Mourners ascending the Temple Mount

As Jewish pilgrims increasingly visit the volatile site, tensions are rising ahead of Tisha Be’av – and expectations for change are growing.

MK Yehudah Glick at the Temple Mount (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
MK Yehudah Glick at the Temple Mount
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Somewhere in the second half of the 1990s, what was long known by thousands of religious and traditionalists Jews became a revelation for the rest of the country, when a live IBA broadcast from the Western Wall plaza showed the incredible number of people of all ages and affiliations who came to mourn the destruction of the Temple on the eve of Tisha Be’av.
The reporters and police estimated the crowd to be at least 50,000. It was the first time the phenomenon was highlighted by the media.
People gather at the Kotel on other key dates as well, such as the evenings of the month of Elul, reaching a peak on the night before Yom Kippur, with – according to Jerusalem police – about half a million (some say even more) participating in Slihot prayers.
This activity focusing on the Western Wall and the traditions linked to the destruction of the two Temples is supplemented by growing interest in what lies beyond it – the Temple Mount esplanade. The number of Jewish visitors to that holy site has been constantly growing, and because it is controversial, it stirs a lot of emotion.
The status quo established shortly after the Six Day War in June 1967 forbids Jewish prayer on the Mount, but permits visits. Things have changed since then, and for the past 10 years or so, tension there has been high.
There are grievances on both sides: Jewish activists request the right to visit and pray, as the Wakf (Muslim religious trust) is playing a role in turning the site into one of the most explosive in the world.
In light of the increasing number of Jewish pilgrims and visitors, tension is rising preceding Tisha Be’av this Sunday and expectations for change are growing.
MK Yehudah Glick, one of the most renowned Temple Mount activists, says he is not aware of plans to change the rules regarding Jewish visitors to the site, but adds, “There is no doubt that the numbers are growing daily – more groups and individuals are coming to visit the site.”
In addition to the growing number of individuals who are joining the “veterans” that have long been visiting on a daily basis, there are more groups, mostly linked to political organizations, that are joining or planning to organize large-scale visits in the coming days and weeks.
One of these groups is the Women in Green organization, which leads a march around the Old City every Tisha Be’av. This year’s 22nd annual march, scheduled for Saturday night, is titled “Walking around the Old City Walls in support of sovereignty over the Land of Israel” and features a series of politicians addressing the marchers at various points. The right to pray on the Temple Mount is one prominent focus of the march, and this year’s speakers include Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin, Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan and Glick, who will all address the crowd at the Lions’ Gate.
The mother of 13-year-old terrorism victim Hallel Yaffa Ariel, stabbed to death in her bed as she slept, will also speak; her parents have been active in the movement for the right to pray on Temple Mount for years.
For the moment, Glick cannot resume his visits to the site, following a government decision not to allow any MK or minister to visit there, in line with the government’s directive not to alter the status quo. That was one of the decisions taken after a series of terrorist acts that began last year, stoked by what the Palestinians claimed was a Jewish attempt to take over the site.
While the number of terrorist acts throughout the country has dropped, the Mount itself is not tranquil.
Harassment of Jewish visitors has abated somewhat, in particular since the Morabitun (women linked to the local Islamic Movement) have been expelled from the site, but Wakf inspectors continue to scrutinize every Jewish visitor to prevent any attempt to pray.
The atmosphere is tense. Ramadan (last June and July) was a turning point; many times during that month Jewish visitors were barred from entering the site. According to Makor Rishon and social media reports posted by visitors, Jewish visitors with a religious appearance were repeatedly prevented from entering the compound.
In a related matter, the police prevented the Wakf from building restrooms on the compound during Ramadan without a building permit. The Wakf, not recognizing Israeli sovereignty, refuses to apply for any construction permits whatsoever. A source at Safra Square adds that in addition violation of the law, there was a concern that these restrooms were a subterfuge for other agendas, such as additional construction to change the status quo.
At Ir Amim, an NGO monitoring the situation on the ground in east Jerusalem and particularly on the Temple Mount, the list of incidents between the parties is long. One of the most egregious was the Wakf insistence that Antiquities Authority archeologists leave the site. On July 27, Tzahi Dvira, who heads the archeological group of that monitors illegal excavations undertaken by the Wakf on the Mount, was expelled by the Wakf. The incident led to the intervention of the police, who arrested two Wakf employees for investigation.
Glick hopes to see a change in the government position regarding visits of MKs and ministers to the Mount, but meanwhile says, “Baruch Hashem [thank God], every day we can see how many more Jews are coming to visit the Temple Mount, and the number is constantly growing.”