Context: what is Jerusalem Day?
Traditionally, Jerusalem Day is the official state holiday commemorating the “reunification of Jerusalem” in 1967. With the ascendancy of an increasingly extreme religious right in the city and beyond, Jerusalem Day has turned into a highly nationalistic celebration, associated almost exclusively to that religious right, dotted with a couple of jingoistic ceremonies of official Israel.
As we noted in the past, Jerusalem Day celebrations in Jerusalem have in recent years been co-opted by right-wing religious-nationalists aligned with the settlements and the Greater Israel enterprise. East Jerusalem Palestinians are now subjected to the annual Jerusalem Day “March of Flags,” an event characterized by crowds of Israeli youths parading through the Muslim Quarter (en route to the Western Wall), singing and carrying signs making clear that Jerusalem – all of it – belongs exclusively and forever to Jews, and often chanting racist, anti-Arab, anti-Muslim slogans, including in recent years “death to Arabs” and “Mohammed is dead.”
The obverse is equally true: Jerusalem Day has come to symbolize for the Palestinians the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, on a day when that occupation is particularly aggressive.
What happened on Jerusalem Day 2019?
Astute observers of Jerusalem will always keep one eye on the calendar, seeking dates on which the intersection of different calendars create situations when tensions soar and when, in a limited space, there are two conflicting religious or national events taking place simultaneously. This is precisely what happened on July 1 and 2 this year, when Israeli “Jerusalem Day” coincided, for the first time in thirty years, with the final days of Ramadan.
Given these exceptional circumstances and the potential for violence, the Police initially announced that, as in the past, they would not allow entrance of non-Muslims to the Mount in the final days of Ramadan, Jerusalem Day notwithstanding. They conveyed their decision to the High Court, in response to a suit filed by the Temple Mount movements to grant them access to the site on that day. However, on the morning of Jerusalem day, the police reversed their position, and to everyone’s surprise (including the Temple Mount activists themselves), they allowed 120 settlers Temple Mount activists to enter the Temple Mount/Haram Al Sharif, in spite of the customary practice whereby only Muslims are allowed to ascend the Mount in the closing days of Ramadan. As expected, violent disturbances erupted and the police closed the gates of the Al Aqsa mosque, triggering additional clashes.
Was the Status Quo violated?
As we have long noted, the term status quo is amorphous, interpreted in widely differing ways, and has changed over time. That said, we can state the following: the Temple Mount/Haram Al Sharif is traditionnally closed to non-muslim visitors on the last 10 days of Ramadan. However, for the past several years, the Police have traditionally allowed Temple Mount activists to ascend to the Mount on Jerusalem Day.
Which of these traditional policies is to take precedence? This is the first time this question was put to the test. The last time the last days of Ramadan coincided with Jerusalem Day, in 1988, non-muslim visitors were not authorized to enter the site. However this year that changed.
The Palestinians view this as yet another significant erosion of the status quo, and another challenge to the sacred integrity of the Mount. Past Israeli policies displayed attentiveness to the sensitivities of Muslim worshipers and the decorum that needs apply during the specially sacred days at the end of Ramadan. This year’s message is clear: when the aspirations of the religious right in Israel conflict with the sacred decorum of the site, the interests of the Jews will take preference over those of the Muslim worshipers. It is further evidence to the Palestinians that the police are unabashedly in legion with the Temple Mount movement, and are at their bid and call, with the traditional role of maintaining public order, decorum and a fragile stability becoming secondary.
The Palestinian fears are mirrored by the aspirations of the Temple Mount movement, and their supporters in the government: that the Temple Mount/Haram Al Sharif will be transformed from a site open to the dignified visits of non-Muslims, in coordination with the Waqf and in accordance with the acceptance of the customary decorum of the site, into a shared Muslim-Jewish site, similar to the Tomb of the Patriarch/the Ibrahmiya Mosque. This years Jerusalem day events indicate that the Palestinian fears and the Temple Mount movement’s hopes are coming true.
The Jordanian Foreign Ministry condemned Israel’s decision, stating that they “strongly condemn the continuation of the Israeli violations at the Al-Aqsa (Mosque) by extremists who have the backing of the security forces".