As we have been reporting, events and tensions in and around the Temple Mount continue to escalate (well before last night's attack against Rabbi Glick, discussed above). While Netanyahu this week declared (not for the first time) that he has no intention to change the status quo on the Mount, this has not had any serious calming effects. The reason for this is simple: Most Palestinians simply do not believe him, and with good cause.
For Palestinians, like for people everywhere, actions speak louder than words. And what Palestinians know is that the Temple Mount status quo is already changing, little by little.
- Muslim access to the Mount is increasingly limited or closed off by Israel, for various reasons.
- The site is now saturated with Israeli security cameras, etc.
- Deliberately provocative, high-profile visits to the Mount by Israeli politicians and right-wing activists are increasing, with such visitors making clear that the goal of their visits is to change the status quo on the Mount, ostensibly to permit Jewish prayer.
- The Knesset is holding meetings showcasing the views of Temple Mount activists, and legislation is pending that would change the Temple Mount status quo.
In addition, it is important to realize that most Palestinians understand that, while the current debate is over a purported Jewish right to pray on the Temple Mount, for many Temple activists the true goal is not simply to turn the Temple Mount into a shared Muslim-Jewish site (like the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron) but rather to restore the Temple Mount as a fully Jewish site, with the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosque erased and replaced by the Third Temple. While not all Temple Mount activists are animated by such a goal, enough of them openly espouse it that Palestinian/Muslim suspicions in this regard are well-founded (and they have not forgotten that Jewish extremists came very close to carrying out a plot to bomb Muslim sites on the Temple Mount back in the 1980's). As a result, in the eyes of Palestinians, visits to the Temple Mount by Temple Mount activists are not unlike a visitor who has long sought to evict you from your home coming by for tea, while taking the opportunity to measure the windows for new curtains.
Since the Crusades, throughout the Mandatory Period and in the years following the 1967 War, the Temple Mount as always been a sensitive site, but it was never an actively contested site. This is simply no longer the case. Muslims understand that even if the visitation hours and the prohibition of non-Muslim prayer remain in effect, their control of the site is now actively being challenged – in the context of a political reality in which Israel holds virtually all the cards and in which the Israeli government is the most right-wing, pro-settlement, pro-Greater Israel government in the country's history.
The latter two points explain why the Palestinians sense, not without reason, that the status quo is under serious threat – and that in a very real sense it is already changing, and not in their favor.
Can anything be done? Yes. For example, the government of Israel could (finally) intervene to prevent, or reduce the number and visibility of visits to the site by the provocative "Temple Mounters." It did so for years based on security considerations – considerations that are stronger today than at any time in recent history. Likewise, access to the site for Muslim worshipers could be eased, rather than regularly constrained. And rather than simply stating that there are no plans to change the status quo at the site, Netanyahu could act to publicly rein in the pyromaniacs in his own Cabinet and in the Likud.
Such steps would have an immediate calming effect; regrettably, there are no indications that any of these steps are under consideration.