Though few Israelis are aware of it, tensions around the Temple Mount are surging. Since the January general election, right-wing and religious groups have stepped up their efforts to change the status quo between Jews and Muslims at this ultra-sensitive site − a development due in no small measure to the growing clout of Habayit Hayehudi in the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A variety of initiatives, some of which might be considered bizarre and dangerous, is getting next to no coverage in the mainstream Israeli media. However, the other side − the Palestinians, the Islamic Movement in Israel, even the neighboring Arab states − is watching the events on the mount with increasing concern.
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Arab fears have been fanned partly by political considerations that do not have very much to do with ideology or religion, but that makes little difference. A flare-up on the Temple Mount, which could erupt in the wake of even a small-scale confrontation, might well draw Israelis and the Palestinians into a more widespread clash and torpedo the peace negotiations between the sides (which seem to have little chance of succeeding as it is). For its part, the Israeli security establishment is also very much aware of the situation at the site. However, at this stage no concrete steps are being taken to calm the atmosphere, though the senior political decision makers appear to want to preserve the status quo and prevent a sudden deterioration that could spark a broader conflagration.
The Temple Mount has been the epicenter of violent clashes − both in Jerusalem and the territories − in the past. In 1990, Border Police killed 10 Palestinian demonstrators there, touching off a wave of serious terrorist attacks in Israel and the territories. The opening of the Western Wall tunnel in September 1996, provoked riots. And, of course, the second intifada, which Palestinians call
the Al-Aqsa Intifada, in reference to the mosque on the mount − erupted immediately after Ariel Sharon, then leader of the opposition, visited the site in September 2000.
The Temple Mount, even more than the rest of Jerusalem as such, is a magnet for religious extremists from both sides. They have no intention of forsaking their struggle for control of the site or of sharing sovereignty over it in a future political settlement.
In recent months, it has been almost impossible to keep up with the flow of reports concerning the Temple Mount. Hardly a day passes without some incident either on the mount or somehow related to it. The Jews who visit the site are aided by a well-oiled PR system and by dozens of organizations, most of which are united under the umbrella of the Joint Committee of Temple Organizations, and which feed information on the subject to the media. There is no doubt that the Temple Mount, which was formerly out of bounds for Jewish activists due to strict religious prohibitions, is now, as those prohibitions have eased, at the heart of the public activity of the religious-Zionist movement and of a broad swath of the Israeli political spectrum.
A random survey of relevant incidents during the past two weeks includes the following: MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid) called for the consecration of an ancient mikveh (ritual bath) adjacent to the mount, for women visitors; due to pressure by various Temple Mount groups, the police prevented Palestinian children from playing soccer on the mount; Yehuda Glick, a spokesman for the Temple Mount movements, was arrested and barred from visiting the site and plans to launch a hunger strike Sunday to protest the ban; and 10 Jews were arrested after hoisting flags and singing the Israeli anthem there.
Yet, even amid these and many other ongoing incidents, it is clear that the past few weeks have seen a sea of change in the situation. With a number of MKs having joined the struggle, a political debate about changing the status quo on the mount is taking place for the first time in years. On Monday, the Knesset’s Interior Committee will discuss the subject. The deputy minister of religious services, MK Eli Ben Dahan (Habayit Hayehudi), will present his plan to allow Jewish worship there. The Temple Mount organizations are very hopeful. Says American-born Glick: “There is no doubt that the time has come to implement the directive of the High Court of Justice and give Jews the right to pray [there]. The reality today is that those in control of the Temple Mount are violent elements who are dictating the agenda, and that is intolerable.”
The change in the perception of the Temple Mount by the religious-Zionist movement has been gradual; indeed, a slow but constant shift has been underway in these circles. Where once the subject was the exclusive preserve of wild-eyed, violent elements on the movement’s fringes, it is now at the center of its political map. Furthermore, in the present Knesset and coalition, the Temple Mount for the first time has an active and significant political lobby. MKs and ministers who are pressing for a change in the ongoing situation there include Miri Regev (Likud) who, as chairwoman of the Interior Committee, has already convened several meetings on the subject; Housing Minister Uri Ariel (Habayit Hayehudi); Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin (Likud); and Moshe Feiglin (Likud), who visits the mount regularly and has been detained there by police on several occasions. Also active are deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon (Likud), and MKs Shuli Moalem and Ayelet Shaked (both from Habayit Hayehudi).
What activists seek above all is a change in the status quo, according to which only Muslims are allowed to pray at the site at present. There is no legal obstacle to this, but the High Court of Justice − contrary to what was implied by Yehuda Glick − has repeatedly ruled that it is up to the police to decide whether to allow Jewish worship there. The police, for their part, have rigorously banned such worship on the Temple Mount on the grounds that it will almost certainly spark violent outbursts by Muslims.
As a result, a whole culture of praying in secret has developed. Among the methods: disguising prayer as an ostensible conversation on a mobile phone, or praying while guiding tourists or engaging in conversation. Sometimes, a prayergoer will tie his shoelaces while he is bowing in the direction of the site of the Temple. Lately, a new ploy has been added − singing the national anthem, “Hatikvah” − which infuriates Muslim worshipers.
Deputy minister Ben Dahan is a relative moderate in terms of his preference for change. “I want a Jew who goes up to the mount to be able to pray there,” he tells Haaretz. “I accept that at this stage there will not be prayer in a minyan [quorum of 10 males], but people can be allowed to pray for a few minutes without disturbing the Muslim public. We could start with an hour a day, during the period when Jews visit the Temple Mount.” (At present, Jews are allowed to visit on weekdays between 7:30 A.M. and 11 A.M.)
A somewhat different plan has been proposed by one Temple Mount activist, whereby Jews would be allotted an area adjacent to the Golden Gate (closest of all Old City gates to the mount, on its eastern edge) where benches would be placed for prayer at times when Muslim worship is not underway. The most radical plan was presented by Michael Fuah, a senior figure in Likud’s rightist Jewish Leadership faction. Fuah’s approach entails a dramatic change on the Temple Mount, based on the model of the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron: There would be a division in terms of both area and time allowed at the site between all worshipers, such that Jews would be granted a status that is at least equal to that of the Muslims.
It is all but certain that the Prime Minister’s Bureau, the police and the Shin Bet security service will abort such schemes. However, it is not clear how the other side will view the initiatives: When it comes to the Temple Mount, the obsessions of the Jewish activists are matched only by those of the Islamic Movement and Hamas. In contrast to the Israel media, which show little interest in the subject, the Palestinian press relates to every communique released by the Jewish activists with the utmost seriousness.
The idea that Israel may introduce at the Temple Mount the same prayer arrangements that are in place at the Tomb of the Patriarchs has become a hot topic among the Palestinians. They warn that the Arab world will not countenance this, and any change in the existing arrangements will spark a violent outburst. The tomb is a relatively quiet site, but then again, Jewish worship there is made possible thanks to a reinforced presence of the Border Police and the Israel Defense Forces; those troops are beefed up considerably on days when tens of thousands of Jews go to pray there. Under the arrangement in Hebron, each side, Jewish and Muslim, originally had 10 days each year of exclusive access to the holy site. Under the mediation of IDF officers, an extra half-day was added. However, an attempt by the army to extend the exclusivity arrangement by one more day encountered tough resistance by both Muslims and Jews. The army’s impression is that it is more important for each side to curtail the rights and access of the other side than to extend its own. The Temple Mount is, of course, an even more sensitive site, owing to its religious and historical importance.
The activities of right-wing Jewish movements on the mount have been widely condemned: by Jordan (which is in charge of the Islamic holy places in Jerusalem), the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Israel’s Arab citizens. The security establishment is no less concerned about a possible eruption on the Temple Mount than about the collapse of the bilateral negotiations or a worsening of the economic situation in the West Bank. The assumption is that Hamas would be quick to exploit any such event, which, though taking place far from its area of control in Gaza, could embroil its rivals in both the PA and Israel.
“The Temple Mount is like an irritable bowel,” one Israeli security figure says. “It can always flare up, and there will always be someone to irritate it. The combination of religious fantasies and historical background is a dangerous one. We have already paid a steep price for it in the past.