There is a sense of trepidation walking into the guard station at the foot of the Mughrabi Bridge, the non-Muslim entrance to the Temple Mount. Having lived in and around Jerusalem for most of the past 20 years, there aren’t many parts of the city I haven’t seen. Personal interest, and my work as a journalist have taken me to nearly every site of religious, national or cultural interest in the city.
But going to the Temple Mount is different. The police caravan at the foot of the site contains the security apparatus familiar throughout Israel – full-body metal detector, airport-style x-ray machine.
But the atmosphere inside the caravan could hardly have been more different to the similar security checkpoint at the entrance to the Western Wall plaza about 30 metres away. As I enter the checkpoint, a blond-haired Dutch couple passed easily through the checkpoint and entered the site.
For me, an Orthodox Israeli, entering the compound wasn’t so simple. Even before asking for my ID, the junior security officer had radioed his commander in a second caravan that served as the checkpoint’s administrative office, with a code word that clearly meant “kippa alert”. No less than three security guards, including the officer in charge, ran my ID number through a hand-held device and asked a battery of questions: What’s my name? Where do I live? Who was my father? Had I ever been to the Temple Mount? Do I study in a yeshiva?
Eventually, after a stern warning not to pray or bow on the Mount and a thorough search of my backpack for prayer contraband, I was allowed to ascend the bridge and to enter the Temple Mount, escorted by a police officer in full battle gear and a 22-year-old employee of the Waqf, the Jordanian religious trust that administers the Al-Aqsa compound.
Although Orthodox Jews have routinely been attacked at the Mount in recent years, this visit, which occurred in May 2014, was uneventful, if intimidating. For Palestinians, the courtyard surrounding Al-Aqsa appears to be a popular picnic site. As our trio made our way around the perimeter of the compound, we were assailed with organised cries of Allah hu akhbar, courtesy of the Mourabitat – Palestinian women paid to harass Jewish visitors.
To many, perhaps most Palestinians, the intimidation of Jewish visitors appears reasonable. Palestinian leaders routinely claim that Jews’ connection to the Temple Mount is nothing more than a fabrication.
“You Israelis have got to understand: You are not doing anybody a favour by granting jurisdiction of the Haram al-Sharif to Muslim authorities,” said Mahmoud al-Habbash, a former Palestinian Authority Minister for Waqf Affairs. “It is ours, and only ours. I do not accept your religious narrative [about a Jewish Temple having stood on the Mount], but I respect your right to believe whatever you want.
“The simple, plain fact is that the Haram is an Islamic holy space – only,” Habbash said.
“Al-Aqsa is in Danger”
Like other Palestinian leaders, Habbash insisted that Israel harbours plans to demolish both Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock in order to pave the space for a new Jewish Temple, despite repeated insistence by successive Israeli governments that there are no plans for such a project.
Nonetheless, “Al-Aqsa is in danger” remains a potent call to arms for Palestinians. As early as 1929, rumours that Jews were planning to harm the Mosque led to mass rioting across pre-state Palestine. Dozens of Jews were slaughtered in Hebron and Tzfat.
More recently, in mid-October, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas criticised Jewish visitors for “defiling” the holy site with their “filthy feet.” Again, the call to “defend” the Mount has not gone unheeded: Palestinians in Jerusalem and across the West Bank routinely cite “what is going on at Al-Aqsa” as cause for the current round of stabbing and vehicular attacks that have killed dozens of Israelis over the past three months.
“Palestinian leaders have always played the ‘Al-Aqsa card’ when they want terror. It happened in 1996, when Israel opened an exit from the Western Wall tunnels alongside the Mount into the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, and again in September, 2000, after Ariel Sharon visited the site as leader of the Knesset opposition,” said Itamar Marcus, founder and Director of Palestinian Media Watch. “This last case is the most potent, and tragic one of all: Yasser Arafat himself called the armed conflict that broke out 15 years ago as the ‘Al-Aqsa intifada’.”
But it doesn’t make sense, I tell him. Islamic sources celebrate the fact that Al-Aqsa stands upon the site of the ancient Jewish temples. No serious scholar of history or archeology doubts the existence of Solomon’s temple, 700 years before the birth of the prophet Mohammed. Do Palestinians really believe what they are hearing, I ask.
“Yes, they absolutely believe it. The key to understanding this issue is that there are two types of incitement: Incitement to hatred and incitement to terror. In the official Palestinian media, websites and more, the first type is absolutely constant fare: There was never a Temple, Israel was responsible for 9/11, Israel steals land, ethnic cleansing, torture, medical experiment[s]. And it continues all the time.
“There are so many of these libels – our website has 10 sub-sections devoted to different types of anti-Israel libels that are prevalent in the Palestinian press – and they are repeated so often that ordinary Palestinians have come to believe that they are true,” Marcus said.
As a result, an overwhelming percentage of Palestinians believe that there is no Jewish historic connection to the Temple Mount, and that Israel is planning to demolish the Islamic sites there. According to the Ramallah-based Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, fully 85% of Palestinians believe the Islamic shrines on the Temple Mount – known as Haram al-Sharif (“The Noble Sanctuary”) in Arabic – are in grave danger. Fifty six percent believe Israel intends to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock and replace them with a Jewish temple.
Selling the issue to the Sunnis
Ultimately, while the Temple Mount question remains an emotional one for Palestinians, some analysts note that the subject has been largely limited to the Palestinian sphere. Pinhas Inbari, a veteran Palestinian affairs correspondent and an analyst for the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, told AIR that Jerusalem is essentially a “non-issue” for the vast majority of Muslims, in the region and in the world.
“There are two major streams of Sunni Islam. One, emanating from Saudi Arabia, places the focus of Islam on Mecca and Medina. For this stream, Jerusalem is of no importance, at all.
“Then you’ve got al-Azhar University, based in Cairo, the highest seat of learning in the Islamic world. That’s where the Muslim Brotherhood is from, and for them, of course, Jerusalem constitutes a central theme. But here’s the thing – even for the Egyptian Sunnis, Al-Aqsa Mosque was never considered a central focus of the faith. That’s new, probably dating to around the time of the Six Day War,” Inbari said.
As a result, Inbari points out, the Palestinians have tried hard to enlist the support of the global Islamic community – but it hasn’t worked.
“Listen, even for Salah a-Din – the legendary Arab liberator of Jerusalem – the holy city was really an afterthought. He was really concerned about preserving a link between Egypt and Syria, and so he needed to defend Jerusalem from the Crusaders.
“Today, too, the issue is just not taking root in Muslim communities. The Palestinian leadership has gotten no support – financial or political – for its stance on Jerusalem from the Arab League, from individual Arab countries, because they believe the issue will detract from the centrality of Mecca and Medina in Islamic life. And even amongst the Palestinians, you’ve seen the issue leave the centre stage over the past few weeks.
“So I wouldn’t say that Al-Aqsa is in danger. I think it is more correct to say that the Palestinian attempt to make an issue out of Al-Aqsa is in danger. It is important to keep things in correct proportion,” Inbari said.
This article is featured in this month’s Australia/Israel Review, which can be downloaded as a free App: see here for more details.