Analysis |

New Understandings, Old Problems on Temple Mount

Terrorism has again forced Israel into negotiations over the Temple Mount, and it seems the prime minister has gone a step farther this time. But is it enough to bring calm?

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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 Palestinian men take part in Friday prayers on the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on October 23, 2015.
Palestinian men take part in Friday prayers on the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on October 23, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Anyone who follows events closely on Temple Mount would have had a strong feeling of déjà vu on Saturday, with the announcement by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry of new understandings on the holy site that is sacred to both Jews and Muslims. Similar to last year, a wave of terror and violence throughout the summer and fall forced Israel to discuss arrangements about Temple Mount with the Jordanians, through American mediation.

Just like last year, we can assume that, in addition to the agreements that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced, there are further understandings that were not made public. But unlike last year, it seems Netanyahu went a step farther in agreeing to a public declaration that stated: “Israel will continue to enforce its long-standing policy: Muslims pray on the Temple Mount; non-Muslims visit the Temple Mount.” In other words, Jews will not be allowed to pray there.

But there are also a number of worrying signs that even this declaration will not be enough to calm the situation.

The Prime Minister’s Office posted the announcement on its official Facebook page at 00:10 A.M. on Saturday night. The statement was identical to the one released by Kerry earlier. The statement was made very late at night, only in writing and English, in an attempt – a bit clumsy in these times – to influence the next day’s headlines. But the fact that cannot be denied is that the government of Israel admits in this post, for the first time, that Jews do not have a right to pray on the Temple Mount.

The language of the post contradicts the regular position of the government, which says the reason for the ban on Jewish prayer on Temple Mount is for security reasons or the need to maintain public order. In general, the state has hidden behind the backs of the police on Temple Mount, claiming it was police policy that prevented such prayer by Jews. This statement, after three weeks of stabbing attacks, is ultimately a confession of the limits of Israeli sovereignty on the Old City hilltop plaza.

Last year, after the previous wave of violence that engulfed Jerusalem – at the time there were violent, mass protests in Palestinian neighborhoods and numerous terror attacks in which the perpetrators rammed their vehicles into Jewish bystanders – Netanyahu agreed to a series of steps in an attempt to relieve tensions concerning Temple Mount. These steps were agreed between Netanyahu and King Abdullah II of Jordan in Amman.

Similar to now, the understandings were not written down then. Both sides preferred to avoid an official written agreement – the Israelis in order to muddy their commitment and prevent political pressure from the right; the Jordanians so as not to admit that Israel has any status over Temple Mount and the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

These unwritten agreements did change the arrangements on Temple Mount – and not in the Jews’ favor. For example, immediately after the meeting with Abdullah last November, the number of religious Jews allowed to enter Temple Mount as a group was reduced from 15 to only 5; every group of visitors was required to wait until the previous group left the Mount before being allowed to ascend; and Jewish activists who might possibly inflame the situation – first and foremost Yehudah Glick – were not allowed to return to Temple Mount.

At the time, Netanyahu reached agreements with politicians who dealt with the Temple Mount issue on a regular basis, in which they agreed to avoid speaking out on the matter and to avoid visiting. Such was the case, for example, with Miri Regev, who, as then-chairwoman of the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee, regularly dealt with the rights of Jews on Temple Mount (no less than 15 committee meetings were devoted to the issue). In addition, restrictions on Muslim worshippers entering Temple Mount were removed completely.

Those involved in Temple Mount matters agree that these understandings helped calm the atmosphere to a certain extent – at least concerning Temple Mount itself. But the violence continued in the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.

A hint that there are again understandings that go beyond what was announced can be found in the fact that, already on Friday, the police did not limit the entry of Muslims to Temple Mount. This was different to previous weeks, when prayers were restricted to only women worshippers and men over a certain age. In order to ascertain whether there are more secret understandings, it will be necessary to see if there are other changes in the Temple Mount arrangements in coming days and weeks.

Ofer Zalzberg, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, released a report last June titled “The Status of the Status Quo at Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade.” This report forecast with amazing accuracy the wave of violence that erupted around the time of the Jewish New Year and High Holy Days in September and revolving around the Temple Mount situation. “Israel believes 2015’s relative calm is sustainable, if ministers and Knesset members refrain from pushing, as they did last year, to change the setup,” he wrote. “Even if this proves correct during the holiday season, quiet is unlikely to endure.”

According to Zalzberg’s analysis, the solution that worked last year – Israeli restraint of Temple Mount activists and politicians, along with Jordanian restraint of violent Palestinian activists – no longer seems to work now; the crisis is deeper today because a key part of it is the awareness of both peoples as to what is actually happening on the Mount.

Last year, there was a feeling among both Israelis and Palestinians that the severe violence on Temple Mount was a result of the overlap of the holiday period with the bloody war in Gaza and the month of Ramadan, says Zalzberg. This year, it is easier to assume that the violence stemmed directly from developments on Temple Mount, he adds.

On the Palestinian side, the combination of the renewed restrictions on the entry of Muslims to Temple Mount according to age and gender, and the old campaign of various Islamist groups, created a feeling that Al-Aqsa was in much more real, immediate danger than in the past – so much so that it spurred a number of young people from East Jerusalem to become shahids (holy martyrs): to sacrifice their lives in order to deter Israel from dividing the site between Jews and Muslims, says Zalzberg.

At the same time, the common feeling among Israel’s nationalist camp is that limiting the entry of Jews to Temple Mount is a lessening of Israeli sovereignty. This makes it very difficult for Netanyahu to act in the spirit of the recommendations he receives from the security forces, Zalzberg notes.

Kerry’s statement that Israel accepts that Jews will not pray on the Temple Mount contradicts the traditional position that Israel has always presented in the courts – that Jews have the right to pray anywhere, but in the case of Temple Mount, this right is restricted by the police because of security considerations.

From the statements made yesterday by right-wing politicians and activists, we can glean how limited Netanyahu’s wiggle room is on the issue: MK Yinon Magal (Habayit Hayehudi) responded, “Ultimately, nothing will prevent Jews from praying on the Temple Mount.” Glick, meanwhile, said, “Prayer is an internal, spiritual act, which the power of the army or police is unable to prevent.” And the umbrella organization of Temple Mount activist groups praised the decision to install cameras on the site, which they said would show the world Muslim violence and the police’s helplessness.

We can learn from Kerry’s statement that Netanyahu agreed that the new cameras would broadcast events on the Temple Mount 24/7, in order to emphasize that there was no change in the status quo, that Jews were not praying on Temple Mount, and there was no intention of damaging the mosques.

The idea of operating cameras in order to calm things on and around Temple Mount is nothing new. In 2007, Israel excavated in the vicinity of the Mugrabi Gate bridge, and then, too, there were claims of disturbing the site. In order to refute such claims, Israel placed cameras that broadcast to a public website, and invited a delegation of Turkish archaeologists to visit the restoration site; they confirmed there was no danger to the mosques. As far as is known, offers of patrols or placing international observers on Temple Mount were rejected by Israel.

Danny Seideman, an attorney and expert in Jerusalem affairs, also forecast the present wave of violence. The cameras are a step in the right direction, he believes, but only a very small step.

“I certainly can imagine a situation in which Netanyahu looks at the cameras during a visit by Jews to the Mount, and says the status quo is being preserved because the visit was made during permitted hours – and at the same time, Abdullah or [Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas can look at the cameras and see, in their eyes, Jews provoking, desecrating the holiness of Al-Aqsa and violating the status quo. You need a big serving of naveté in order to believe that the cameras will bridge these differences in thinking. On Temple Mount, no one allows themselves to be confused by the facts,” concludes Seideman.

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