The status quo on Haram al Sharif/Temple Mount: From Erosion to Collapse

On the face of things, the events of Haram al Sharif during the week of Passover appeared to obey the pre-ordained patterns of recent years: unprecedented numbers of Jewish pilgrims flocking to the Mount, followed by a stern protest over the violation of the status quo by the Jordanians. Indeed, the numbers of Jewish visitors were the largest since the outbreak of the corona pandemic – 2641 during the four intermediary days of Passover.

The Jordanian submitted an official note of protest, condemning the “… continuation of the Israeli violations in the al-Aqsa Mosque/al-Haram al-Sharif …and allowing extremists … to enter the mosque in large numbers under the protection of the Israeli police, in flagrant violation of the legal and historical status quo and international law”. A leader of the Temple Mount movement welcomed the condemnation, saying it was yet another indication of the movement’s success.

But this is not the whole story as the events that unfolded during Passover on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif were anything but routine. There are in fact among the most dramatic since 1967.

What Happened?

We have for several years been chronicling the erosion of the status quo on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif. The events that took place during Passover do not only further erode the status quo but may cause its collapse.

What is the core principle of the Status Quo?

There are many, often conflicting, views of what the status quo is, and many of those opposing views are held in good faith (for a complete overview see here). Yet, there is one, bare-boned definition of the status quo which is unassailable and incontrovertible. It came from Prime Minister Netanyahu, and in his own voice: “Muslims pray on the Temple Mount, non-Muslims visit the Temple Mount”.

The only thing new in Netanyahu’s statement was the fact that an Israeli Prime Minister had publicly acknowledged and put into words a policy implemented by every Prime Minister since 1967 and according to which Haram al Sharif/the Temple Mount is exclusively a Muslim place of worship, open to the dignified visits of non-Muslims in accordance with the decorum of the site.

The Erosion of the Status Quo

In recent years, Jewish visitors have disingenuously moved beyond “testing the limits” of the prayer ban, and almost tauntingly displaying gimmicks that show that they can pray anyway. The police, who was until not long ago the fair arbiter and voice of reason on the Haram al Sharif/Temple Mount, has more and more become allied with the Temple Mount Movement and increasingly permissive in allowing the Jewish visitors to test the limits of the prayer ban. Still, in spite of all the antics, provocations and stunts by the Temple Mount activists, the main principle defining the status quo, as defined by Netanyahu, has been largely preserved: Muslims pray, non-Muslims visit.

This was indeed the case until the last Passover, which was celebrated from March 27 and April 3, 2021. In the intermediary days of the holiday, when visits were allowed to the Mount, the prayer ban was not anymore tested, but openly ignored.

The Temple Mounters in their own words

Immediately after Passover, the Coalition of Temple Mount Movements posted a YouTube clip proudly highlighting their “achievements” on the Mount during Passover and the shift of policy in regard to their “right” to pray. We have selected a sampling of the boasts made on camera by the Temple Mount activists, which we have elected to translate. Even for those who know no Hebrew, this footage is well worth watching.

  • “I had the honor for the first time of being the “Public Emissary [“Prayer Leader” for a quorum of at least ten men] in the Afternoon [Mincha] prayer opposite the holy site.” (0’26”)
  • “From what I understood, you couldn’t mumble, you weren’t allowed anything. The reality up there is different, so much so that I could do the Afternoon Prayer [“Mincha”] with a quorum [of at least ten men], and we completed a tractate [of the Talmud] with the Kaddish prayers [prayers which are customary upon the completion of a tractate]. We also said Hallel [the “Prayer of Praise”].(0’38”)
  • I ascended with the whole family, we said all of the Hallel (“Prayer of Praise) in song and chant, I was the Hazzan [the cantor], I prayed the Musaf [additional]Prayer], I recited the prayer leader’s repetition [the repetition aloud of the “Shemona Esreh “prayer by the “prayer leader”/cantor], the “Shehechyanu” (“Who has sustained us” Blessing]. (0’48”)
  • We were found worthy to ascend to the Temple Mount. What a blessed change. We prayed. (0’58”)
  • Twelve years ago, I was removed from the Temple Mount for humming, and not that’s all overturned and we all prayed there. (1’05”)
  • We were found worthy to ascend the Mount, and watch the Jewish people pray, happy. (1’13”)
  • It’s so exciting to ascend to the Temple Mount. May all the prayers be answered.

Some of the prayers were on top. (1’21”)

The Temple Mount activists are not describing an episodic opportunity to pray. They are ecstatically describing a major shift in policy according to which open demonstrative prayer is now acceptable. The Yaraeh organization, who regularly publishes on its facebook page

the achievements of the Temple Mount movement, made similar reports. After viewing this clip, it is simply not possible to assert that Israel is maintaining the status quo on Haram al Sharif but one has to reach the conclusion that the status quo has crumbled, if not collapsed.

The Ramifications

This was not done by stealth. What we saw in the clip, the Israeli Police saw on site – and permitted it to happen. This is no mere “change of rules”. What we are witnessing before our eyes is the transformation of a Muslim place of worship accessible to non-Muslims into a shared Jewish-Muslim site. That, at the very least, is the aspiration of the most “moderate’ Temple Mount activists (others going so far as to seek to replace the mosques with the Temple); it is also the deepest fear of the Palestinians and devout Muslims around the world.

The Continuation of Trump-Netanyahu Assault on the Status Quo

This change in the status quo is not taking place in isolation and is yet another manifestation of the concerted campaign that was led by Trump and Netanyahu to radically change the status quo.

This campaign started with the Trump Plan, which clearly departed from the Status Quo by stipulating that “People of every faith should be permitted to pray on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif”. Given that this is the last official statement made by the United States in this regard, the rejection of the status quo apparently remains the policy of the US government, be this intentional or not.

In line with the language of the Trump Plan, Trump and Netanyahu then tried to surreptitiously use the normalization agreements between Israel and the Arab states to secure the latter’s consent to a change in the status quo – an attempt that was exposed and failed.

Finally, there had been numerous reports, the credibility of which is uncertain, whereby Jordan custodianship on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif – which is one of the pillars of the status quo – will soon be joined or replaced by a Saudi custodianship. The attempt to dilute the Jordanian role on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif flourished under Trump, but has not entirely disappeared with his departure.

What is required?

  • None of this is unavoidable, nor irreversible. Whereas reviving the currently moribund political Israeli-Palestinian peace process is a very complex mission, moving to restore stability to the Mount is relatively simple.
  • It requires:
    • to engage in a resolute effort to reaffirm the validity of the status quo as defined by Netanyahu and as based on an already solid international consensus; and
  • to reaffirm the Jordanian custodianship over the holy sites and al Aqsa, as stipulated in Article 9 of the Israel Jordan Peace Agreement.
  • None of these steps is controversial, nor costly politically, but they have the potential of defusing a potentially dangerous situation. The sooner it happens, the better. The

Muslim and Jewish calendars – the progression of events from Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, Israeli Independence Day, Shavuot, Jerusalem Day and Tisha b’Av – may well indicate that the peak tensions lie ahead.