Temple Mount Violence Rooted in Contradictory Views and Cynical Politics

How can Israelis and Palestinians agree on the status quo if they can't even settle on the definition of Temple Mount?

Eyal Toueg

As before, the current wave of violence that started with Rosh Hashanah on the Temple Mount has supplied the main fuel. The Temple Mount is of course a national and religious symbol that has led to bloodshed for a hundred years. But even more importantly, both sides interpret the site differently.

The disagreements are so fundamental that they start with the definition of the compound and reach the meaning of the term “status quo.” Then cynical politicians on both sides stoke the controversy further; this creates bloody mirror images from which the violence flows once again.

If you ask the average Israeli what the Temple Mount is, he’ll probably say it’s a huge open space behind the Western Wall. The Al-Aqsa Mosque, he’ll add, is the important mosque on the compound’s south side. The average Palestinian won’t be able to distinguish between the two.

For a Muslim, the Al-Aqsa Mosque takes up the entire Mount, which Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary. The proof, say the Palestinians, is the Arabic name for the mosque. While the Israelis call the building Al-Aqsa, the Arabs call it Al-Qibli and note that it has no minaret. Al-Aqsa’s minarets are at the four corners of the complex and prove that the entire mount is a mosque — so all of it is holy.

For this reason, many Palestinians believe it’s sacrilege whenever anyone from a different religion enters the Temple Mount. So if you mention the status quo as a claim against this viewpoint, all it does is add to the tension.

While Israelis view the status quo on the Mount as a series of decisions by Moshe Dayan after the Six-Day War, Palestinians believe this definition has no significance. Their status quo relates to a much older event: agreements between the Ottoman Empire and Western powers after the Crimean War in the 1850s.

Like the Tomb of the Patriarchs?

The Israeli status quo limits Israeli sovereignty over the Mount, leaves the Islamic Waqf responsible for managing the site and bans Jewish prayers there. But according to the Palestinian status quo, the Temple Mount is fully owned by the Muslims; this is where the ban on people of other religions praying there comes from. So the fact that Israel conquered what it conquered in 1967 doesn’t change anything.

But the Palestinians are also afraid that the Israeli status quo may not remain intact. Among the Palestinians, there’s a fierce belief that Israel plans to change the understandings about the Temple Mount. They believe that in a first stage Israel will let Jews pray there and in a second stage will divide the compound into separate prayer times and areas for Jews and Muslims — as it has done with the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

This belief is based on the statements of politicians and efforts of Jewish organizations that focus on the Temple Mount. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s explanations that he doesn’t plan to change the status quo there can’t convince the Palestinians otherwise.

The Israelis, meanwhile, don’t believe that the Palestinian call “to defend Al-Aqsa” stems from a real fear. Instead, they see it as wild incitement designed to encourage violence.

There is a basis for this suspicion — the call is a cheap political slogan for the Palestinians, and it exacts a horrible price. It’s hard to ignore that most Palestinian public figures who are exciting the crowds well know that such fears have no basis in fact.

Still, for the broader public, the call to defend Al-Aqsa falls on fertile ground. Among researchers of Palestinian nationalism, the claim is that this nationalism has formed precisely around this feeling of a need to protect the Mount from Zionism and Western colonialism. More importantly, since the unification of Jerusalem in 1967, the Mount has become the clearest symbol of not only Palestinian nationalism, but also of the ability to shake off the occupation.

Sometimes the Palestinians will speak of the Mount as their precious lamb, their prized possession, the only place between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea where the occupation is limited and the Palestinians are free in spirit. This is also the explanation for the soccer games occasionally held at the site that drive the Jewish Temple Mount activists crazy. They see them as sacrilege.

That’s why the right’s desire to change the status quo on the Mount is not just seen as an assault on a holy site of Islam and the Palestinian and Arab national symbol. It’s almost seen as a personal injustice.

Ever more Jewish visits

None of this is new. To understand the processes on the Mount, we must understand the dramatic change in the way religious Zionism views the site.

In 1967, when the rules were made against Jews praying on the Mount, almost no one was bothered. Among the rabbis of the various factions, there was complete agreement that it was forbidden to go up to the Mount because Jews today are impure and therefore must not enter the site of the former Temple.

But this taboo has gradually eroded for more than a decade. More and more rabbis let people go up to the Mount, and more and more Jews are doing so.

A recent study found that the Jewish yearning for the Temple Mount has grown steadily, in tandem with the disappointment over Israel’s withdrawals. This includes the withdrawal from Sinai, the stipulations in the Oslo Accords and the Gaza disengagement.

The greater the disappointment, the more Jews go up to the Mount. Last year some 10,000 Jews visited the site, a bit more than 1 percent of the religious-Zionist community.

What really stirred things up was that this movement gained a foothold in politics — in Likud’s right wing and Habayit Hayehudi’s Tekuma faction. In the previous Knesset, half a dozen MKs and ministers dealt with Temple Mount matters daily via proposed bills, visits and protests against the ban on prayers there.

The Palestinians see all this as government policy and proof of a Zionist conspiracy. On top of this kindling, cynical Palestinian politicians have poured lies about Israel’s intentions. The latest attempt to get the Murabitat  — the women who shout and curse passersby on their way to the compound — off the Mount has been interpreted by the Palestinians as proof of Israeli intentions to change the status quo.

Otherwise, why remove those whose job it is to protect Al-Aqsa? Add to all this the regular tensions during the holiday period and despair over the frozen peace process, and we have the renewed cycle of violence.