Understanding "Status Quo" on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif
In recent months, the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif has again been in the spotlight. Much as been said about the “Status Quo” at the site — questions about what the Status Quo actually is, whether any party has acted to changed it, and whether any party seeks to change it. In this document, we offer a comprehensive look at the Status Quo, answering these questions and many others.
- A changing Status Quo – At the core of the current turmoil on and surrounding the Haram al Sharif/Temple Mount are accusations and counter-accusations by the sides that each has changed, or seeks to change, the Status Quo. These accusations and counter-accusations find traction in part due to the lack of clarity and consensus over the definition of the Status Quo. They also find ready audiences on all sides due to the reality that the Status Quo has, indeed, undergone significant changes over the past 48 years, at times with the stakeholders not conscious of the changes, and at other times willfully denying them.
- Twenty years of relative stability, punctuated by occasional and severe crisis – Between 1967 and the early 1990’s, very few Jewish visitors entered the site and the ban on Jewish prayers went almost unchallenged due the prohibition under Jewish law which was largely observed. Consequently, the Status Quo was less an issue of contention between Israel and the Jordan even though there were regular disputes, sometimes very severe, that sparked between both sides.
- The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Status Quo – The Oslo peace process and then the failed Camp David negotiations both contributed to putting the Temple Mount/Haram Al Sharif at the heart of Israeli-Palestinian confrontations, by raising fears among Israel’s national religious Jews and among Palestinian Muslims that the process would deny their respective claims to the site. Since then, the battle over the Status Quo at the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif has increasingly become a proxy for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict writ large.
- The rise of radical groups – In recent years, support for radical groups who hold hardline, exclusionary and zero-sum agendas has grown within both Israeli and Palestinian society. These groups, which include Hamas and the Islamic Northern Branch on the Palestinian side, and Temple Mount activists on the Israeli side, are gaining broader political support in their active quest to change the Status Quo and deny the connection of others to the site.
- The exclusion of the Palestinians from Israeli-Jordanian arrangements – Despite the Palestinian connection to Haram Al Sharif, the Palestinians have been denied in recent years any formal role on the site. The Status Quo, as an informal, de facto arrangement between Israel and Jordan, basically excludes the Palestinians from the administration or security of the site. The Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty, by recognizing Jordan’s special role in regard to Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem and ignoring the Palestinian claims to the site, endorsed in principle this exclusion. The Palestinians have also been excluded from the diplomatic effort that led to the most recent understandings between Israel and Jordan vis-à-vis the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif, which has contributed to the Palestinians’ hostility to those understandings. This constitutes a serious problem given that support from and cooperation from Palestinian leaders is critical to the stability of the Status Quo.
- The recent Israeli-Jordanian understanding of October 2015 – Following the outbreak of violence earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of State Kerry brokered a set of understandings between Jordanian King Abdullah and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, designed to lower tensions at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. These understandings (discussed below) clarify one the most important pillars of the Status Quo, explicitly reasserting that on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif there is freedom of worship for Muslims, and freedom of access for non-Muslims, and reasserting the longstanding ban on Jewish prayer. These understandings do not, however, clarify all the parameters of the Status Quo that have been a source of contention.
What is the Status Quo?
Israel took control over East Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif, on June 7, 1967. On June 27-28 of that same year, Israel annexed East Jerusalem (and surrounding areas of the West Bank). Since that time, Israel has had de facto (and, under Israeli law, de jure) overall authority over the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif. However, from the start, Israel delegated certain authorities at the site to Jordan and the Jordanian Waqf (which operates on the Haram al Sharif/Temple Mount itself) and Israel formally recognized Jordan’s special role at the site in the 1995 Jordan-Israel peace treaty. In this way, Israel has since 1967 preserved many of the pre-existing arrangements at the site, but even these have changed and evolved over time.
In the past through the present day, there is no clear or consensus definition of the Status Quo on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif, even though there are constant components that have characterized it at all times (discussed below).
The Status Quo has always been subject to each side’s interpretation, and there have never been any mechanisms to preempt, contain or resolve resulting disagreements or crises or to preserve what are the core principles for each side. Moreover, given the dynamic nature of the Status Quo, each side has tended to focus on a different point in history when defining the Status Quo, and for the most part it is fair to assume that each side genuinely believes that its actions are in accordance with the chosen version of the Status Quo – which in no way prevents the other side from viewing such actions as a provocative attempt to change the Status Quo.
What are the key elements of the Status Quo?
In spite of its dynamic nature, the following issues have always defined the Status Quo:
Access: The site is open to non-Muslims and Muslims alike for purposes of visits (dating to pre-1967).
Worship: The site is a site of worship for Muslims only.
Jordan’s special role: Jordan enjoys a special role in the Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem (pre-dating 1967), formalized in the 1995 Israel-Jordan peace treaty and in a March 2013 Jordan-PLO agreement.
Administration and exercise of authority: The Waqf, operating under the authority of Jordan, is responsible for administering the Esplanade (dating to pre-1967). It enjoys a great deal of autonomy in exercising its authority, even though fundamentally Israel has always retained overall authority on the site, which it periodically exercises in matters such as rules of access, maintenance and construction, etc.
Security and Entry: Israel is responsible for security on the perimeter of the site and the Waqf is in principle responsible for security on the Esplanade itself. In practice, the Waqf has been reluctant to exert its authority and Israel has maintained a symbolic presence on the site, including a police station, and has always exercised its authority to deploy its security forces on the Mount during disturbances. Such intervention has become much more common as tensions have soared. The presence of the Israeli police on the site has increased over the years also due to the need to escort, and contain, Jewish groups inside the site.
Coordination: There has always been some level of coordination between Israel and Jordan on issues related to the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif. The crisis that emerged in 1996, following the Waqf excavations at the Solomon’s Stables and Israel’s opening of the northern entrance to the Western Wall tunnel, seriously undermined the trust between both sides and ended mechanisms of coordination that were central to the stability of the Status Quo. While attempts to restore previous levels of coordination since that time have failed, Israel and Jordan have maintained a minimal level of coordination over the years, with regular ups and downs. This coordination is invariably discreet, at times at taking place at the local level between the Waqf and the Israeli police, and at times at higher echelons, including direct coordination between the Prime Minister of Israel and the King of Jordan.
The Status Quo on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif is not and has never been static. Rather, various elements have changed over time due to changed circumstances, like the erosion of Israeli-Jordanian coordination and increasing political and religious attempts to challenge the foundations of the Status Quo.
What follows is a description of what has been the common practice on the ground and how it has evolved over time.
Access: who, when, & how?
Access for Muslims:
- In principle, Muslims enjoy full freedom of access and worship at the site.
- In practice, Israel places restrictions on Muslim access. These restrictions, which are referred to by Israeli security as the “dilution policy,” include routinely barring Muslim men under a certain age from entering the site, both at prayer times and at other times, as well as barring all Muslims from the site when Israeli Temple Mount activists are present.
- Age restrictions were also applied during the First and Second Intifadas, but less frequently and less broadly than is the practice today. For example, in the past, restrictions applied only to men under the age of 30, then under the age of 40. In October 2015, during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, the restrictions reached unprecedented levels as they applied to men under the age of 50 and to Palestinian Muslim women.
- This “dilution” policy is a red flag for Palestinians and the Waqf, who fear an incremental implementation of a “temporal division” of the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif – i.e., limiting access to the area at certain times to Muslims only, and at other times to Jews only. Jewish Temple Mount activists have long suggested that this is exactly the new status quo they seek, pointing to the Tomb of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron as an example where such arrangements have been implemented already (arrangements implemented by Israel in the mid-1990s for the benefit of Jews wishing to worship at the site, after a Jewish terrorist massacred 29 Muslims praying there).
Access for non-Muslims:
- Israel holds the key to the Mughrabi Gate (the entrance to the Haram al Sharif/Temple Mount located adjacent to the Western Wall), through which it controls access for Jews and other non-Muslims (dating post-1967).
- Non-Muslims – religious Jewish visitors and tourists – enjoy access to the site at specific times and for the purposes of visit, but not for the purposes of prayer.
- Visits by non-Muslims are completely prohibited on Fridays and on Muslim holidays, and, since 2000, on Saturdays.
- Since 2000, the Waqf permits only Muslims to enter the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, located on the Esplanade.
- On days when non-Muslim entry is permitted, it is limited to times that fall between Muslim prayers and for periods ranging between two and four hours per day.
- The government of Israel limits the number of religious Jewish visitors permitted to access this site, but this number has changed over the years: until 2000, it was limited to groups of 5 or fewer; starting in 2003, the group size was increased to 10 people; in 2010, it was increased to 20 people; in 2011, it was increased to groups of 50 people at a time.
- Who has the authority to impose restrictions at the entry of the site and to decide when and under which conditions access is authorized? The Waqf claims that until 2000, the Waqf was determining the size of the group, the rate of their entry and could veto the entry of specific activists. Since 2003, with the deterioration and, at times, collapse of Israeli-Waqf coordination, Israel has completely controlled access for Jews and other non-Muslims.
Access & the 2014 and 2015 Amman Understandings:
- Access and the November 2014 Understandings – In November 2014, following months of intense violence in Jerusalem, King Abdullah and Prime Minister Netanyahu met in Amman. They arrived at understandings regarding the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif, including with respect to access, which were never made public. Reportedly, there is no written agreement.
- Access and the 2015 Amman Understandings – In October 2015, following an upsurge in violence in Jerusalem and around the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif, King Abdullah and Prime Minister Netanyahu met again in Amman. A key outcome of that meeting was Netanyahu’s clear, public commitment to preserving a critical element of the Status Quo: freedom of access and prayer at the site for Muslims, and freedom of access, but not worship, for non-Muslims.
- Restrictions on the visit of public figures and political activists interested in changing the Status Quo – Following the 2015 understanding, Netanyahu subsequently directed Israeli police to prevent the entry of Israeli politicians to the site. In November 2015, Israel’s chief of police imposed a formal ban on visits by Israeli Knesset Members, and the Knesset ethics committee ruled that visits to the site by Members of the Knesset would be considered a violation of the Knesset’s ethical code. In addition, the Israeli Police maintains a list of known Jewish provocateurs banned from the site.
- In addition, the size of groups of religious Jewish visitors permitted to access the site was reportedly set by the Israeli police at 15 persons at a time and limited to 60 persons per day. Israeli police also requires coordination prior to such visits. The Minister of Interior, Gilad Erdan, partially denied these arrangements following their publication in the media.
Coordination between Israel & the Waqf
For decades, the least visible, but possibly the most important, element of the Status Quo was Israeli-Jordanian coordination, primarily through the Waqf.
Between 1967 and 1996, such coordination was the modus operandi on all things related to arrangements on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif, routine and non-routine. This included access, security, maintenance, archeology, etc.
This coordination began to fray in 1996, with the opening of the northern entrance to the Western Wall tunnels by Israel (discussed below). It was further tested in 2000, with the explosive visit to the site by Ariel Sharon and the outbreak of the Second Intifada. At that time, the sides decided to completely shut down the site to non-Muslims.
Israel’s coordination with the Waqf deteriorated even further in 2003, when Israel decided unilaterally to re-open the Mughrabi Gate and permit renewed access to the site by non-Muslims, after unsuccessful attempts to receive the Waqf approval.
Some minimal level of coordination has been maintained since then, but the scope and quality of the daily coordination that existed prior to the second Intifada has not been restored.
Principle vs. practice
In principle, since 1967, Israel has held overall authority in terms of security on the perimeter of the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif, while Waqf security personnel are responsible for enforce calm and prevent escalation of tensions and conflict on the Esplanade, based on to Jordan’s special role on the site.
In practice, the Waqf is not actively exercising its authority or carrying out its responsibilities vis-à-vis Palestinian provocateurs, while Israel has assumed sole responsibility over access of Jews to the site since 2003. De facto, Israel has taken responsibility for overall security on the site.
Closure of the site
It has been a fairly consistent Israeli policy since 1967 that when tensions soar, Israel closes the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif to Jewish visitors, and, in extremis, to everyone. That policy has radically changed under the current Israeli Government, which today is implementing a policy of keeping the site open to Jewish visitors at all costs, even if doing so leads directly to violence. Senior echelons of the Israeli police, which believe that the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif should be closed to visitors during times of high tensions, have on occasion challenged Cabinet-level guidelines instructing them to keep the site open.
Respective responsibility to enforce calm and prevent escalation
Security & the Amman Understandings, 2014 – While the 2014 Amman understandings were not made public, these understandings reportedly included a commitment by Jordan (via the Waqf) to restrain and prevent the entry of Palestinian activists who use violence, and a commitment by Israel to prevent the entry of Jewish activists seeking to change the Status Quo. These commitments were apparently made only in principle and as part of a general commitment to prevent an escalation, rather than forming concrete commitments grounded in operational steps each side would take (or avoid taking) in order to prevent escalation.
Specific operational measures perceived as violating the Status Quo (or as disrespectful of the sanctity of the site) – Since the 2014 understandings, each side has taken steps that the other views as violations of the Status Quo. These include: the removal by Israel of Waqf guards on September 20, 2015, prior to Israeli police raiding the site; Israel’s action to place armed police on the roof of Al Aqsa Mosque and Israeli police entering Al Aqsa mosque while wearing boots, in violation of the integrity and sanctity of the site; an Israeli policy of demanding and retaining the identifications cards (hawiyya) of Muslims entering the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif; and the Waqf permitting Palestinian rioters to barricade themselves inside the Al Aqsa Mosque and to stockpile stones and other materials inside the mosque’s entrances.
Security & the Amman Understandings, 2015 – According to the October 2015 understanding, Israel and Jordan reportedly agreed, in principle, to the installation of 24-hours cameras that will monitor events on the Temple Mount/Haram Al Sharif. This agreement entails further Israeli-Jordanian discussions on the practical details of the cameras installation and mode of operation, but so far there have been no concrete results. Palestinians public figures have publicly opposed the camera initiative.
Maintenance & Archeology
Until 1996, coordination between the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Jordanian Waqf included some degree of discreet cooperation on archeology and small maintenance work taking place on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif. Such coordination enabled the Waqf to undertake maintenance works on the Esplanade, and provided the Waqf greater legitimacy as the administrator of the site, while reassuring Israelis that Jewish archeological equities at the site were being respected.
Cooperation between the Waqf and Israel Antiquities Authority ended in 1996. This was due in part to the unauthorized excavation by the Jordanian Waqf of tens of thousands of tons of dirt at the site, using heavy machinery, as part of the construction of a subterranean mosque at an area called Solomon’s Stables. It was also due to the opening by Israel, in September 1996, of the northern entrance to the Western Wall tunnels. These two acts were reciprocally seen as grave violations of the sanctity of the site for Jews and Muslims, respectively. This was not the first escalation of this kind between Israel and the Waqf (e.g. in 1981 there was a severe crisis following Israeli digging under the Esplanade) but it marked a sharp deterioration in the relations between the Waqf and Israel.
The end of cooperation between the Waqf and Israel Antiquities Authority further opened the door to growing mutual fear that each side seeks an archeological “cleansing” of the site, in order to deny the historic connection of Judaism to the Temple Mount or of Islam to the Haram al Sharif. This fears are in large part irrational, but also, to a lesser extent, fed by past traumatic experiences and inflammatory statements made by public figures on both sides (e.g., the destruction of Jewish artifacts during Jordanian excavations at Solomon’s Stables; Jewish extremists’ openly declared plans to blow up the mosques on the Esplanade and build the Third Temple, etc.). The visceral, almost pathological, fears that each side harbors with regard of the intentions of the other have become one of the main sources of tensions between Israel, the Jordanian Waqf and the Palestinians in regard to the site.
As a direct implication of this crisis, Israel has since 1996 greatly restricted the Waqf’s ability to undertake even minor maintenance works at the site.
Inflammatory rhetoric has always had a major impact on the levels of tension in and around the Mount, and the frenzy of mutual denial that has become common in recent years was a major contributory factor in the recent round of disturbances.
Following the October 2015 Israeli-Jordanian understanding, Prime Minister Netanyahu has demonstrated greater determination to clamp down on provocative statements by members of his government who expressly called for a change of the Status Quo (e.g. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, Minister of Culture Miri Regev).
The willingness of the PM to demonstrate continued resolution to contain and act against this type of provocation (in the form of statements or visits by Israeli public figures) will be a sign of his determination to act in accordance with the Israeli and Jordanian understandings and observe the Status Quo.
What can be done to preserve/restore/calibrate the Status Quo
The solution to the current crisis over the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif is not to try to formalize the Status Quo. The undefined and flexible (within certain limits) nature of the Status Quo has, in fact, been critical to the durability of arrangements at the site – and the relative stability of the site – since 1967. Any effort to force the sides to articulate precise, formal definitions of the Status Quo will lead not to reconciliation of these views, but to greater conflict and further undermine arrangements that, under responsible stewardship, have proven durable and beneficial to all sides.
That said, there are things both sides should do today to restore the Status Quo so that it can remain durable and beneficial to both sides in the future.
Israel-Jordan Overall Coordination: Ongoing cooperation and coordination between Israel and the Waqf – on all issues relevant to preserving security and smooth daily operations on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif – must be restored. The October 2015 understandings reached between the parties in Amman should be leveraged as a first step to achieving this.
Palestinian involvement: By marginalizing the Palestinian role on the site and denying the Palestinian Authority any formal involvement, Israel and Jordan have generated considerable hostility to the 2015 understandings among Palestinians. Any genuine efforts to achieve sustainable stability in Jerusalem will require greater involvement of the Palestinians, at both the political level and in daily management issues. While current political constraints and the dynamics on the ground make obtaining Israeli and Jordanian consent to any significant and visible Palestinian involvement, beyond involvement at the informal level, highly unlikely at this stage, way to enhance the role of the Palestinians must be pursued.
Access – Visits and Worship: Commitments made as part of the 2015 Jordan-Israel understandings, regarding preserving the site as a site for Muslim visit and worship, and a site for non-Muslim visit (but not worship), must be maintained, in letter and in spirit.
Security: Jordan-Israel coordination and cooperation with respect to security at the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif must return and be strengthened. The October 2015 decision to introduce security cameras at the site should be leveraged as a first step to achieving this. In this context, the sides must work urgently to define and implement operational security approaches and standard operating procedures for times of crisis that both sides agree do not violate the Status Quo. In addition, Israeli decisions related to closure or restrictions on access to the site must be de-politicized, consistent with the genuine security interests of Israel and Israel’s commitment to preserving the Status Quo. Finally, the Waqf should be pressed to implement its responsibilities in the handling of Palestinian provocateurs. To that end, Israel and Jordan should cooperate to assess ways to strengthen the Waqf’s capacity to carry out its security responsibility, including examining the number of the Waqf security personnel who should be at the site.
Daily Operations: Improved Jordan-Israel coordination and cooperation with respect to maintenance & archaeology on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif could have a salutatory effect on tensions at the site. Granting the Waqf greater room of maneuver with respect to minor maintenance works could have a positive effect on its motivation to act against Palestinian provocateurs on the Esplanade.
Provocations: Israeli officials must refrain from provocative rhetoric vis-à-vis the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif, and Prime Minister Netanyahu must continue to act against provocative rhetoric and actions by Israeli public figures. Similarly, Jordanian and Palestinian officials must clamp down on provocative Muslim rhetoric vis-à-vis the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif and refrain from denying Jewish ties to the Temple Mount.
When Israel claims that it has acted in a manner that respects the Status Quo, it is not without foundation; and when Jordan claims that Israel has acted in violation of the Status Quo, or that Israel is seeking to change the Status Quo, Jordan is likewise making a valid claim. While for the most part the technical components of the existing arrangement on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif have been maintained, there have been major shifts in the daily dynamics at the site. If, in the past, tensions were sparked by a specific event, in recent years the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif has become the site of almost daily contention and provocation, even as, technically, the Status Quo has been largely maintained.
The purpose of the Status Quo is to guarantee some kind of pragmatic equilibrium in which no stakeholder perceives its sacred equities at Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif as under threat. No check-list, however exhaustive, will suffice to catalogue these equities, and the maintenance of the Status Quo, however interpreted, cannot survive bad faith. In order for equilibrium to be maintained, there must be active promotion of a respectful discourse regarding both the Muslim and Jewish attachments to the site, embrace of a genuine sensitivity to the fears of the respective stakeholders, and pursuit of policies geared to neutralize the impact of the ever-present provocateurs.