Jordan Expands Managing Body of Temple Mount to Stop Israel From Changing Status Quo

Government in Amman adds seven members to Waqf council in order to combat changes to the Mount ■ Five Palestinians arrested in clashes with police over reopening of site

Police arrest a Palestinian at the Temple Mount, February 18, 2019.
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Five Palestinians were arrested in clashes with police at the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem's Old City on Monday morning.

The clashes took place around the Bab al-Rahma – a large structure inside the Golden Gate that police closed off in 2003, saying that the Islamic heritage association that operated there had been associated with Hamas. 

The Waqf, the Islamic body that manages the Temple Mount compound, 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.

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Last week, 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.

Among the new members appointed to the council are top PLO and PA officials including Adnan al-Husayni and Khatem Abdel Kader; Sheikh Ekrima Sabri; Mohammed Hussein, mufti of Jerusalem; and the president of Al-Quds University, Dr. Imad Abu Kishek.

A Waqf source attributes the move to the fact that Jordan has decided it cannot bear exclusive responsibility for the Temple Mount anymore and also wants the council to reflect Muslim unity. King Abdullah II even agreed to be somewhat flexible: For instance, Sabri is considered to be associated with the Turkish government in Ankara, which is in competition with Amman over hegemony in East Jerusalem.

The roots of the new policy began to take shape after the so-called metal-detectors protest, following a terror attack on the Temple Mount in 2017 that left two Israeli policemen dead, along with their three Arab assailants. The popular protest that erupted in response put paid to Israel’s intention of placing the detectors at the entrances to the Temple Mount. This was considered a success for the Palestinian street and for the religious leadership, which the new Muslim trust is designed to reflect.

“The king has observed the erosion of the status quo and considered how to strengthen the Waqf’s status,” says Ofer Zalzberg, an analyst at Crisis Group, which monitors developments at the mount.

The erosion he cites takes the form of recent clashes between Waqf guards and the Israel Police, which usually culminate in the arrest of the guards. In addition, the police are tolerating quiet worship by Jews on the Temple Mount – a relatively new development, which, the Waqf argues, violates the status quo whereby Jews are forbidden to pray there.

The move to augment the membership of the Muslim trust bolsters the body's status and popularity in East Jerusalem, adds Zalzberg, due to the addition of religious leaders who played a prominent role in the metal-detectors protest, and of representatives of various Palestinian parties – chiefly the PLO.

The new council already seems to be challenging Israeli authorities. Last Thursday its members convened and immediately afterward entered the Bab al-Rahma.

Following the prayer, the director general of the waqf, Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib, was summoned for questioning by police – a session that was, ultimately, canceled, apparently thanks to pressure from Amman. On Monday morning Israeli police arrived and locked the gates to the building.