Tensions in Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif: Cyclical, with a Difference
This past year, the celebration of “Jerusalem Day” (May 22), Tish’a B’Av – the Jewish annual commemoration of the destruction of the two Temples (July 30) and Sukkot (October 13-20) – were marked by violent clashes as unprecedented numbers of Jewish worshippers were allowed to enter the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif.
Tensions on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif tend to be cyclical, rising and declining based on the Hebrew and Muslim calendars, and the interactions between them. The number of Jewish worshippers entering the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif rise on holidays, and tend to be more visible. During 2019, Jewish holidays fell on days sacred to Muslims, exacerbating already high tensions.
Why the events of 2019 are different?
In 2019, the patterns of the Hebrew and Muslim calendars created rare and potentially volatile situations. Jerusalem Day (celebrating the “unification” of Jerusalem in 1967, an event viewed by Palestinians as yet another chapter in the naqba) coincided this year with the final days of Ramadan. The fast day of Tisha b’Av that took place weeks later, coincided with Eid al-Adha, a Muslim holiday commemorating the end of the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.
Since 1967, it has been customary that on days of special sacred significance to Muslim worshipers, the visits to the Mount by non-Muslims were suspended. This policy derived from respect for the customary decorum on the site, and based on the fear that the potential for disputes and violence would be higher on these days.
Initially, the Jerusalem police decided to continue with these policies, and bar visits by non-Muslims on both Jerusalem Day and Tisha b’Av. In both cases, they reversed their decision and allowed the visits, whether under orders from the Government or under pressure from the Temple Mount Movement.
This change in policy is by no means coincidental. Yaraeh, an Israeli NGO that encourages Jews to visit the Temple Mount and to allow Jewish prayer at the site, has been openly advocating policies whereby the Jewish calendar takes precedence over the Muslim one.
That was not the only change in policy. According to Yaraeh , the police did not only reverse its decision, it did so without imposing any limits on the number of the Jewish visitors allowed, neither on the size of the groups, which reportedly reached unprecedented numbers in comparison to previous years during Tish’a B’Av: Yaraeh reported 1729 Jewish visitors (in comparison to 1400 last year), in large groups, which reportedly were allowed to sing and pray publicly, in total violation of the status quo. The Waqf reported 1300 Jewish visitors (in comparison to 1023 last year). Notwithstanding the gap in numbers, both organizations reports a steady growth in the number of Jewish visitors to the esplanade. A similar pick was reported during the celebrations of the Tishrei month (which include Rosh Hashana, Kippur and Sukkot, all taking place during October this year) as 5,940 Jewish visitors entered the site in comparison to 4,702 last year (Yaraeh numbers).
As we previously reported, the high, and growing numbers of Jewish visitors is a manifestation of the shift of Israel’s policy towards this area “in favor of opening the site up for greater Jewish access, facilitating Jewish visits, and granting Jewish visitors a degree of religious practice that is unprecedented since 1967”.
Has the Status Quo been Violated?
In the past, we have noted that there is no clear definition of what the status quo on Haram al Sharif/the Temple Mount actually is, and that contradictory views and interpretations of it can be held in good faith. Tensions on the Mount can often be attributed to differing, but legitimate, understandings of the status quo.
We believe that the events in recent months go beyond legitimate differences of opinion, and constitute a serious erosion of the status quo, and could possibly have a serious destabilizing impact.
The closest one can come to a broad and widely accepted interpretation of the status quo is this: the Temple Mount is a Muslim place of worship, open to the dignified and respectful visits of non-Muslims, in a manner coordinated with the Waqf and compatible with the customary decorum on the site. This interpretation is entirely in sync with Netanyahu’s formative declaration on the subject: “Israel will continue to enforce its longstanding policy: Muslims pray on the Temple Mount; non-Muslims visit the Temple Mount.”
Israeli policies in the past have embodied these principles. When visits of non-Muslims were suspended on days that are sacred, the primacy of the Muslim character of the site was maintained.
That policy has now changed: when there are special days or holidays in the Hebrew calendar, visits by Jews will take place, and in unprecedented numbers, even on Muslim Holy Days. The visits of large numbers of Jews to the site who do not conceal their aspiration to change the status quo – Jewish prayer, building a synagogue or even razing the mosques and building the Third Temple – are changing the delicate ecosystem on the Mount. The police are becoming increasingly more permissive towards the Temple Mount movement, constantly pushing the limits of what is allowed in terms of Jewish prayer. If, in the past, the police were generally perceived as a “fair broker” maintaining the stability on the Mount, today they are invariably perceived as being in legion with the Temple Mount movement, and doing their bidding.
Haram al Sharif/the Temple Mount is of inestimable religious significance for Muslim and Jewish believers alike. But for Palestinians, it is even more than that: it is perhaps the one “safe place” where the Israeli occupation was least intrusive, and their dignity most assured. The recent events and new policies on the Mount are now eroding the “safe space” that has been maintained in large part by the status quo. They are creating a palpable sense of violation and danger among Muslim worshipers, and these fears are not baseless.
The cumulative message of the new policies and recent events is clear: if, in the past, the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif was a Muslim place of worship open to the visits of non-Muslims, it is rapidly becoming a shared Muslim-Jewish site, like the Ibrahmiya Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. This is the declared goal of the Temple Mount Movement and the deepest fears of the Muslim worshipers. And it’s happening.
The erosion of the status quo on the Temple Mount is not receiving the attention it deserves. In the not-so-distant past, Secretary John Kerry of Senator George Mitchell would spend hours on the phone mediating between King Abdallah and Prime Minister Netanyahu, and there were direct communications between the two. This is no longer the case. The US is not engaged in the same way, and there have been no conversations between the King and the Prime Minister since July 2017.
This is an issue that is not going away. The trends of radicalization on the site are on the ascendancy. Ignoring them can be done only at grave peril to all of the stakeholders.