Temple Mount Custodian Willing to Open Muslim Holy Sites to Israelis

The head of the Jerusalem Waqf tells Haaretz that he wants to enter talks with Israel over restoring the Temple Mount's status quo to its pre-2000 situation - but won't allow Jewish prayer there

Muslim women walk in front of the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif, Jerusalem's Old City, May 9, 2017.
AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

The head of the Muslim religious trust that administers the Temple Mount in Jerusalem has called on Israel to enter negotiations aimed at restoring the status quo on the site to its pre-2000 situation.

The head of the Jerusalem Waqf, Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib al-Tamimi, said this would allow anyone, including Israeli lawmakers and Jewish activists who support the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple, to visit the compound, which Muslims call Haram al-Sharif. Jews could again visit the mosques and the Dome of the Rock, but “everyone must realize they are visiting a mosque, with no rights for Jews to pray inside,” Tamimi said.

“The entire 144 dunams (38 acres) of Haram al-Sharif is a mosque. We believe the Prophet Mohammed prayed there, this hasn’t changed and no one objected to this for centuries. You can’t change the history of the last 1,500 years.”

The status quo that prevailed until September 2000 was established with then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan a few days after the end of the Six-Day War, in June 1967. Under the agreement, the Israel Police secured the gates to the compound. The Waqf operated the site, selling non-Muslims tickets to Dome of the Rock, Al-Aqsa Mosque and other buildings on the site.

The status quo fell apart after then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon’s controversial visit to the site in September 2000, which ignited the second intifada. Tourists and Israeli citizens were barred from the Temple Mount until Public Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi opened the compound for visits in 2003.

“This was a unilateral decision and we consider this trespassing and an attack on the Waqf,” Tamimi said about the change.

Two years ago there was an American and Jordanian-mediated attempt to restore the status quo. Negotiations, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s envoy to the peace process with the Palestinians, Isaac Molho, led nowhere. Tamimi now calls for resuming them.

“We welcome tourists and want to return to the way things were before 2000. The government and police aren’t interested. Write that down: We want to return to the pre-2000 situation,” Tamimi said.

Tamimi, who was appointed by Jordan’s King Abdullah, recently received an important award from the kingdom. He is very critical of Israel’s government and its attitude toward Muslims on the Mount. He doesn’t distinguish between it and Temple activists who encourage Jews to visit. On Jerusalem Day last week, almost 1,000 Jews visited the compound, the largest number in one day in decades. The Waqf is worried about this trend.

“We’re not against Jews and we don’t hate them, they are the people of the Book. We’re against the extremists whose sole purpose is to destroy the mosques. The Jews who come here don’t come innocently as tourists. They are extremists, fanatics who are led by the right, by Miri Regev and her associates. Their purpose is to foment conflict.

“The government constantly tries to foster religious wars in the Middle East — the consequences of that are unforeseeable. This is a provocation for 1,700 million Muslims,” Tamimi said, adding, “Israel is also emptying the peace agreement with Jordan of any content.”

Last year was relatively quiet on Temple Mount, with few demonstrations or stone-throwing. The Israel Police and the Public Security Ministry attribute this to steps taken against the Murabitun and Islamic Movement activists in the compound. Tamimi said it was the Waqf that introduced the new calm.

“We don’t want protests, they detract from the site’s sanctity.”

He said that despite numerous arrests of Jews who violate the agreements and hold prayers on the Mount, the government continues allowing Jews to come and pray there. He whips out photos taken on a cellphone on Thursday, showing Jews praying on the Temple Mount.

“They’ve begun allowing Jews to pray here. The government isn’t preventing extremists from performing ceremonies here. The police encourage them,” Tamimi said.

He said the Israel government prevents maintenance work on the site.

“They interfere in everything, even in changing light bulbs. The king invested hundreds of thousands of dollars but everything is stuck since they won’t allow us to bring anything into the compound.”

Tamimi also complained about Israel’s closure of two buildings on the Temple Mount, one of which the Israel Police say was used by Hamas supporters. Tamimi said that this organization was shut down a long time ago and its activists arrested. The building is owned by the Waqf, he said, but it remains locked. A year ago another building was closed after the Waqf started upgrading it and installing bathrooms for the benefit of worshippers at the mosques. The Jerusalem municipality said that the work was being done without a permit and obtained a court order to shut it down.

There is an ongoing theological debate in the Muslim world around the question of whether Muslims living outside Israel or the territories should visit Jerusalem and pray at Al-Aqsa even though it is under Israeli rule. On this issue, Tamimi sides with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, against Hamas. He believes that Muslim’s should come to Jerusalem despite Israel’s control. “I welcome them, whether they come by air or by sea; we have no problem with that,” Tamimi said. In recent years there has been a slow but steady rise in the number of Muslims visiting from non-Arab states, including Malaysia, Indonesia and Turkey.

“I don’t want to get into politics, but Jerusalem should be a center for three religions. Let Jews pray at the Western Wall, even though it’s an inseparable part of Al-Aqsa. They can converge on this holy place. If Israel wants peace it should act wisely. If they continue the way they are doing now they’ll bring a holocaust upon us. There will be bloodshed and no one wants that, except the extremists. Write down that I want to convey the message that force solves nothing,” Tamimi said.

In response to a question from Haaretz, Tamimi commented on the dress worn by Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev at the Cannes International Film Festival recently, with images of the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock. “It’s shameful for Israel, not for us. It shows how full of hatred and envy she is — it strengthens the opinion that [Jewish] extremists want to destroy the mosque.”