There has been so much rhetoric about the “status quo” on the Temple Mount – but which status quo are we discussing? That of 1967? 1996? 2000? 2003? 2010? 2014? Each year saw a change in the previously accepted status-quo. Recent news had photos of MK Ahmed Tibi flying a Palestinian flag on the Mount – that is certainly a change in the status quo, if not a political provocation.
So let us be clear – There has not been a steady, continuous status quo on the Mount since the Israeli victory in June 1967. Rather, there have been constant changes in the status quo from the Arab Muslim side, and a continuous erosion and retreat of Jewish presence and rights, aided and mistakenly abetted by the Chief Rabbinate and Israel Police in their quest to maintain what they define as properly religious behavior and public order.
Activist Pepe Alalu said that “ Jewish provocateurs... go to the site, solely to incite conflict.” But who decided that quietly praying on the Temple Mount or visiting graves on the Mount of Olives – the focus of Jewish prayers for millennia – amount to a provocation? Soon after the Israeli victory in the Six Day War in 1967, then-defense minister Gen. Moshe Dayan returned the keys to the Dome of the Rock and al-Aksa Mosque to Jordanian Wakf leaders as custodians to those sites. However, those two buildings are not equivalent to the entire Temple Mount; allowing that equation to be made by Muslim leaders has led to continuously diminished Jewish religious rights over the years. Political tension exists between the Jordanian government and Palestinian Authority over whose authority reigns on the Mount, which often leads to increasingly rigid responses to Jewish prayer.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1967, and repeatedly reiterated since then, that Jewish groups and individuals indeed had the right to pray on the Mount – subject to Israel Police discretion. Thus the Jerusalem police commander became the day-to-day arbiter of permitted Jewish behaviors and procedures on the Temple Mount, the holiest place in Jewish culture and civilization for over 2,000 years, since the destruction of the Holy Temple in 70 C.E.
From 1967 until September 2000, Jews went up freely to the Temple Mount with prayer books and prayed silently at will with no police check and no Wakf employees following them. I know because I was one of them. No police searched for prayer books and absolutely no one checked whether silent prayer was being uttered. Several groups of distinguished rabbis in groups of 10 prayed together on a monthly basis. But today, no rabbinical group can come to pray on the Mount; today’s police status quo on has limited some Jews to being allowed to walk on the Mount – a definite change in the status quo.
Since when has the entire Mount been holy to Islam, a counter-claim to the fact that the Temple Mount has always been Judaism’s holiest site? Since when did the Mount’s status as the third holiest place in Islam become conventional wisdom? Since when is only Muslim prayer permitted there? Wakf historian Aref al-Aref asserted in his 1929 publication, A Brief Guide to the Haram al-Sharif, that the Mount’s “identity with the site of Solomon’s temple is beyond dispute. This too is the spot, according to universal belief, on which David built there an altar unto the Lord... .” We know that Maimonides prayed on the Mount in the 12th century.
What has changed? How can the Mount be holy to Islam when children play football freely on the Mount and families picnic there? Has anyone seen children playing at Mecca or Medina, or at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron? No. Is this recent? Again, the answer is yes.
Changes in the so-called status quo really began in 1996, when the Wakf requested Israeli permission to do renovations under the Temple Mount to thus expand Muslim prayer space. This request for Israeli permission was standard process since 1967 for any kind of repairs or renovations on the Temple Mount.
However, in a striking departure from the previous status quo, no on-site supervision was maintained by either the Israel Antiquities Authority, police or the Jerusalem Municipality – none of which interfered as massive destruction occurred in the area known as Solomon’s Stables under the Mount. Irreplaceable First and Second Temple artifacts were bulldozed and trucked out to the municipal dump site. This process only ended when an archaeologist raised such a public outcry that Ehud Barak’s government forced a halt.
The unusual laissez faire attitude was duly noted. That same year, a northern exit from underground tunnels under the Temple Mount was completed, in agreement with Wakf officials, to enable visitors to exit directly into the Old City and not return to the starting point near the Western Wall Plaza; despite the agreement, supposedly spontaneous rioting was staged – the Israeli government caved in, never since opening that exit. Arab officialdom drew appropriate conclusions about the impact of rioting.
The next major change in the status quo came in September 2000 when Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount with a police retinue. Planned rioting again broke out – serving as the now-acknowledged pretext for Arafat’s launch of the pre-planned second intifada, thus ending the Camp David negotiations with US president Bill Clinton.
It should come as no surprise that the opportunity was seized by the PA to initiate the intifada – even though Sharon’s visit had been cleared with the PA’s West Bank security head, Jibril Rajoub.
During the Camp David negotiations, president Clinton suggested the division of the Temple Mount by giving the upper Temple Mount to the Wakf and the Wailing Wall to Israeli authorities – a suggestion not accepted by the Israeli government. The Wakf, led by a Palestinian religious leader, then upped the ante and responded that the Wailing Wall Plaza was as holy to them as the Temple Mount and al-Aksa itself – a recent and false claim again being vociferously repeated today.
Police then created a new status quo after this visit, and closed the Mount to Jewish visitors until 2003. Since 2003, in a major change of the status quo, police check Jews in religious dress, and their bags, before entrance to the Mount, removing all prayer books prior to entering the Mount. An over-zealous policeman recently even asked a young tourist to remove his kippa so as not to offend Muslim sensibilities. Definitely not the previous status quo.
False, inciting claims of intentions to destroy the Aksa mosque – on the far-right extension of the Temple Mount – have been consistently used by both Hamas and the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement (a Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood front) and the PA to inflame local Muslim sensitivities. The Aksa mosque has zero relevance for Jews but opposition to its supposed violation has become a rallying cry since 2010 for Hamas. Arab youth are paid the princely salary of NIS 4,000 monthly via the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement to foment clashes with the police and harass Jews visiting the Temple Mount. In a new status quo tactic, Hamas now makes payments to elderly women to stay in al-Aksa and vociferously irritate Jews visiting the Temple Mount. Why are these paid agents not banned from the Mount? Ten thousand religious Jews quietly visited the Mount in 2013 from across the entire spectrum of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and national religious population. In a significant change, 30 noted rabbis also visited the site on Jerusalem Day 2013 – thus enhancing the public Jewish religious legitimacy of the Temple Mount and causing concern to Palestinian political agents, who responded with increased rioting and harassment.
Finally, Israeli policy changed in late October 2014. In consequence to both the July 24 rampage against the Israeli police station on the Mount, and the stockpiled weapons found in the Aksa mosque, the government ordered the police to close the Mount to Muslim visitors for the first time since 1967. This policy change enraged Muslim leaders – for the first time, resistance was being encountered to a Muslim attempt to again change the status quo through violence. Police Chief Yohanan Danino then retreated in November 2014 – first announcing that he would not allow any Israeli MKs on the Mount.
Apprised by the Knesset speaker that he had run afoul of the law, he then decreed that only groups smaller than five Jews would be allowed on the Mount.
The Temple Mount is central to the legitimacy of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem. Let us all acknowledge that there is no status quo on the Mount, as there is no status quo anywhere in the Middle East. The situation is constantly changing. Freely allowing Jewish prayer is an appropriate return to the status quo, not a change.
One appropriate response would be to finally publish an official brochure about the Jewish presence on the Temple Mount – including archeological photos from 1967 of the partially excavated space underneath the Mount filled with Jewish antiquities from the Second Temple that have never been made public. An exhibition of such photos at the Davidson excavations and elsewhere would be an appropriate countermeasure to ludicrous Muslim claims of the nonexistence of Jewish legitimacy on the Temple Mount. As we all know, “One picture is worth a thousand words.”
The writer is a non-profit manager and student of international affairs and has lived in Jerusalem for over 25 years.