Will the deal to preserve the Temple Mount “status quo” hold?
Nov 5, 2015
Update from AIJAC
November 5, 2015
Number 11/15 #01
Last weekend, US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian leaders and came up with an understanding to preserve the religious status quo on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, as well as a Jordanian proposal, accepted by Israel, to place 24-hour surveillance cameras there to clarify any controversies about what has been occurring. The Israeli government for its part affirmed in a televised statement that it will “continue to enforce its longstanding policy: Muslims pray on the Temple Mount; non-Muslims visit the Temple Mount.” The Palestinians, however, have rejected the idea of security cameras, calling them a “trap”, reportedly angering the Jordanians.
This Update deals with the likelihood these understandings will resolve the long-standing violence incited by claims about the Temple Mount.
It leads with Israeli counter-terrorism expert Dr. Boaz Ganor, founder and director of the Institute for Counter-terrorism in Herzliya. He notes that the current wave of violence reflected long-standing claims about the Temple Mount made by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but then given a tailwind in recent weeks when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other Arab leaders, including Jordanian King Abdullah, endorsed these false claims. He says the wave of violence will only subside when Arab leaders, especially Abbas and Abdullah, change their messages to the Palestinian people – and he hopes the new agreement, the Israeli endorsement of it, and the security cameras will be a step in the right direction, especially if Abdullah clearly changes his discourse. For his expert analysis in full, CLICK HERE.
Next up is Palestinian Affairs reporter Khaled Abu Toameh, who explains why the Palestinian Authority is opposed to the proposal for security cameras. He says it opposes it both because it does not want the world to see what is really happening on the Mount – weapons smuggled in by Muslim worshippers but little provocation or prayer by Jewish visitors – and because the proposal will cement Jordan’s role as custodian of the shrines on the Mount, which the PA wishes to supplant for itself. Abu Toameh argues that only strong condemnation by the US of the PA preference for continued incitement and escalation can hope to stem to current wave of violence. For his complete argument, CLICK HERE.
Finally, Israeli journalist and expert on Jerusalem Nadav Shragai places the agreement on the “status quo” into a longer historical context, explaining how the “status quo” developed. He goes into considerable detail about what happened in 1967 when Israel gained control of the Temple Mount along with the rest of the old city of Jerusalem, and also discusses how conditions there have had both continuity and some change since that date. He says the Kerry understandings say nothing new, but are in fact important because this is the first time Israel has publicly stated in so many words “that Jews shall not pray on the Temple Mount, and… only Muslims are allowed to do so” and the first time Jordan has acknowledged officially that Jews are allowed to visit. For the rest of Shragai’s important essay, with many vital details, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Shmuel Rosner on the Kerry Temple Mount deal. He also had a good New York Times piece on the wider disagreement about the site and the strange, yet unavoidable, current status quo.
- More on the security cameras controversy. Plus Israeli writer David Weinberg explains why he opposes the cameras.
- David Horovitz of the Times of Israel on why, for the sake of his own people, Abbas needs to convince Palestinians that random stabbings are damaging their cause.
- PA President Mahmoud Abbas seems to imply all of Israel is “occupied” land.
- A profile of the terrorists committing the latest wave of attacks. Plus, an important article by Haviv Rettig Gur suggesting the latest terror wave is actually a protest against the Palestinian realisation that violent “resistance” is not going to achieve their goals.
- Israeli PM Netanyahu writes a short op/ed thoroughly repudiating his previous apparent implication that the Mufti of Jerusalem inspired Hitler’s final solution – while explaining the Mufti’s actual role. A couple of good pieces on this controversy overall come from Melanie Phillips and Adam Levick.
- Isi Leibler writes about Israel’s complex and fraught relationship with Russia’s President Putin, now operating out of next-door Syria. Meanwhile, Jonathan Spyer argues that Russian intervention in Syria is not actually a game changer.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Or Avi-Guy on the latest, bizarre Palestinian incitement – denying that there is a wave of stabbing attacks and insisting Israel is fabricating the whole thing to murder completely innocent Palestinians.
- Sharyn Mittelman looks at who is actually trying to change the status quo on the Temple Mount.
- Allon Lee discusses the legacy of Yitzhak Rabin, on the 20th Anniversary of his assassination, in a piece originally published in the Australian Jewish News. Also recommended on this topic are David Makovsky and Peter Berkowitz.
Analysis: Lone wolf terrorism and social media
By BOAZ GANOR
Jerusalem Post, 11/01/2015
Netanyahu’s work with Abdullah and Abbas to reaffirm that there is no danger to the al-Aqsa Mosque could pay dividends.
Israel is in the throes of a nationalist and religion-driven wave of terror fueled by incitement falsely accusing it of desecrating the al-Aqsa Mosque and changing the status quo on Jerusalems holy Temple Mount.
This kind of propaganda had been disseminated for some time by Palestinian terrorist organizations, especially Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But their inflammatory messages received a tailwind when senior Palestinian Authority (PA) officials and other Arab leaders joined the chorus, urging Israel not to contaminate the Temple Mount. This mainstream voice was the catalyst that drove inflamed young people into the streets, taking the law into their own hands and randomly wounding and killing Israelis.
The current wave of terror started as a succession of terrorist attacks carried out primarily by lone wolves, using knives and axes or ramming vehicles into bystanders.
By any rational cost-benefit analysis, the initial wave seems to have failed. In most cases, the terrorist perpetrators were killed, wounded or captured, and the strategic damage they were able to inflict was limited.
As a result, the Palestinian terrorist organizations led by Hamas stepped up their incitement on the Web and published instructions on how the attackers could be more effective. The instructions are usually accompanied by video clips with recommendations on the kind of knives to use, where to stab the victims, from which angle to attack and so on. In some instances, the terrorist organizations suggest attacking in pairs or larger groups, seizing rifles from prospective military victims and opening fire in all directions.
This institutional incitement and training via the Web reflects only one aspect of the growing importance of the social media in the current wave of terror. The social networks, especially Facebook and Twitter, are used by many of the young terrorists as a platform to convey their thoughts, feelings and political messages before leaving for their attacks.
Some see this as a way of putting their suicidal actions in the desired context, stressing their supreme sacrifice and altruism.
Their words serve as a kind of spiritual last will and testament, guiding friends and family on how to act after their deaths. Without these messages, the terrorist acts they are about to commit might lose their meaning and quickly sink into oblivion in the maelstrom of conflict-related events.
Another aspect, no less important, is the glorification bestowed by the social media on the lone wolves in the wake of their terrorist acts. Spurred on by the terrorist organizations and their supporters, the networks promote escalation and encourage other potential terrorists to attack.
Each terrorist act becomes a model for emulation, sparking a vicious cycle that is fueling a terrorist epidemic.
With regard to the number of dead and wounded and the degree of damage they cause, the lone wolf attacks are limited compared to the use of explosive charges, shootings or suicide bombings. But they are more difficult to prevent because of the inherent lack of early warning intelligence. As opposed to attacks by terrorist organizations, in which there are usually a number of people in on the secret and involved in the initiating, planning, preparation and implementation, making it possible for security forces to glean intelligence through infiltration of the terrorist chain and foil attacks before they are carried out, private initiative terror begins and ends in the teeming brain of the individual terrorist, with nobody else in the know.
Nevertheless, the current wave of terror points to the fact that gathering open intelligence in the public domain, especially through monitoring of the social networks, could become an effective and practical substitute for traditional intelligence gathering. This could help address the intelligence lacunae in the case of lone wolf terror and, in some cases, provide an early warning of lone wolf terrorist plans.
Moreover, the incitement and instructional activities of the terrorist organizations and their supporters out on the Web could also prove to be an Achilles heel. This could also be exploited to thwart some of the terrorist attacks. In other words, while the social media networks play a significant role in the initiation, guidance and escalation of knife-wielding terror, they could also be key in thwarting or preempting terrorist acts.
Nevertheless, we need to be absolutely clear that the current wave of terror will only subside after the incitement abates and the messages from the Palestinian leadership to the Palestinian public change. And since it is totally unrealistic to expect the terrorist organizations to make any such changes, we should concentrate our efforts on PA and Arab leaders, especially Jordans King Abdullah and PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
These two leaders adding their voices to the plaintive cries of the Palestinian terrorist organizations over the ostensible danger to the al-Aqsa Mosque and the alleged changes to the status quo on the Temple Mount was the proverbial straw that broke the camels back. The change in their messages sparked the eruption of terrorist knifings because it signaled the mainstreams joining the extremist bandwagon.
The reaction of the street was not slow in coming. Therefore, conversely, those two leaders, especially Abdullah, could play an important role in halting the terror.
They could issue a public call to end the violence, as soon as they are convinced that there is no danger to al-Aqsa and that there is no intention of changing the status quo.
For that it is not enough for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to declare that Israel hasnt changed and does not intend to change the status quo. He has already done so several times.
As a confidence-building measure and gesture toward Abdullah, he should declare publicly and in detail what the principles of the status quo acceptable to the parties have been up until now, and solemnly pledge that they will remain exactly the same in future. His endorsement of US Secretary of State John Kerrys understanding of the status quo, backed up by closed-circuit television cameras monitoring every move on the mount and broadcasting directly to the kings palace in Amman, is a step in the right direction.
Now, if he so wishes, Abdullah could, as he has done in the past, quickly transform the Arab and Palestinian discourse and help restore order.
Prof. Boaz Ganor, the founder and executive director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), is the dean and the Ronald S. Lauder chair in Counter-Terrorism at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya.
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Why Palestinians Do Not Want Cameras on the Temple Mount
The Palestinian Authority (PA) will continue to work against having cameras in the hope of preventing the world from seeing what is really happening at the site and undermining Jordan’s “custodianship” over Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem.
Another reason the Palestinians oppose King Abdullah’s idea is their fear that cameras would expose that Palestinians have been smuggling stones, firebombs and pipe bombs into the Al-Aqsa Mosque for the past two years.
The cameras are also likely to refute the claim that Jews are “violently invading” Al-Aqsa Mosque and holding prayers on the Temple Mount. The cameras will show that Jews do not enter Al-Aqsa Mosque, as Palestinians have been claiming. Needless to say, no Jewish visitors have been caught trying to smuggle weapons into the holy site.
It remains to be seen how Secretary Kerry, who brokered the camera deal between Israel and Jordan, will react to the latest Palestinian Authority escalation of tensions. If Kerry fails to pressure the PA to stop its incitement and attempts to exclude the Jordanians from playing any positive role, the current wave of knife attacks against Jews will continue.
Why is the Palestinian Authority (PA) opposed to Jordan’s proposal to install surveillance cameras at Jerusalem’s Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount), sacred to Christians, Muslims and Jews?
This is the question that many in Jordan have been asking in light of the recent agreement between Israel and Jordan that was reached under the auspices of US Secretary of State John Kerry. The idea was first raised by Jordan’s King Abdullah in a bid to ease tensions at the holy site in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Shortly after Israel accepted the idea, the Palestinian Authority rushed to denounce it as a “new trap.” PA Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki and other officials in Ramallah expressed concern that Israel would use the cameras to “arrest Palestinians under the pretext of incitement.”
During the past two years, the Palestinian Authority and other parties, including Hamas and the Islamic Movement (Northern Branch) in Israel, have been waging a campaign of incitement against Jewish visits to the Haram al-Sharif. The campaign claimed that Jews were planning to destroy Al-Aqsa Mosque.
In an attempt to prevent Jews from entering the approximately 37-acre (150,000 m2) site, the Palestinian Authority and the Islamic Movement in Israel hired scores of Muslim men and women to harass the Jewish visitors and the police officers escorting them. The men are referred to as Murabitoun, while the women are called Murabitat (defenders or guardians of the faith).
These men and women have since been filmed shouting and trying to assault Jews and policemen at the Haram al-Sharif. This type of video evidence is something that the Palestinian Authority is trying to avoid. The PA, together with the Islamic Movement, wants the men and women to continue harassing the Jews under the pretext of “defending” the Al-Aqsa Mosque from “destruction” and “contamination.”
Hundreds of Muslims on the Temple Mount, yelling and throwing objects, surround three Jewish men and their children, as about a dozen police officers try to hold back the angry crowd and evacuate the Jews.
The installation of surveillance cameras at the site will expose the aggressive behavior of the Murabitoun and Murabitat, and show the world who is really “desecrating” the Islamic holy sites and turning them into a base for assaulting and abusing Jewish visitors and policemen.
The cameras are also likely to refute the claim that Jews are “violently invading” Al-Aqsa Mosque and holding prayers at the Temple Mount. The Palestinian Authority, Hamas and the Islamic Movement have long been describing the Jewish visits as a “provocative and violent incursion” into Al-Aqsa Mosque. But now the cameras will show that Jews do not enter Al-Aqsa Mosque, as the Palestinians have been claiming.
Another reason the Palestinians are opposed to King Abdullah’s idea is their fear that the cameras would expose that Palestinians have been smuggling stones, firebombs and pipe bombs into Al-Aqsa Mosque for the past two years. These are scenes at the PA, Hamas and the Islamic Movement do not want the world to see: they show who is really “contaminating” the Haram al-Sharif. Needless to say, no Jewish visitors have thus far been caught trying to smuggle such weapons into the holy site.
Palestinian Arab young men with masks, inside Al-Aqsa Mosque (some wearing shoes), stockpile rocks to use for throwing at Jews who visit the Temple Mount, September 27, 2015.
By rejecting the idea of setting up 24-hour surveillance cameras at the Haram al-Sharif, the Palestinian Authority has found itself on a course of collision with Jordan. Jordanian politicians and columnists have voiced outrage over the stance of the PA, and have dubbed it harmful to Palestinian and Islamic interests.
The Jordanian newspaper Al-Ghad, which is close to the government, quoted Jordanian politicians as denouncing the opposition of the Palestinian Authority to the cameras as “inappropriate, clumsy, tasteless and unfair.”
Sources in Ramallah explained this week that the PA’s opposition to cameras should also be seen in the context of the power struggle between the Palestinians and Jordan over control of the Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem. The Jordanians have long been seeking to preserve their status as “custodians” of Al-Aqsa Mosque and other Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem. This is a status that some Palestinians and the Islamic Movement in Israel have been trying to change during the past two decades, especially after the signing of the Oslo Accords between the PLO and Israel in 1993.
The Palestinian Authority’s opposition to the installation of cameras is seen as an attempt to undermine Jordan’s status at the Islamic holy sites. Many Palestinians argue that they, and not the Jordanians, should be in charge of the Haram al-Sharif. Members of the PA are opposed to the cameras because it is a Jordanian proposal and reinforces Jordan’s role at the holy site.
As such, the Palestinian Authority’s position could be seen as an attempt to change the status quo at the holy site by driving the Jordanians out of the area. King Abdullah is obviously aware of the Palestinian attempt to prevent him from playing any role at the holy site; that is why he was quick to reach a deal with Israel about the installation of cameras. The PA, meanwhile, will continue to work against having cameras in the hope of preventing the world from seeing what is really happening at the site and undermining Jordan’s “custodianship” over Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem.
It now remains to be seen how Secretary Kerry, who brokered the camera deal between Israel and Jordan, will react, if at all, to the latest Palestinian Authority attempt to continue escalating tensions at the holy site. If Kerry fails to pressure the PA to stop its incitement and repeated attempts to exclude the Jordanians from playing any positive role at the Haram al-Sharif, the current wave of knife attacks against Jews will continue.
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A brief history of the status quo
Then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan shaped the much talked about status quo on the Temple Mount in 1967 Prime Minister Menachem Begin put his own touches on it Since then, it has changed immensely, mainly in favor of Muslims who wave Hamas flags there.
Israel Hayom, Oct. 30
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who this week shepherded Israel and Jordan toward the first-ever formal written agreement on the status quo on the Temple Mount, doesn’t know it, but the first seeds of the much talked about Temple Mount status quo were sown about 48 years ago on another hilltop, Mount Scopus.
It was the second day of the 1967 Six-Day War. For the first time in 19 years, an Israeli convoy reached Mount Scopus unaccompanied by Jordanian legionnaires. Standing on the roof of the national library, looking out over the Temple Mount and its shining domes, then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan rested his hand on the shoulder of GOC Central Command Col. Uzi Narkis, sighed deeply, and whispered a key sentence that would later shed light on the manner of conduct surrounding the Temple Mount: “What do we need this Vatican for?”
Years later, Narkis explained to this writer that “in Dayan’s eyes, the Old City within the walls looked like a threatening mosaic of mosques and churches and the potential for countless religious problems. Dayan was very reluctant to occupy and liberate the Old City.”
Indeed, the decision to enter the Old City and liberate the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, which Dayan tried to delay, was forced upon him after ministers in the national unity government Menachem Begin and Yigal Allon took the matter directly to then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. The next day, the Israel Defense Forces liberated the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, and the Old City. General Motta Gur’s excited announcement over the radio — “The Temple Mount is in our hands!” — has become part of the national pantheon, but the euphoria and excitement Gur gave voice to were in total contrast to reality and the status quo arrangements Dayan had made. Gur expressed excitement. Dayan, characteristically, showed pragmatism.
Acting on the advice of Meir Shamgar, who was then the chief IDF prosecutor, Dayan removed the Israeli flag that IDF paratroopers had planted on the Dome of the Rock. He later ordered Narkis to withdraw a paratroopers company that had been prepared to be stationed permanently on the northern part of the mount. Over the next few days, Dayan consulted a reserve officer named David Farhi, a lecturer on Islamic countries at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who influenced Dayan’s thinking greatly, about the future of the Temple Mount.
The defense minister sat with Farhi for hours and listened to him carefully. He heard that for hundreds of years, the Jews had been tolerated in the Muslim world as a subservient people, without any rights to a nation, after rejecting the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings, and “therefore turned into the symbol of an accursed people that twists the word of God.”
That, Farhi told Dayan, was what had led to the inevitable clash between the appearance of the Jewish state and the Muslim world. “The Arabs opposed the establishment of a Jewish state not only for practical reasons, but also on principle. For the exact same reasons, the Muslims will now reject any significant changes to the status of the mosques and the compound that is holy to them when they are made by any non-Muslim power.”
Dayan believed, and years later even wrote, that since the Temple Mount was for Muslims a “place of worship” whereas for Jews it was an “historical site of the past,” the Muslims shouldn’t be kept from treating it as such and their right to keep control over the place should be recognized.
Farhi had got his foot in the door. He backed the direction Dayan was already taking with Narkis. On June 17, 1967, Dayan invited himself to meet with the members of the Supreme Muslim Council and informed them of the steps that were to be taken: IDF soldiers would leave the Temple Mount; the management of the mosques and the compound plaza would be put into the hands of the Muslim Waqf, a branch of the Jordanian Ministry of Holy Places; Muslims would decide the rules for inside [the compound] but the limitations and prohibitions placed on Jews in the time of the British Mandate and the Jordanian rule would be removed; Jews would be allowed to visit the mount but not pray there; and Israel would be responsible for the security of the holy site and its surroundings.
A few weeks later, the Knesset passed a law applying Israeli legal jurisdiction over all parts of united Jerusalem, including the Old City and the Temple Mount.
Begin asked that the status quo Dayan put together be adjusted, and Israeli police officers were stationed at the Mughrabi Gate entrance. The move was intended to stop the custom of demanding entry fees from Israelis who wanted to visit the Temple Mount compound, while Muslims were exempt from paying. The government accepted Begin’s view that the existing situation went against the principle of free access to the site. However, oversight of entrance via the other gates remained in the hands of the Waqf.
This is how the status quo, the subject of so much discussion today, came into being. The reasoning behind it, Dayan and others were to explain, sought to separate the national-territorial aspect of the Israeli-Arab conflict from its religious component. Dayan believed that he had the power to divide the two, but reality proved far more complicated. For both the Arabs and the Jews, separating nationality from religion was nearly impossible.
The bottom line was that the state of Israel, the state of the Jewish people, cast off its most holy place and left it in the hands of a competing religion, Islam, for which the Temple Mount was only the third-holiest site, after Mecca and Medina. It was a decision without precedent in relations between peoples and religions. The Muslims were surprised at Dayan’s generosity. Sheikh Saad a-Din al-Alami, the mufti of Jerusalem in the days immediately after the Six-Day War, admitted as much in a conversation with him. With a few exceptions, the Jews responded to Dayan’s status quo with indifference. Most of them were satisfied with the Western Wall.
No to a foreign flag
Only a few former members of the Stern Gang and members of the El Har Hashem Society, an advocacy group for Jewish rights on the Temple Mount, mainly then-IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren, tried to change Dayan’s decision. Goren threw up his hands after a few weeks; the rest repeatedly petitioned the High Court of Justice, which rejected each petition in turn. The justices ruled that the Jews’ right to pray on the mount was superseded by the concern over public disorder, disputes, and religious friction, and accepted the government’s position.
The third factor, in addition to the government and the High Court, that served to ingrain the status quo was the rabbis. In those days, nearly all the rabbis from all streams of Judaism — ultra-Orthodox and national religious — said that Jews were forbidden from entering the Temple Mount regardless of whether they did so to visit or to pray. The explanation was based on Jewish law and related to the fear that Jews would enter the place where the Temple and the Holiest of Holies once stood without having ritually cleansed themselves. Even rabbis who thought that the additions that Herod made to the Temple Mount could be identified and defined and therefore permissible to visit, as they were less holy, did not change their minds. They were afraid that the public would not be able to tell the difference between the areas that they were allowed to visit and those they were not.
Begin suggested to his fellow ministers that they not make any formal decisions forbidding Jews from praying on the mount. They listened. Then-Postal Services Minister Yisrael Yeshayahu asked in a ministerial meeting on holy sites: “Who are we to stop Jews from praying on the Temple Mount?” At the end of the meeting, the decision was worded as Begin had wanted — in positive rather than negative language — and it was decided that when Jews arrived at the Temple Mount to pray, they would be directed to the Western Wall.
Begin and Dayan addressed the future status quo on the mount as well. Dayan was willing to serve as foreign minister in Begin’s first government on the condition that the government adhere to his status quo and uphold the prohibition against Jews praying on the mount. Begin agreed. When he was approached by El Har Hashem activists, including Rabbi Yoel Ben Nun, and asked to allow Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, Begin empathized with them, but sent them to the chief rabbis, who opposed Jews visiting the mount at all.
But at the first Camp David summit in September 1978, Begin brought all his power to bear against the initiative to fly flags of Arab nations on the Temple Mount. He clashed with then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter on the issue, and even warned the Americans that “flying a religious flag on the Temple Mount would be a recognition that it belongs to the Muslims.” Begin also had aggressive words for then-Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and presidential adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski: “Thousands of years of Jewish history in Jerusalem are the basis of our refusal to fly an Arab flag on the Temple Mount. … I’m sickened at the sign of the maneuvers the great superpower is making to convince us to fly a foreign flag over Jerusalem.”
A threat to hegemony
Nearly 50 years have passed since Dayan established the status quo on the mount, and not much remains of it. The Muslims continue to increase their religious and administrative autonomy on the mount, and the prohibition against Jewish prayer is still in place and going strong. Other than these two points, the mount has undergone many changes, and the status quo and about 10 of its components have changed — mostly to the benefit of the Muslim side. The changes were and are the result of profound changes on both on the Muslim and the Jewish sides.
The most blatant change is to the Muslim prayer areas, which have expanded significantly. In 1967, only Al-Aqsa mosque served as a place of prayer, but today the Dome of the Rock, which wasn’t originally a mosque, is used for women’s prayer on Fridays. Two other underground mosques have been built on the Temple Mount: the al-Marwani mosque in King Solomon’s Stables, and the underground “first Al-Aqsa mosque” below the above-ground one. In contrast to the past, Muslims today apply the term “Al-Aqsa” and its holy connotations not only to the mosque itself, but to all parts of the compound, including its streets and walls — even the Western Wall.
Over the years, the Muslims have done serious damage to the antiquities on the mount. They also launched a campaign to win public opinion that denies any Jewish connection to the Temple Mount — they refer to the Temple as “al-Mazoom” (the imaginary or false.)
Meanwhile, Muslim politicians and religious figures have adopted the “Al-Aqsa is in danger” narrative and are wielding it like an axe. The made-up story, which is accepted as the literal truth by many in the Muslim world, has sparked more than one cycle of extreme violence, terrorist attacks, and murders of Jews.
In addition, visits by Jews to the mount, which in the past were subject to only a few restrictions, have been reduced to a large degree, and often made impossible. Today, unlike in the past, it is forbidden to visit the mosques; it is forbidden to visit the mount on the Sabbath, and the police limit the tour route and the length of the visits. Two gates once used to admit visitors are now closed to non-Muslims.
The flipside is that the number of Jews who want to visit the Temple Mount, as they are allowed to do under the status quo agreement, has grown considerably. The process began about 20 years ago when many religious Zionist rabbis changed their stance and decided to permit, even encourage, Jews to visit the Temple Mount. The Muslims saw this change as a threat to their hegemony on the Temple Mount, but the Israeli government’s unequivocal declarations that it has no intention of dividing the mount or allowing Jews to pray there were and are mistrusted.
Muslim suspicions were raised by a series of attempts by Jewish zealots in the 1970s and 1980s to attack the mosques and even blow them up — Yoel Lerner’s Gal underground movement, the Lifta gang, the Jewish Underground, and an Australian Christian tourist named Denis Michael Rohan, who set fire to Al-Aqsa mosque in 1969. All of these incidents, as well as a few other lesser-known cases, caused the Muslims to point a finger at the Israeli government and claim that it was part of or even behind the attempts to damage the mosques.
The accusation was baseless. Israel has repeatedly thwarted potential attacks on the mosques by Jewish extremists and arrested the masterminds of such deranged plans. But blaming Israel and Zionism for the attempts to bring down the mosques became an Arab Muslim propaganda tool.
At the same time, Israel was blocking attempts by Palestinian terrorist cells, mainly Hamas, to launch weapons from the Temple Mount. Cells that used the mount as a meeting place to plan terrorist attack were also arrested. One of these was the cell that planned to execute an attack on the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University and even shoot down former U.S. President George W. Bush’s plane.
Another major change involves Jordan. In 1967, the Hashemite Kingdom was nothing more than the employer of the Waqf, but today it has become Israel’s partner in managing the Temple Mount, as evidenced by Jordan’s renovation the compound’s eastern and southern walls when they started cracking. Jordan vetoed the idea of replacing the temporary Mughrabi Bridge that is still an eyesore of the Western Wall plaza. Jordan demanded that Israel limit the number of Jews who visit the Temple Mount, and Israel agreed. The Knesset even postponed a debate on the Temple Mount issue at Jordan’s request.
There are two reasons for Jordan’s growing influence. First is Israel’s desire to weaken the Islamic Movement’s stature on the Temple Mount. The Islamic Movement has consistently taken care to stir things up, and stood behind the construction of the two new mosques. Second, Israel wants to strengthen the Jordanian regime by preserving its status as guardian of Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem. Israeli policy is also informed by a host of security and economic interests it shares with the Jordanians.
However, Jordan’s growing influence on the mount stems not only from these interests but also from two written agreements. The first was the peace contract between Jordan and Israel, signed in July 1994. The agreement says, among other things, that “Israel honors the special existing role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem,” and that when negotiations for a permanent deal take place, Israel will give a “high priority” to Jordan’s historic role in those sites. In effect, Israel has already skipped ahead and upgraded Jordan’s status on the Temple Mount.
The second agreement was signed in January 2013 between King Abdullah and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. This agreement stipulates that Jordan, as the “guardian of Islamic holy places in Jerusalem,” will represent Muslim interests in the city in general and the interests of the PA in particular regarding the Temple Mount, until a Palestinian state whose capital is Jerusalem is established. The deal also features an apparatus for coordination between Jordan and the PA about the Temple Mount, but even though it was signed, there is tension between the two entities.
Other notable changes to the status quo: A total prohibition against flying flags on the mount, which used to be strictly enforced, has melted away. Palestinian and PA flags, Hamas flag, and even Islamic State flags fly on the mount, whereas Israeli flags are hustled away immediately. Laws pertaining to antiquities, planning, and construction, which were once relatively seriously enforced, have become almost virtual. Israel’s state comptrollers have criticized the phenomenon, and it was also documented in the book “Under the Surface” by none other than former Israel Antiquities Authority Director General Shuka Dorfmann, who passed away about a year ago.
In his book, Dorfmann quotes statements by former Public Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami during a discussion of the status quo on the Temple Mount. “In [no] period and under [no] government, has there ever been any binding framework for preserving the status quo, and the Palestinians and the Waqf have never been notified of the government’s official position on what is allowed and what is forbidden on the Temple Mount. It has also never been made clear what steps Israel will take should the status quo be violated.”
Seen in that light, the understandings reached by Kerry comprise a far-reaching innovation, for better or worse. Dayan’s status quo was verbal and vague; it allowed Jews to continue to believe that they had not given up the Temple Mount, since it wasn’t a long-term agreement. The rules set by Dayan allowed the Muslims to reject claims about so-called cooperation with Israel and argue that it was a deal that had been forced on them.
The great advantage of the status quo was also its great disadvantage. The Jews would never have formally agreed to forgo prayer on the mount. The Muslims would never formally agree to give up the Western Wall, which they call “al-Buraq.” From that perspective, the Kerry understandings are an historic precedent.
There is nothing significantly new in the understandings, but nevertheless, this is the first time that Israel has officially declared to the world that Jews shall not pray on the Temple Mount, and that only Muslims are allowed to do so. On the other hand, it’s also the first time that either the U.S. or Jordan has put out an official announcement stating that Jews may visit the mount, if not pray there.
In recent years the prohibition against Jewish prayer on the mount has been stringently enforced, whereas permission to visit has been only partially guaranteed, and in practice it has become difficult or impossible for Jews to visit the mount. This will be a test of the Kerry understandings on the Temple Mount.
The Temple Mount activist groups are saying that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought up the prohibition against Jewish prayer on the mount out of concern for law and order and note that the Kerry declaration is devoid of any mention of the very right to pray, even if it is not exercised. Sources close to the prime minister have explained that Israel is not giving up that right, but for now is opting not to exercise it. They also pointed out that the demand that the Waqf decide who and how many Jews would enter the compound had been rejected, and clarified that for now MKs and ministers would still be banned from visiting the site. Security cameras will be installed in an orderly manner in coordination with Jordan, not haphazardly the way the Waqf tried to do this week.
Either way, it’s clear that the Kerry understandings that Netanyahu and Abdullah approved have effectively killed the campaign to change the status quo and allow Jews to exercise their right to pray there. The campaign to allow Jewish prayer has been led for the past two years by public figures such as Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan (acting in his former capacity as Deputy Religious Services Minister), Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, and Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev when she was chair of the Knesset House Committee. But the understandings might provide an opening for the Temple Mount activists to turn to the courts for assistance in forcing the government to allow freer visits.