The status quo on the Temple Mount is anything but static. Essentially we’re talking about a dynamic struggle between Palestinians and Israelis, with various other forces also getting enmeshed in what goes on there – the police, Temple advocacy groups, the Waqf, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Turkey, various Palestinian political movements and of course, Israeli politicians. It’s a very complex array of endless arm twisting.
On Sunday, both sides scored a victory. The Palestinians succeeded in bringing masses to the mount in order to substantially reduce the Jewish presence in the compound even though it was Tisha B’Av, when the Jewish people mourn the destruction of the temples that stood there.
On the other hand, despite the tradition that the compound isn’t open to Jews on the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha (which began Sunday) and despite the masses of Arabs gathered there, Israel managed to squeeze a few hundred Jewish visitors into the plaza. But the real victors were the radicals on both sides.
The current status quo on the Temple Mount was formulated in 2003, when Israel opened the compound to everyone after it had been closed for three years to non-Muslim visitors. The Waqf, the Muslim religious trust, saw that move as a unilateral violation of the status quo that had existed since 1967, which allowed visits by non-Muslims to the Temple Mount, but under its auspices. Since then all non-Muslim visitors are considered “trespassers.”
This situation, in which there is no agreement to begin with, allows both sides to push the envelope to check the other side’s limits. The police, under pressure from Temple advocacy groups and right-wing politicians, have allowed Jewish visits to the compound even on days when it had been closed in the past, like the last 10 days of Ramadan, which this year coincided with Jerusalem Day, and on Eid al-Adha, as happened Sunday.
The police also allow large groups of Jews to visit and to utter blessings or say short prayers there, a practice that was not permitted in the past and that takes place over the objections of the Waqf guards. For its part, the Waqf, backed by the Palestinian “street” in Jerusalem and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, has also managed to play with the status quo, for example, by opening a building at the Golden Gate (Sha’ar Harahamim) five months ago, flouting a police restraining order.
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Sunday morning began with a great success for the Waqf council, which was expanded five months ago to include new members, including Palestinian politicians and spiritual leaders. Since then it has been quite active. Sunday it proved its strength, when all the city’s muezzins were silenced so as to bring masses of worshipers on the eve of Eid al-Adha to the Temple Mount; the only muezzin heard in the city Sunday morning was that of Al-Aqsa. In addition, in an unprecedented move, the Waqf council delayed the start of the morning prayers so that they would be exactly when Jews were expected to start visiting, at 7:30.
As a result, while tens of thousands of Muslim worshipers crammed into the Temple Mount compound, police had to block entry to the few hundred Temple Mount activists who had gathered at the Mughrabi Gate. The activists had to suffice with prayers and protests at the entrance. Some of them burst inside and ripped down the long-hanging sign posted by the Chief Rabbinate stating that according to Jewish law, a Jew should not enter the compound.
But around two hours later, the Muslim crowds started to leave to celebrate the holiday with their families. The Muslim presence in the compound thinned out somewhat and at the same time the right-wing pressure on the police intensified. Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich tweeted and the Ynet website reported that the decision to close the mount to Jews had been made with the approval of the prime minister, increasing pressure on police commanders even more.
First a company of riot police were sent into the compound, and in the ensuing clashes 14 Palestinians and four policemen were injured. Afterward, under heavy security and continued clashes, the police succeeded in paving the way for several hundred Jews to enter. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could now claim that there was never a question about whether Jews could enter the Temple Mount on Tisha B’av, only how it would happen while best preserving public safety. In the end, a small group of Jewish activists exploiting their good connections in the right-wing parties and the sensitivity of the pre-election period managed to overturn a professional decision by the police.
The Palestinians took comfort in the fact that the Jews entered by way of force. “The people did what they could; they went in under fire,” said a Waqf official. Yet both the Waqf and Jordan were once again shown to be unable to block Israel on the Temple Mount.
“What Israel and the settlers do at Al-Aqsa will boomerang on them,” Hamas said in a statement. The images of wounded people in the Temple Mount plaza at the start of this important Muslim holiday will certainly help convey that message. These calls are liable to push the more extreme elements to take action on the mount or in other places to protest what went on there. The presence of Hamas and the northern branch of the Islamic Movement on the mount on Sunday was especially striking.
The status quo, despite its weakness, has resolved the relationship between the two nations in this sensitive location since 1967. It's been the common denominator that the two sides can agree on when the violence subsides. Due to cynical election and publicity concerns, strong forces from both sides are implementing the status quo and threatening to dismantle it completely. In a scenario such as this, the danger posed to the Temple Mount Sunday will transform this threat into a reality.