The Gate of the Jews

Nadav Shragai
Nadav Shragai

On August 15, 1967, the first Tisha B'Av after the Six-Day War, the chief military chaplain, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, and members of the Chief Rabbinate went through the Mugrabi Gate to the Temple Mount plaza. They took with them a shofar (a ram's horn), an ark, and a portable platform from which to read the Torah, and held a Minha afternoon prayer service. Three days later, on the Sabbath (Shabbat nahamu), Goren planned to bring thousands of Jewish worshippers to the Temple Mount plaza and thereby establish a precedent. His plans and deeds completely contradicted the status quo then-defense minister, Moshe Dayan, had decided upon a week after the war, when he announced that Jews would be able to visit the Temple Mount but would not be able to pray there. Goren's actions drew a strong Muslim protest in their wake alongside a public storm which eventually forced the government to take an official decision, something it had previously tried to avoid: Jews who want to pray on the Temple Mount will be directed to the Western Wall. There will be no Jewish ritual on the mount.

The gate is closed

The deep tension of those days led to the parallel establishment of another status quo arrangement at the Mugrabi Gate. On the face of it, this was a less important arrangement, but it held great significance since it established the reality that has existed there for almost 40 years: The only gate to the Temple Mount for which Israel holds the key is the Mugrabi Gate. This is also the central gate through which tourists, Jews and members of the armed forces enter the Temple Mount. (Muslims generally enter the Temple Mount from the other gates.)

The insistence of the police and other security personnel that this gate be used even after the ramp that led to it collapsed, and the current fierce controversy over building a new Mugrabi Gate bridge to replace the old ramp, are the consequence of the status quo that was determined in those days.

In response to Rabbi Goren's actions, the members of the Waqf (Muslim Religious Trust) took independent action. They locked the Mugrabi Gate and did not permit members of the military chaplaincy to use it. This was the first time the public heard that the military chaplaincy had an office in the Dar Abu Saud building next to the gate. When this fact became common knowledge, Dayan ordered the military chaplaincy be evicted from there immediately, and a military police unit was stationed at the site instead.

Nevertheless, this did not end the dispute over the gate. At the end of August 1967, the cabinet held a discussion about arrangements for visits to the Temple Mount. The Waqf charged every Jew or tourist who wanted to visit the Temple Mount a fee, while Arabs could enter without paying. Menachem Begin protested this fact and the cabinet ministers agreed with his view. Obliging Jews to pay, it was decided, was contrary to the principle of free access to the site and, therefore, Israel would henceforth hold this gate and take control of it. Then-religious affairs minister, Dr. Zerach Warhaftig, believed he had the authority to carry out the decision and demanded that the head of the Waqf, Hassan Tahboub, hand over the keys. The Muslim religious council published a statement saying that, "Haram al-Sharif [the noble sanctuary] is a holy place to Muslims and no other body has a right to it. The Israeli regime is entitled to supervise security at the site but not to gain control of it for other purposes." The council made it clear that it would not hand over the key.

A few days later, Dayan spoke to the chief brass of the Israel Defense Forces and announced that the demand to allow Jews free access to the Temple Mount had been accepted. That very same day, Dayan and the GOC Central Command, Uzi Narkis, visited the Mugrabi Gate. David Farhi, who was Narkis' Arab affairs adviser, took the keys from Tahboub, and the military police were stationed at the entrance to the gate. For about a year, the Muslims reconciled themselves to the fact that the keys had been taken from them, but when in 1969 the Al-Aqsa Mosque was set on fire by the Australian tourist Michael Rohan (a Christian fundamentalist), the mufti, Sheikh Hilmi al-Muhtaseb, under pressure from the Jordanian government, decided to try to regain control of the Mugrabi Gate. The Muslim council announced that the gate would not be opened to visitors so long as it did not hold the keys to the gate. The doors of the other gates were also closed to visitors and entrance to the Temple Mount was permitted to Muslims only.

Dayan threatens

For many months, Israel refrained from taking any action out of consideration for Muslim feelings after the fire, but pressure mounted on the government, and in particular on Dayan, to have the keys to the gate returned to Israeli hands. Eventually, the defense minister threatened Sheikh al-Muhtaseb that he would be expelled from the country, just as had been the case with his predecessor, Sheikh Abdel Hamid a-Saeh (who led the civil disobedience against the Israeli regime in 1967). At the same time, the Waqf began to feel the effects of not receiving the fees charged for entering the mount. Although the religious council tended toward capitulating after two months and was willing to open the gate, the decision was delayed because of the Jordanian government's opposition. On October 19, 1969, the cabinet held a discussion. Then-prime minister Golda Meir believed that nothing should be done to give the impression that something was wrong with the procedures for admission to the Temple Mount that had existed before the fire. The tourism minister at the time, Moshe Kol, was in favor of having the Mugrabi Gate opened while the ministers from Gahal (an acronym for the Herut and Liberal bloc) demanded that all gates be opened. Dayan expressed the opinion that Israel should try to return to the status quo ante. The following day, in the wake of contacts with the Waqf, the Mugrabi Gate was reopened and a month later, the Muslim council decided to open all the Temple Mount gates to visitors. The mosques themselves remained closed to visitors for another year, and were opened to the general public only in October 1970.

Since then, the Mugrabi Gate has been under Israeli control. Over the years, the police have permitted the Temple Mount Faithful to pray on the ramp that led to it. The police used this gate during the riots on the Temple Mount in October 1990, bursting through it onto the Temple Mount, which had been "captured" for several hours by a rioting Muslim crowd. (During these riots, 17 Palestinians were killed.)

Not many people know that under the Mugrabi Gate lies another gate, the ancient Berkeley Gate, which the Israel Antiquities Authority does not plan to uncover during the ongoing excavations there. The Religious Affairs Ministry and the dig conducted below the southern wall of the Temple Mount by Prof. Binyamin Mazar after the Six-Day War, planned to uncover this gate but they were prevented from doing so by both the Jewish and the Muslim religious leaders. The Berkeley Gate is one of the Temple Mount's original gates and is named for the former U.S. consul in Jerusalem who discovered it in the mid-19th century. To the left of the Mugrabi Gate, inside the Temple Mount complex and behind the Western Wall is the al-Burak Mosque. Al-Burak is the name of the prophet Mohammed's mythical steed who, according to later Muslim traditions, was tied to the Western Wall after Muhammad's night-time flight from Mecca to Jerusalem.

In previous centuries, the Muslims would point to other places in the walls of the Temple Mount as the site where the steed was tied. The tradition that it was tied to the Western Wall, researchers believe, is an outcome of the Jewish-Arab argument over control of the site.



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