Israel Arrests Temple Mount Custodian Following Clashes Over Flashpoint Holy Site

Head of Jerusalem Waqf taken from home in early morning in 'unacceptable' move as police tackle reignited tensions over closed-off building ■ Israel is 'playing with fire,' Jordanian minister warns

File photo: Chairman of the Waqf Council, Abdel-Azeem Salhab, attends Friday prayers together with other Palestinian Muslims inside the Golden Gate near Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, February 22, 2019.
Ammar Awad/Reuters

Israeli police forces arrested Sunday the head of the Waqf, the Islamic custodian of the Temple Mount, and his deputy following clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinians over a contested building at the compound in recent days.

Sheikh Abdel-Azeem Salhab, who is considered one of Jerusalem's leading religious figures, was taken from his home in the early morning. The council's deputy head, Sheikh Najeh Bkeirat, was also arrested for allowing Palestinian worshipers into the Temple Mount building.

A Waqf official told Haaretz that Salhab's arrest is extremely unusual. "He's the most senior Jordanian figure in the [Palestinian] territories. Twenty years ago, if the police wanted to interrogate the mufti, they would call and invite him, but coming to a 75-year-old's home like that at 5 A.M. is unacceptable."

Muslims are seen praying inside the Bab al-Rahma, a building inside the Golden Gate near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, February 24, 2019.

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Jordan's Islamic Affairs and Holy Places Minister Abdel Naser Abu Elbasal vehemently condemned Salhab's arrest, calling it a "serious escalation." He said Israel is "playing with fire," urging authorities to release the two officials and refrain from arresting others, which he said compromises Jordan's position as custodian of Jerusalem's holy sites.

The Foreign Ministry said "such Israeli provocative measures are categorically rejected by Jordan." Spokesman Soufian Qudah added: "Such unilateral actions to Jerusalem's holy shrines are null and void and will only create further tension."

Salhab and Bkeirat's attorney said senior Jordanian diplomats are working with their Israeli counterparts and with other international parties to ensure their release. He added the arrests indicate "hysteria" on the part of Israel, who "crossed red lines."

The two senior officials are both suspected of opening Bab al-Rahma to worshipers. Police closed off the site, which is inside the Golden Gate, in 2003, saying that the Islamic heritage association that operated there had been associated with Hamas.

The Waqf, however, wants the area reopened, arguing that the heritage association has long since been disbanded, after its members were arrested. Police in Jerusalem oppose reopening the site.

In a rare move, the Waqf called on Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to intervene in Israel Police’s decision to keep Bab al-Rahma shut.

Salhab and Bkeirat's arrest come after clashes broke out on Friday when hundreds of Palestinians broke into Bab al-Rahma. Israeli police forces arrested 60 East Jerusalem residents in their homes on Thursday night on suspicions of incitement and rioting ahead of the Friday prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Earlier this month, the Jordanian government expanded the number of members in the Waqf in the hopes of thwarting Israeli efforts to change the delicate status quo at the holy site, according to sources at the religious trust.

For decades there have been 11 members of the Waqf, which oversees the day-to-day management of the compound and operates separately from the religious leadership of the mosques on the mount, located in the Old City of Jerusalem.

The trust is controlled by the Jordanian government, which has been careful over the years to staff it with people affiliated with the Hashemite monarchy. But last week the government in Amman announced that it would be expanding the Waqf council to 18, and will add for the first time representatives of the Palestinian Authority and local Muslim leaders.

The extraordinary move is perceived as part of Jordan’s efforts to close ranks in order to combat any change in the religious and political status of the Temple Mount – which is holy to both Muslims and Jews – especially with respect to allowing the latter to pray there.