Analysis

Temple Mount Crisis Shows Who's Really Calling the Shots at the Site

Jerusalem's Palestinians have achieved something unprecedented through nonviolent protest, and now the clock is ticking on Israel's decision of how to proceed

Palestinians shout slogans during a demonstration against new Israeli security measures at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, following attack that killed two Israeli policemen, July 20, 2017
AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP

As of this writing it’s hard to know how the crisis over the Temple Mount will end. But recent days have shown that the real sovereign on the Temple Mount is not Israel, Jordan or the Waqf, the site's Muslim custodial trust. The real bosses are the Palestinians of Jerusalem.

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Jerusalemite Palestinian society is usually characterized by its weaknesses: the poverty, the lack of leadership, the hardships of the occupation, house demolitions and land confiscations. But over the past several days, Jerusalem’s Palestinians have achieved something unprecedented. Through a nonviolent protest that included an exceptional boycott on entering the Al-Aqsa compound, they have forced Israel into a corner from which the government is seriously considering giving in and removing the metal detectors it installed at the Mount’s entrances.

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Israel Police release video leading up to Temple Mount attack last Friday. Israel Police

The decision, if reached, will be made before the weekly prayers on Friday afternoon. If the Friday prayers are canceled again this week, it would be a historic precedent. The last time such a thing happened was apparently during the Crusader era nearly a thousand years ago.

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Defending Al-Aqsa is the raison d’tre of Jerusalem's Palestinians as a political community. In their eyes, Al-Aqsa is far more than a national or religious symbol; the Temple Mount is also a private place where they feel somewhat free of the occupation. Most of the day there is no Israeli presence there. It’s the largest open green area in East Jerusalem, yet at the same time it’s a busy central square. Any threat to the arrangements there is perceived as a real threat to their identity and their daily lives. “People today aren’t asking, ‘how’re you doing’ or ‘how are your kids,’ they’re asking what’s going on at the mosque,” a resident of Silwan said on Wednesday.

On the first day of the boycott, the Waqf conveyed a mixed message. According to Palestinian sources in the city, the civilian management of the Waqf, which is subordinate to the Jordanian kingdom, told its employees to enter the Temple Mount compound, even though it meant passing through the metal detectors. But at the same time, the Waqf's religious leadership of Jerusalem sheikhs ordered the masses not to go through the metal detectors. Waqf employees chose to listen to the religious leaders and the pressure rising from the street, and stayed away from the compound. Since then, the Temple Mount has been practically empty.

The police have been trying to make it look as if the Palestinians have reconciled to the metal detectors by posting videos of Muslims ascending to the Mount, but it’s easy to see that it’s only a handful of people who actually look more like tourists from Muslim countries than Palestinians. The boycott is holding and even intensifying as the time for the muezzin to call the faithful to Friday prayers is getting closer. On Wednesday night the mufti of Jerusalem called on the city’s mosques to close on Friday and send everyone to the Temple Mount instead. One can assume that Israeli Arabs will also attempt to arrive, even though the police will try to stop them.

The potential for a violent clash on Friday is perhaps the greatest it’s been since Ariel Sharon went up to the Temple Mount in 2000, two days before the second intifada broke out. Even if the grave scenarios don’t play out and the prayers go off more or less peacefully, the next wave of violence is almost inevitable.

However this crisis ends, it revealed a serious problem with the way decisions are made on the Israeli side. You didn’t have to be an expert on the history of the Temple Mount to foresee the result.

“There have been a lot of instances in which Israel sought to impose its sovereignty on the Mount unilaterally, and it always ended with less sovereignty than there had been before,” said Prof. Yitzhak Reiter of the Ashkelon Academic College and the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. “That’s how it was with Sharon in 2000, after which the Temple Mount was closed to Jews for three years.”

That’s also what happened when Israel attempted to repair the Mughrabi Bridge, which connects the Western Wall plaza with the Mount, or tried to open an exit to the Western Wall Tunnels. Apparently whoever made the decision about the metal detectors wasn’t familiar with this history or didn’t think it was relevant to this decision. That’s probably the most worrisome aspect of all.