riyadh. The two now apparently friendly states have recently held secret talks to discuss having Saudi representatives in the management of Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem, which is currently under the custodianship of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
There is no doubt that US President Donald Trump’s foreign policy decisions have started yet another phase in the Middle East’s most chronic conflict in Israel-Palestine. The recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocating the US Embassy to the city was definitely a game changer. It brought an ancient rivalry to the forefront of the Muslim world: the custodianship of the third holiest site in Islam after Makkah and Madinah, Al-Aqsa Mosque Sanctuary.
As the custodian of the holy sites in occupied Jerusalem, King Abdullah II of Jordan discovered last year that he faced pressure to change his position regarding the status of the sites. Interestingly, King Mohammed VI of Morocco announced an enormous grant for the refurbishment of Al-Aqsa Mosque and its compound. Turkey is increasing its presence in the city.
Morocco’s King Mohammed VI (R) and Prime minister Saad Eddine El Othmani (L) in Casablanca on 11 December 2017 [FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images]
All four Muslim players — Jordan, Morocco, Turkey and Saudi Arabia — have historical claims to guardianship of the holy sites. The Jordanian Hashemites were granted custodianship over Christian and Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem in 1924 after the downfall of the Ottoman Empire. Historically, the Saudis and the Jordanians shared acrimony against the Ottomans. Both clashed with Ottoman armies throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, as they tried to expand their own territories with British help and support.
The monarchy in Morocco has maintained an extraordinary relationship with Jerusalem and provided financial support for the holy sites and people in the city for centuries. One entrance to Al-Aqsa Mosque compound is called the Moroccans’ Gate. However, despite the custodianship of the Hashemite Kingdom and the financial support of the Moroccan monarchy, Israel’s violations, demolitions, closures of Al-Aqsa, expulsions of the Jerusalemites and armed incursions by illegal settlers into the Noble Sanctuary have continued. The Hashemites and the Moroccans have habitually made verbal condemnations but done little else.
So why is Israel concerned about the presence of Turkey and interested in opening the door to the Saudis? Both Ankara and Riyadh are showing more interest in the Holy City and claim historical legitimacy. Immediately after the embassy relocation in 2018 and Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Riyadh challenged the Hashemite custodianship during a meeting of regional parliamentarians. Saudi Arabia also granted $150 million to support the administration of Jerusalem’s Islamic endowments.
The benchmark for measuring how the presence of these rivals can be advantageous to the Holy City and people of Jerusalem is the Israeli stance vis-à-vis these players. In other words, Israeli observers have started ringing alarm bells about the visibility of Turkish flags in the holy city, and reckon that the Turkish presence is not merely to claim historical legitimacy or seek international recognition and support by taking the custodianship of Jerusalem as a bargaining chip. Turkey’s sustainable investment in Jerusalem is multi-dimensional through a series of civil bodies, NGOs and grassroots organisations undertaking charitable initiatives and educational programmes for the benefit of the Palestinian people. This is something that Israel considers a direct threat of a kind that needs to be challenged.
Israel’s response includes denying visas and restricting travel permission to Turkish nationals who intend to visit Jerusalem. It has also abolished jobs for Turkish teachers who work in the city’s schools, and reportedly put restrictions on any school that receives support from the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Association (TIKA) in East Jerusalem. TIKA has invested millions of dollars in the restoration of the Old City of Jerusalem and the provision of food parcels to vulnerable people there. It has also supported businessmen and entrepreneurs.
Turkey’s rising popularity in Palestine is perturbing not only to Israel but also to Saudi Arabia. The historical rivals for leadership of the Muslim world are now leading two divergent blocs in the Middle East. This rift will grow even wider if the Saudi-led bloc decide to dominate the Islamic sites in Jerusalem and make concessions at huge cost to the Palestinian cause for freedom. A cold war is brewing in the Holy City between Turkey and the Israel-Saudi alliance. The way it develops could have serious implications for the people of occupied Palestine.
READ: Next year in Jerusalem
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor or Informed Comment.