Arab-Israeli tension over the Temple Mount is again at boiling point – a depressingly recurrent phenomenon, but scarcely surprising given the fragile arrangements under which the area is administered. These rules, or understandings, are frequently referred to as the “status quo”, and charges by both sides of infringing them, or harbouring the intention of infringing them, are legion.
“Status quo” is a phrase with a comforting air of permanence to it. Where the Temple Mount is concerned, permanent is the last thing they are. Based on rules formulated just after the Six Day War in 1967 by Israel’s then Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Muslim religious authorities, the so-called status quo has proved surprisingly inconstant over the years.
The Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif in Arabic, Har Ha-Bayit in Hebrew) is an elevated walled area the size of 27 football pitches within the old walled city of Jerusalem. The Mount is dominated by three major Islamic edifices – the gold-covered Dome of the Rock, the al-Aksa mosque and the Dome of the Chain.
Originally the site of the biblical Jewish temples, the Mount lay derelict for six hundred years after the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. Following the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in the 7th century, the Dome of the Rock was constructed around 690 by order of Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik, to be followed by the Dome of the Chain, and a few years later by the al-Aksa mosque.
The whole Temple Mount area, and especially the Roman retaining wall running along the Western side, which is all that remains of the Second Temple, is the holiest site in Judaism. Sunni Muslims consider the Mount the third holiest site in Islam and the place from where Mohammed ascended to heaven.
Before Israel’s war of independence in 1948, the Mount, the Dome and the mosques were administered by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, a religious foundation, under a status quo agreement dating back to 1757, and confirmed in 1919. Two basic principles of this later understanding, known as the Faisal-Weizmann Agreement, were that Muslim holy places should be under Muslim control, but that nothing should ever interfere with the free exercise of religion in the holy places of Jerusalem. Under this long-standing status quo not only the Temple Mount, but also its religious structures, were open to non-Muslim visitors for four hours each day, except Fridays.
When Jordan captured the Old City of Jerusalem in 1948 during Israel’s war of independence, this status quo arrangement was abandoned. Under Jordanian control all Jews were expelled from the Jewish Quarter which was then destroyed, many religious sites were defiled, the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives was desecrated and the whole Western Wall area became a slum.
A few days after Israeli troops captured the Old City during the Six-Day War in June 1967, a meeting was held at al-Aksa between Moshe Dayan and the Muslim religious authorities of Jerusalem with the aim of reformulating a status quo. It recognised the Waqf as an arm of the Jordanian Ministry of Sacred Properties, and handed it the responsibility for managing the site. Under the new arrangements Jews would be able to visit the Temple Mount, but they would not be allowed to pray on it. Israeli sovereignty would be applied to the Mount as to the rest of Jerusalem, and Israel would assume responsibility for security.
The prohibition against Jews actually praying on the Mount became the cause of much resentment among right-wing Jewish groups. From time to time attempts were made, both politically and by way of direct action, to permit Jewish prayer. All were unsuccessful. Each attempt, however, was seized on by Islamist extremists as a cause célèbre, and an excuse for riot.
In 2010 rumors, vigorously promulgated by Islamist elements, that Israel was either about to destroy the al-Aksa mosque, or to permit Jewish prayers on the Mount, led to enraged Muslims pelting visitors and the police with stones, firebombs and fireworks.
During riots on the Mount in November 2014, dialog with the leaders of the Waqf and the rioters failed, and for the first time Israeli police entered the al-Aksa Mosque, which was being used as the base for the violence. Peace was restored, and the Israeli government stated repeatedly that no change to the status quo was contemplated, but in fact this episode resulted in further revisions which are still in force. Non-Islamic visitors cannot visit the Mount on Fridays or Saturdays, visiting is restricted to four hours, entering the mosques is forbidden, and Jews with a religious appearance must visit in groups monitored by Waqf guards and the police.
Despite these efforts, in the middle of September violence once again engulfed the sacred compound. Murabitun and Murabatat (male and female Islamist activist groups) had taken to gathering daily on the Mount to intimidate tourists in general and Jewish visitors in particular. A Defense Ministry decree outlawed them from entering the holy site. Three days of violence ensued. Visitors and police officers were showered with rocks, firecrackers and pipe bombs.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) strongly condemned Israel for allowing Jewish “extremists” to “storm” the Temple Mount, and designated Israel’s decision to ban Muslim women and girls – presumably the Murabatat – as a “flagrant assault on freedom of worship.” The PLO Executive Committee held an emergency meeting and called for “confronting Israeli terror schemes” against the Islamic holy sites. PA President Mahmoud Abbas liaised with Jordan’s King Abdullah, who declared Israeli actions provocative.
“If this continues to happen…Jordan will have no choice but to take action,” said Abdullah.
Nothing and nobody seems capable of dissipating the suspicion and mistrust – not even Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. In his speech at the UN on October 1, calling on the PA president to start working with Israel to advance peace and reconciliation, he said: “President Abbas, here’s a good place to begin. Stop spreading lies about Israel’s alleged intentions on the Temple Mount. Israel is fully committed to maintaining the status quo there.”
But the status quo, even in its current attenuated form, is a step too far for extremists like the Israeli-Arab member of Israel’s Knesset, MK Jamal Zahalka. During the last week of September he positioned himself at the Mugrabi gateway entrance to the Temple Mount (the only one of the eleven gates in its walled enclosure allowed to non-Muslim visitors) and bellowed at those entering: “Get out of here. By what right are you here?”
The answer, if any of the visitors had chosen to shout back, is “By right of the status quo.”
The Temple Mount issue is a microcosm of the Arab-Israel dispute, and as intractable. Solve the one, and you solve the other.