Tension Building on Temple Mount Amid Reports of Imminent Israeli Action

Palestinians gathering there as state mulls closing Golden Gate to Muslim worshippers

Palestinian Muslims gather near the Golden Gate near Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem's Old City February 22, 2019.
REUTERS/Ammar Awad

Palestinians in East Jerusalem are preparing for the possibility that police will try to enter the Temple Mount to remove Muslim worshippers from the Golden Gate. According to reports in the media and on social media Monday, Israel decided to close the structure, known in Arabic as Bab al-Rahma.

These reports, along with additional rumors among Palestinians, brought large numbers of Palestinians to the Temple Mount, which has been filling with hundreds of worshippers during prayer time.

Right-wing politicians who saw photos of the crowds of worshippers are calling on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to close the Golden Gate.

On Monday, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party visited the Temple Mount and asked to enter the disputed structure but was turned down. “What’s happening at the Gate of Mercy [Golden Gate] is a major breach of the status quo, and our demand is that this matter be returned to its previous status immediately. There is no reason for Netanyahu to agree to this change and certainly not when Muslims are allowed in and Jews are not,” Ariel told the Orthodox news site Kipa.

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MK Bezalel Smotrich, also from Habayit Hayehudi, tweeted his demand that Netanyahu “enforce the law and sovereignty on the Temple Mount immediately and prevent the entrenching of the present situation. Even at the price of clashes and use of force. Giving in ahead of time because of concerns over a clash is destructive and dangerous.”

On Monday afternoon the guards from the Waqf, the Muslim religious trust that administers the Temple Mount (which Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary), called the police after they saw an ultra-Orthodox man painting graffiti on the outside of the Golden Gate, saying: “This gate is closed by the God of Israel.” The man was detained for questioning.

It was the fifth day that worshippers barricaded themselves in the structure located on the eastern side of the Temple Mount, which was closed by Israel 16 years ago. An imam was appointed for the site on Tuesday and carpets were placed on the floor.

The daily Israel Hayom and the Kan broadcasting corporation quoted the Prime Minister’s Office as saying that Netanyahu has ordered the site closed. This response was quoted on the front page of the Jerusalem-based Palestinian daily Al-Quds. However, police on duty on a regular basis at the site did not prevent worshippers from entering and no special preparations by police around the Mount have been noticed.

A senior police officer spoke on Sunday with Waqf director general Sheikh Azzam al-Hatib, who requested permission to bring construction materials to the Golden Gate to carry out renovations. According to sources close to the Waqf, the police did not turn down the request. A Waqf official told Haaretz: “Netanyahu’s decision has turned everything upside down. We’re back to zero.” But it seems the police are going to allow the construction materials in.

Police said that the Golden Gate has been ordered closed, but in a hearing to extend the detention of Palestinians who were remanded for breaking into the structure on Friday, it emerged that the last closure order issued by police ran out in September. Police are working on getting a permanent closure order for the building but it has not yet been issued. The Waqf’s position on the matter is not to appear in court and not discuss the issue in the Israeli courts.

Organizations supporting Jewish access to the Temple Mount called an emergency meeting on Thursday because of the developments. The organizations expressed their concerns that ancient wooden beams that might be part of the original Temple, stored for many years in a structure near the Golden Gate, might be damaged during renovation of the structure.