Analysis

Israel, Muslim Temple Mount Authority Up a Tree Without a Ladder - and No American Safety Net

The Trump administration doesn't seem capable of, or even interested in, delving into the nitty-gritty of the Temple Mount's status quo

Muslims praying in front of metal detectors outside the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, July 16, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

Workers from the Jerusalem municipality entered the Temple Mount Sunday morning and conducted a comprehensive clean-up, whose goal was to return the Mount in good condition to the Waqf employees who had been kept away from it since Friday’s fatal shooting of two Border Police officers. But to the Waqf, even this simple act was a violation of the status quo.

At the same time, police set up metal detectors at both entrances to the Mount. But in the afternoon, trouble began.

At 12:45 P.M., police announced that the gates were open. A few dozen people were waiting to enter at the Gate of the Tribes. Waqf officials arrived, but after negotiations that lasted a minute, they withdrew, refusing to enter.

“There are changes, as you see, but we need you to cooperate with us,” Jerusalem Police Chief Yoram Halevy told Sheikh Omar Al-Kiswani, who manages the Mount’s Al-Aqsa mosque, via a translator. But Al-Kiswani said people should be let in without going through metal detectors, and when police refused, he returned to the waiting crowd, which cried, “Allah is great!”

Within moments, it became clear that both sides were up a tree without a ladder. The police couldn’t remove the metal detectors, while the Waqf couldn’t waive its demand for their removal.

Later police disseminated footage of people entering the mosque, but as of Sunday evening it was the merest trickle, far from the masses that usually enter it every day. In the afternoon, clashes began at the entrance to the Mount. A funeral procession was blocked, and several Palestinians were wounded or arrested.

That evening a senior Palestinian official in Jerusalem warned that weakening the Waqf would weaken Jordan, and also Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ status in Jerusalem. “There is no vacuum; others will fill his place,” the official said, hinting at Turkey in the best case and radical Salafis in the worst. Meanwhile, more clashes between Palestinians and the security forces are likely in both East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

On Monday, a few dozens of Palestinains assembled at Jerusalem’s Lions’ Gate where they shouted slogans against Israel’s decition to close the mosque and called for its opening without security checks and magnometers. The group is planning to pray the afterrnon prayer there. A large police force has been deployed on the scene and are keeping the protesters away from the gates leading up to the Temple Mount. Exept for a few Muslim tourists, the boycott on visiting the site is been kept and hardly any Muslims came to worship at the site this morning.

Since 2014, two major crises have erupted over the Temple Mount. Both were resolved thanks to mediation by then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who shuttled between Amman and Jerusalem. Twice he obtained agreements to preserve the status quo. Under the latest agreement, reached in autumn 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly announced that the Mount isn’t a place for Jewish prayer.

The problem is that Israel no longer has a safety net in the form of an energetic and judicious American administration. The Trump administration doesn’t seem capable of, or even interested in, delving into the nitty-gritty of the Mount’s status quo.

Palestinians’ refusal to obey Israeli dictates in East Jerusalem has a place of honor in their history of resistance to the occupation. In September 1967 they refused to accept the Israeli curriculum in their schools. After a prolonged strike, Israel capitulated and left the Jordanian curriculum in place. And since 1969, Palestinians have refused to vote in Jerusalem’s municipal elections (the only elections they can vote in) so as not to recognize Israeli rule over East Jerusalem.

This refusal proved to Israel, and no less importantly to the Palestinians themselves, that despite Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967, it wouldn’t be able to impose its sovereignty there as it did in areas it captured in 1948.

This is especially evident on the Temple Mount, where Israel has repeatedly failed to assert its sovereignty. For instance, it wasn’t able to build a permanent access ramp to the Mount’s Mughrabi Gate; it had to make do with a temporary one that had been declared unsafe. Moreover, despite the right wing’s efforts, there’s no chance Israel will expand visiting hours for non-Muslims, much less allow Jews to pray there. As noted, in 2015, Netanyahu was even forced to declare the Mount a religious site for Muslims only.

After all this, one would have expected the government and police to understand the need for caution on anything related to the Mount, take the wishes of Jordan and the Waqf into account and realize that unilateral steps would prompt opposition that could engender escalation. The Mount has already proven its power to ignite violence countless times before.

On Sunday, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation backed a bill requiring any division of Jerusalem to be approved by 80 of the 120 Knesset members, making Jerusalem’s unity the most entrenched provision in Israel’s law books. But while the committee was meeting, East Jerusalem’s streets were full of people and its shops were closed for the third straight day, making the gap between this empty declaration and Jerusalem’s reality glaringly apparent.

The fact that neither the government nor Israelis in general see any problem with the police shutting down a neighborhood of 35,000 people – not one of whom is suspected of involvement in Friday’s attack – for three days proves better than anything else just how abnormal, divided and disunited the city is.