There are many responses to the question why the Waqf and the Jordanian government would decide to spark clashes over the Bab al-Rahma building on Jerusalem's Temple Mount at this particular time. The Waqf, the Muslim religious trust that administers the compound, says it has to do with the fact that all low-profile efforts to open the building to Muslim worshippers have failed.
Others say, however, that it is a response to what Muslims deem an erosion of the status quo on the Temple Mount, a site holy to Jews as well as Muslims. Still others say the clashes are the result of Jordan’s desire to buttress its standing in Jerusalem in relation to Turkey and Saudi Arabia. In any event, matters involving the Bab al-Rahma, a contested building inside the mount's Golden Gate, have deteriorated quickly — much faster than the Waqf had anticipated.
An understanding of the story requires recalling events in 2003 when the Temple Mount was reopened to non-Muslims. Three years earlier, it had been closed to non-Muslims following the contentious visit to the site by the opposition leader in the Knesset at the time, Ariel Sharon, and the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000. The Temple Mount was reopened in 2003 to non-Muslims against the will of the Waqf and the Jordanian administrators of the site.
They and many Palestinians consider any non-Muslim who visits the Temple Mount, the site of the First and Second Temples of Jewish antiquity, as an “intruder.” Despite the Arab opposition, Jews were given access to the Temple Mount, although they were not permitted to carry out ceremonial activity there of any kind or to pray or deliver commentary on the Torah there.
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The status quo regarding practice on the mount has been recognized repeatedly by the Israeli government. Over the years, from time to time, when Palestinians in Jerusalem felt that the status quo on the mount was shifting to their detriment, riots broke out and lone-wolf terrorist attacks were perpetrated. In 2015, after a wave of violence and following an agreement with Jordanian King Abdullah, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was compelled to personally reiterate a commitment to the status quo, confirming that “Muslims will pray on the Temple Mount; non-Muslims will visit it.”
Every group of Jews entering the Temple Mount is accompanied by Israeli police and Waqf guards, and over the years, the police strictly maintained the ban on Jewish prayer. In 2017, following a terrorist attack in which two Israeli policemen, Hael Sathawi and Kamil Shanan, were killed, Israeli authorities attempted to install walk-through metal detectors at the entrance to the mount. That sparked protests among Palestinians in Jerusalem, led by the sheikhs of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is on the Temple Mount. The protests succeeded beyond the Palestinians’ expectations and prompted Israel to remove the metal detectors.
Basking in their victory
Palestinians in Jerusalem and the Waqf basked in their victory, but in the 18 months since, beneath the surface, the Palestinians and the Jordanians have expressed a sense that Israel is again pushing them aside when it comes to the Temple Mount. The Waqf claims the conduct of Jews on the mount is no longer being strictly controlled and that the police are not banning individuals from praying or delivering Torah commentary. The Israeli police have also not acceded to Waqf pressure to allow renovations at the mosques on the mount and have repeatedly arrested Waqf employees and guards for various reasons.
The Waqf has expressed the sense that it is losing control over the compound. Waqf officials, a Jordanian official said, are tired of merely responding to events and have decided to take active steps to reestablish control. The Bab al-Rahma, a large historic structure in the eastern part of the mount, was chosen as the spot at which the protests would resume.
The building had been closed in 2005 by Israeli authorities after Israel claimed the site was operated by an association affiliated with Hamas and the Islamic Movement. In recent years, the Waqf has repeatedly tried to recover the building and reverse the closure order. According to the Waqf, the association in question has long since been disbanded and that all of its members are in jail.
In any event, the Waqf claims, the members were only renting the premises. Israel, however, has refused to change its stance.
Jordan’s first move was the unexpected expansion of the Waqf’s governing council two weeks ago from 11 to 18 members. The council runs the Temple Mount and has traditionally been under the total control of Jordan.
The new council members reflect the sectors that led the 2017 protests: the sheikhs, representatives of Jerusalem's Palestinian population and of Palestinian political parties. The first step that the expanded council took at its initial meeting was to conduct a tour of Bab al-Rahma and hold prayers there.
The situation quickly deteriorated. Israeli police summoned the Waqf’s director general for questioning the following day and locked the gates of Bab al-Rahma. In the wake of a number of demonstrations, the gates were pulled off their hinges, and last Friday, hundreds of Palestinians broke into the building and prayed there, despite the prior arrest of dozens of Palestinian activists. On Sunday morning, the police arrested chairman of the Waqf council, Sheikh Abdel-Azeem Salhab, along with his deputy.
For the meantime, it is difficult to know how the Palestinians will respond. As of this point, violence has not spread from the Temple Mount to the city’s Palestinian neighborhoods, but tempers are running very high. If protesters try again to break into Bab al-Rahma or if a Palestinian is killed in the clashes, or if the Muslim religious leadership faces what it deems one humiliation too many, Jerusalem could return to a period that everyone would rather forget.