Playing with Fire, Part 1: Debating the Status Quo on the Temple Mount
Last August, we warned of Jewish religious and political extremists targeting the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif, pressing to change the delicate status quo at the to open the site for Jewish prayer for the first time since 1967 (for an in-depth analysis of this effort, from its inception to the present day, see our earlier piece in ForeignPolicy.com – “Status Quo on the Temple Mount?”).
Over the past two weeks, these Temple Mount activists were out again in force, in some of the most destabilizing developments the area has seen in recent years (certainly since the battle over the Mughrabi Gate). For an excellent report covering on the overall story, see: Mounting tension: Israel’s Knesset debates proposal to enforce its sovereignty at Al-Aqsa Mosque – a move seen as ‘an extreme provocation to Muslims worldwide’ (Independent UK 2/27). Under current and foreseeable volatile circumstances, this campaign is dangerous, and any change in the status quo tantamount to pyromania.
Comment: Prime Minister Netanyahu deserves credit for standing up to the extremists in the Knesset and in his government over this issue in the past and again this week – actions taken in no small part due to his demonstrated concern for the health of Israel-Jordan ties. The situation remains tense and bears close watching.
A detailed chronology of recent events is as follows:
February 17: News of plans for a 2/25 Knesset debate over the status of the Temple Mount, slated to address “the loss of Israeli sovereignty on the Temple Mount” sparked concerns and outrage in Amman, which saw the debate as a step toward challenging Hashemite stewardship of the site (a role enshrined in the Israel-Jordan peace treaty). The debate was initiated by far right-wing MK Moshe Feiglin, who in advance of the debate sent a letter to other MK’s attacking the Muslim Waqf for its alleged violations of Jewish equities at the site and laid out complaints over lack of Jewish access and freedoms at the site. For more see: Knesset debate on Temple Mount raises ire in Amman(Times of Israel 2/17)
February 19: MK Feiglin (the initiator of the coming Knesset debate over status of the Temple Mount) engaged in his most recent highly provocative visit to the site. The visit was his first since the police issued an order barring him from the site for 10 months. That order was “based on past experience, including relating to Feiglin’s patterns of behavior at the Temple Mount, and MK Feiglin’s recent announcement that he does not intend to coordinate his visits at the location with the Israel Police in the future, for various reasons. The police and security forces estimated that given the circumstances, MK Feiglin’s ascent to the Mount could potentially harm the security of the state, and his ascent to the Mount was therefore prevented.” Commenting on the visit, Feiglin stated: “I see my ascent this morning as the beginning of the return of full Jewish sovereignty to the Temple Mount…” For more, see: Feiglin Ascends Temple Mount for First Time Since Police Ban (Arutz Sheva, 2/19)
February 21: Protests broke out on Temple Mount/Haram Al Sharif following Feiglin’s visit, leading to the arrest of 6 Palestinians. In an interview with Palestinian media, Sheikh Ikrima Sabri, the Imam of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and head of the Supreme Muslim Council, warned Israel on Friday against “harming” the mosque. He also reportedly said that that Al-Aqsa was a “red line” and that “We will not give up even one grain of earth (at the Al-Aqsa Mosque), since the Jews have no connection to it whatsoever.” For more see: Al-Aqsa is a ‘Red Line’, Warns Sheikh (Arutz Sheva, 2/21), 6 detained in clashes at al-Aqsa as Israeli MK visits (Ma’an, 2/21)
February 25: As scheduled, the Knesset held a debate over the status of the Temple Mount. During, the debate, Likud MK’s called for the Mount to be opened for Jewish prayer. MK Feiglin called for the government to apply the full sovereignty of the State of Israel in the entire Temple Mount….to allow free access to any Jew to the Temple Mount through any gate, and allow them to pray.” MK Gal-On (head of Meretz), who said she supported the Jewish right to access but that it should come from an agreement, called Feiglin’s efforts, “the match that may ignite the gunpowder on which the entire Middle East rests in order to harm the peace talks with the Palestinians” Arab MKs boycotted the discussion.
Predictably, clashes broke out on the Temple Mount/Haram Al Sharif in protest. Also in protest, Jordanian opposition Members of Parliament called for freezing and eventually cancelling the Israel-Jordan peace treaty. That same day, Hezbollah-affiliated media reportedly released a statement “praising the Palestinian people for their struggle against Israel in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and called for a wide solidarity campaign in order to stress the importance of Palestine and Jerusalem to the Arab people.”
For more, see: Debate on Temple Mount worship rocks Knesset (Times of Israel 2/25), Israeli lawmakers debate Temple Mount sovereignty (JTA 2/25), Knesset Temple Mount Debate Tackles Jewish Prayer Rights (Arutz Sheva 2/25), 50 Palestinian youths assemble in al-Aqsa (Ma’an 2/14), Israeli police attack Aqsa protesters ahead of annexation debate (Ma’an 2/25), Riots on the Temple Mount Injure Two Police Officers (Arutz Sheva 2/25), Police, Palestinians clash on Temple Mount (Jerusalem Post 2/25), Police enter Temple Mount, arrest 3 Palestinian rioters (YNet 2/25), Jordanian MPs Demand End to Peace With Israel Over Temple Mount (Arutz Sheva 2/25), 47 Jordanian MPs call to cancel Israel peace treaty over Knesset Temple Mount debate (Jerusalem Post 2/26), and Knesset holds volatile discussion on Temple Mount sovereignty (YNet 2/25)
February 26: The Jordanian parliament voted (unanimously, but in a non-binding resolution) to expel Israel’s ambassador to Jordan and recall the Jordanian Ambassador to Israel. Egypt’s Foreign Minister expressed concern about Israel allowing extremists to “lead the political scene” regarding the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif and reportedly “warned that a declaration of Israeli sovereignty over the compound would cause an explosion not just in Palestine, but across the whole region.” The Prime Minister of Jordan told a Qatar newspaper, “If Israel wants to violate the peace treaty in this issue, the entire treaty, its article, details and wording will be put on the table.” The PA reportedly requested an emergency session of the Arab League to discuss “Israeli attacks on the Al-Aqsa Mosque.” In that session, held the same day, the Arab League reportedly discussed filing a complaint with the UN over Israeli violations related to the Haram al Sharif, and called on the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to “spread awareness regarding the dangers threatening the compound in order to gain support for the complaint.” It also called on the EU, major powers, and UNESCO to “take responsibility in Jerusalem and to protect Islamic and Christian holy sites from Israeli threats.”
For more, see: Knesset Temple Mount debate raises hackles in Arab world (Times of Israel 2/26), Jordan lawmakers vote to expel Israeli ambassador over Temple Mount debate (Haaretz 2/26), Jordan Threatens to Revoke Peace Treaty Over Temple Mount (Arutz Sheva 2/26), Jordan MPs want Israel peace treaty scrapped (Al Arabiya 2/26), Jordan PM: Israel treaty may be reviewed (Middle East Online 2/26), Egyptian FM concerned about Aqsa sovereignty debate (Ma’an 2/26), Egypt’s FM Concerned About Knesset Debate on Temple Mount (Arutz Sheva 2/26), Israeli Police and Palestinians Clash at Temple Mount (NBC 2/26), Arab League to hold session on Aqsa mosque (Ma’an, 2/27), Arab League discusses filing UN complaint on Al-Aqsa violations (Ma’an, 2/27)
February 27: The Israeli Prime Minister’s office issued a statement noting: “The policy of the government of Israel has been and continues to be the maintenance of the status quo at the Temple Mount, including freedom of access for all faiths to the holy sites. The government has no intention of changing this policy.” For more, see: Israel will not change status quo on the Temple Mount (Jerusalem Post 2/27). Also see: Unholy tensions on Temple Mount (Al Arabiya).
March 5: Far right-wing MK Miri Regev (Likud Beytenu) formed a new Knesset subcommittee of the Knesset’s Interior Committee “to discuss Jewish entry to the Temple Mount.”