Last week, the Jerusalem police continued to organize understated visits by small groups of non-Muslims to the complex of mosques on the Temple Mount. Each day before noon, about 10 people enter, accompanied by police. They go up through the Dung Gate, near the prayer plaza at the Western Wall, take a short walk around the compound without entering the mosques - and leave.
This is a government-supported initiative of Public Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who wants to renew visits by Jews and foreigners to the Temple Mount. These were stopped nearly three years ago, following Ariel Sharon's famous visit and the outbreak of the intifada. Since then, only Muslims have been visiting the mosques.
The Palestinian Authority and the heads of the Waqf (Muslim religious trust), who run the holy site, Haram al-Sharif, are strongly opposed to the renewal of the visits. This was expressed in the list of demands to Israel that the Palestinians submitted in the framework of the cease-fire agreement. And Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat had passed at the Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee a decision that defines the renewal of the visits as an Israeli provocation.
The closure of the site to non-Muslims was initiated by the Waqf management in September, 2000. The defense establishment gave its approval and the Israel Police helped Waqf authorities block the entry of non-Muslims. However, in recent months there has been a change and now the main Israeli argument is that it is untenable that the place where the Temple stood be out of bounds to Jews (mainly Jews who are not observant, as most religious Jews obey the stricture of rabbinical law that prohibits entry into the Temple Mount complex). This argument sounds especially logical nowadays, when there are efforts afoot to bring about calm. Why, in fact, should the gradual return of non-Muslims to the most fascinating site in the land of Israel not be allowed?
Spokespeople for the Waqf and the PA say the problem is not one of principle, but rather a security and political problem. For decades, the site was open to visitors and the Waqf even made a lot of money selling entry tickets to the mosques. Now, the Waqf management is saying that tourists will not come because there is no tourism and Jewish visitors will also be few because most Israelis are afraid to go into the Old City. There remains, therefore, Jewish settlers in the territories and members of organizations like the Temple Mount Faithful and others who want to restore the site to its former glory and rid it of the "idolatrous abomination" (the Muslim mosques, according to the definition of one of them).
The heads of the Muslim institutions in Jerusalem say the small group visits that are being organized now by the police are dangerous and could ignite a huge conflagration. The visitors are accompanied by armed police (both in uniform and in civilian clothing). What will happen if Muslim youth start throwing stones at them? The police are liable to open fire and there will be casualties. As most of the non-Muslim visitors will be, as noted, Jewish fanatics - a clash between them and the Muslims is almost inevitable. The government of Israel will then try to separate the two sides, and the result could be partition. That is, under the auspices of the Israeli security forces, it will be determined where and when the Jews will be able to visit and the Temple Mount will be divided, de facto, between the State of Israel and the Muslim Waqf.
This scenario is not the fruit of a fevered imagination. Such things have already happened. The Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron is theoretically divided between Jews and Muslims, but the real control of the site is Jewish-Israeli. Only last Saturday, the head of the Palestinian qadis (Muslim judges), Sheikh Taysir al-Tamimi of Hebron, called upon the Muslims of Hebron not to be afraid and to pray at the mosque at the Tomb of the Prophets, which has almost emptied of Muslims. At Al-Aqsa, too, there are days when the mosque is empty. Three million Muslims from the Gaza Strip and West Bank are unable to go there because of the closure, and there remain only the Arabs of Jerusalem and the Muslims of Israel. However, frequently (as on Friday 10 days ago), the police prohibit young men (under the age of 46) from entering the mosques and then, instead of tens of thousands of worshipers, there are only a few hundred and masses of young Muslims stand and pray in the streets outside the walls.
The government of Israel would do well to see to the freedom of worship for the millions of Muslims in the territories, according to the Waqf, no less than it is seeing to visits by Jews and foreigners to Al Aqsa.
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