- Court’s temporary order to close Bab Al Rahme –On Sunday March 17, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court issued a temporary order to close the site of Bab Al Rahme located near the Mercy gate/Golden Gate, until legal proceedings are completed and gave the Waqf 60 days to respond. Jordan condemned the decision and rejected the authority of the court. Notably, the OIC also issued a statement condemning the decision of the Israeli court, demonstrating the mobilization of Islamic States on this issue.
- Immediate practical implications– The decision of the court was issued at the request of Jerusalem District’s prosecutors after the court conveyed that there was no valid order in place that allowed the police to close the site. It is now up to the Minister of Interior and the Prime Minister to order the police to enforce the court decision and close the site. The fact that this is a temporary order is a clear indication that the court does not want to rule on this issue, and is hoping that after the April 9 elections, cooler heads and steadier hands will prevail and that some kind of agreement can be reached.
- Context – This decision comes after a month and half of mounting tension which started on February 14 when the newly formed Waqf Council decided to defy Israeli authorities and open Bab Al Ahme to Muslim worshippers (see our report here).
These tensions reached a pick on March 12 when a firebomb was thrown at a police station and clashes followed after the police entered the esplanade. During these clashes the Grand Mufti Muhammed Ahmad Hussein was barred from entering the Temple Mount. In response, the police closed the Haram Al Sharif/Temple Mount until the following morning.
Neither the torching of the police station, large deployment of Israeli police inside the esplanade nor the closure of the site are routine events. They characterize the level of tension during the last two months. The incursion of the police into the Haram al Sharif/Temple Mount is viewed as a major violation of the status quo and of the authority of the Waqf. It further weakens the ability of the Waqf to act against violent activists and to contain tensions as it cannot be viewed as siding with Israeli authorities.
- Was the status quo violated?– The current dispute disclose the different, and often incompatible, interpretations that each side has regarding the very nature of the status quo.
For the Waqf, the entire Mount is a Muslim place of worship, and the status quo assures that any activity that is compatible with this character of the site is indeed permitted. They point to the fact that prior to the closing of the Bab al Rahme building in 2003, prayers periodically took place there. The Waqf is also deeply concerned over what they see as the steady erosion of the status quo and has tried to leverage the situation at Bab Al Rahme as a mean to strengthen its authority and capacity to oppose this trend.
For Israel, both in the security establishment and in the Temple Mount movement, the status quo should be based on a “snapshot” of the site as it was in 1967, , augmented by Israel’s tightening control over the site (see our analysis on the status quo here). Any deviation from this reality must be contested – unless of course if it serves the purpose of the Temple Mount Movement, i.e. increase the Jewish presence and allow what they see as their natural right: to pray on the Mount.
While there may have been prayers in the Bab al Rahme building in the past, transforming the site into a mosque, with a minba (the pulpit in a mosque), would constitute the opening of a fourth mosque on Haram al Sharif/the Temple Mount, and as such is a violation of the status quo. The opening of a mosque at the site (dedicated to daily, rather than occasional prayer) is viewed as a red line by Israeli authorities. This evokes memories of the events that surrounded the construction of Haram al Sharif/Temple Mount’s third mosque in 1996, the Marwani Mosque, a moved viewed by the Temple Mount movement as a humiliating violation of the status quo.
- Diplomatic efforts– The Waqf and Jordan have tried to advance a diplomatic solution to the situation at Bab al Rahme. Part of the attempt to end the current crisis includes Waqf’s announcement/demand to start maintenance works of Bab al Rahme, under the Waqf’s responsibility, at the opportunity of which the site would be closed. The court’s decision of March 17, which was to be issued a week earlier but was postponed to allow for Israeli-Jordanian diplomatic discussions, is most apparently an indication that Israel and Jordan have failed to come to terms on the beginning of the maintenance works, although it could allow both Israel and Jordan to save face. The International Crisis Group recently published a report on the crisis. It can be found here.
The dispute is unresolved, the various players have hunkered down into their opposing positions, and the potential for deterioration, up to and including the outbreak of violence, remains very real.