Keeping a Close Eye on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif

Following a protracted period of violence/tensions surrounding the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif, the site has been relatively out of the spotlight since the Israeli-Jordanian understanding of October 2015. This reflects a combination of Israeli restraint and determined, responsible policing (including arrest of demonstrators).  A concrete and notable result was the unexpected quiet in and around the site during the Jewish Passover holidays.

That relative quiet continues through the present, but the situation remains volatile and there are serious challenges on the near horizon.

In 2016, the first day of Ramadan may fall on June 6 or June 7 (depending on when Muslim authorities officially “see” the crescent moon heralding the start of the new month). And this year, Israel’s annual commemoration of Jerusalem Day – celebrating Israel’s “reunification” of Jerusalem – falls on June 5. Celebrations that day will include the annual the March of Flags, an event that every year sees right-wing Israelis parading through East Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighborhoods (including the Old City’s Muslim Quarter), extending well into the night and in a manner that each year appears designed to be ever-more provocative and offensive to Palestinians (see our report on Jerusalem Day 2015, here).

Every year, there is a danger that the March of Flags will spark violence; this year, with the backdrop of recent violence, the danger that Jerusalem Day events could spark a new wave of tensions or violence, if it is mismanaged by Israeli authorities, is greater than perhaps any time in the past. Notably, this year the Jerusalem Municipality decided to triple the budget for the march. As of this writing, there is a pending case before the Israeli courts, brought by Ir Amim, seeking to compel the march to bypass the Muslim Quarter (cutting things as close as possible, a hearing is set for Sunday, June 5 at 10am). Reportedly, organizers behind the march have already agreed that if Ramadan starts on June 6, the timing of the march will shift in order to not have it going through the Muslim Quarter in the into the late evening/night (HaaretzJPostArutz Sheva).

And then there is Ramadan itself, which will, like Passover, require a combination of Israeli restraint and determined, responsible policing (including to deal with the challenge of Arab MK’s trying to break visit the site, contrary to the policy of the government).

More Waqf Inspectors: In preparation for the month-long holiday, and against the background of Jordan’s decision to suspend the installation of cameras on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif (as a result of Palestinian opposition), Jordanian officials have acted to accelerate the revival and reinforcement of the Waqf Security Department at the site (including 150 new Waqf inspectors). This is a positive development, as it could improve the Waqf’s ability to carry out its own responsibilities in the handling of Palestinian provocateurs and, by doing so, contribute positively to the preservation of the status quo.

Controversy over Construction: Also in preparation for Ramadan, the Waqf began construction (reportedly more than a year ago) of additional restrooms outside the Temple Mount, in order to respond to the needs of the anticipated high number of visitors to the site during the holiday period. Such construction does not require a building permit, and the work was reportedly carried out with the knowledge of the Israel Antiquities Authority, which did not object until now. However, on June 1, the Jerusalem Municipality, at the direction of the Prime Minister’s office, ordered the Waqf to stop work on the project There appear to be two motivations behind that decision – the first one purely political, and the second one touching on the volatile issue of the Status Quo at the site.

Politically, the decision appears to have been a means to compensate far-right activists for the government’s decision to suspend the authorization process for the construction of a three-story building for settlers in Silwan (which was set to be approved  by the Jerusalem Local Planning Committee on June 1). It seems the risk of a harsh international reaction to that planned approval led the government to prevent the settlers’ plan in Silwan (at least for the time being). By making such petty deals, the government continues to turn the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a religious one, and to give settler extremists extraordinary power to hijack the nation’s agenda, contrary to the interests of Israel as a whole.

At the same time, the Waqf’s plan was not limited to only additional restrooms, but included a plan to create a new opening – in effect, a new gate – from the Muslim Quarter onto the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif, in order to enable direct access to the new restrooms. The number and location of the gates onto the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif are of great historical and cultural significance, and such a project would, indeed, constitute a breach to the Status Quo.

The Jordanian authorities are reportedly angered by this Israeli decision to shut down the Waqf project, made without coordination with Amman. There is a very real risk that this apparently minor issue will undermine the relative stability resulting from the October 2015 Israeli-Jordanian understanding and will revive the fears that each side seeks an archeological “cleansing” of the site at the expense of the other. There is also real risk that this dispute will undermine the Waqf’s legitimacy as the administrator of the site and affect its capacity and willingness to act more firmly against Palestinian provocateurs.