Tensions continue to escalate over prayer rights at Temple Mount

"Let them threaten us with a third intifada – we cannot give up our rights to Muslim intolerance."

Palestinian protesters on Temple Mount 370 (photo credit: Ammar Awad/Reuters)
Palestinian protesters on Temple Mount 370
(photo credit: Ammar Awad/Reuters)
Amid the backdrop of a pronounced spike in Jews being detained at the Temple Mount for illegal prayer – coupled with a rancorous Monday Knesset meeting regarding Jewish prayer rights there – Judaism’s holiest site remains the epicenter of profound discord between Jews and Muslims.
According to police, in the last two weeks there were at least 10 detentions of Jews openly defying prayer restrictions at the contested area – by bowing, moving their lips to pray, and in one instance, defiantly lying on the ground – far exceeding detentions during previous weeks.
Although the Supreme Court has upheld Jewish prayer rights there, the court severely restricts visitation hours for Jews and allows police to prevent any form of Jewish worship there if they believe such activities will incite a “disturbance to the public order.”
At the base of the holy site Wednesday, a number of Jews expressed exacerbation and anger over what one deemed an ongoing “violation of religious and human rights.”
“Listen, we’re not talking about rocket science or even basic algebra here,” said Moshe, an Orthodox Jew originally from Queens, as he pointed to the Temple Mount after praying at the Western Wall.
“We’re talking about the despicable violation of religious and basic human rights to pray with dignity at a place more sacred than any other to us. If we took that right away from [Muslims] all hell would break loose.”
Asked if he was concerned about violence among Muslims if Jews were given full rights to pray at the site, Ya’acov, a 17-year-old Jerusalem yeshiva student, said he was tired of the government’s acquiescence to Arab threats.
“Let them threaten us with a third intifada,” said Ya’acov. “We cannot give up our rights to Muslim intolerance, because they always threaten violence every time we demand equality.”
He added: “If we continue to operate this way, they will always get their way at our expense.”
Noting the marked sensitivity surrounding the issue, Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said Wednesday that police officers are stationed at the site solely to safely – and apolitically – protect all visitors and defuse potential violence before it erupts.
“There are thousands of tourists who visit the Temple Mount on a regular basis, as well as Israeli groups,” said Rosenfeld. “Unfortunately, once in a while there are individuals who attempt to pray, and they are immediately removed from the area by police officers who are on the site to protect visitors as well as prevent any incidents from taking place.”
Still, according to one ultra- Orthodox man at the Western Wall Wednesday – who said he has been detained by police three times for praying on the Temple Mount, and requested anonymity – the police have become pawns of the Wakf Muslim religious trust, which administers the area.
“By arresting a Jew for praying and enforcing these laws, as far as I’m concerned the police are part of the problem,” he said. “Are they Jews or robots?” Politically, the debate remains no less explosive.
Indeed, a Monday Knesset Committee for the Interior meeting to discuss the continued restrictions Jewish visitors face on the Temple Mount degenerated into a shouting match over a threatened third intifada by Arab politicians.
“You’re playing with fire and you’re starting an inferno!” shouted MK Jamal Zahalka (Balad) during the discussion.
“I’m not threatening anything – I’m just saying what will happen,” he added, before storming off.
On Wednesday, Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Pepe Alalu (Meretz) – who briefly ran for mayor last month before withdrawing his name – said the problem resides with Jewish provocateurs, who go to the site solely to incite conflict.
“I think we need to accept the division,” he said. “All the Jews go to the Temple Mount only to create provocations.”
Alalu hinted that the problem will not be resolved unless Israel recognizes a Palestinian state.
“If you recognize a Palestinian state, we can change some things,” he said, without directly referencing the Temple Mount impasse. “But we must do this together.”
Further complicating an already enflamed situation are pronounced divisions among different rabbinical leaders regarding Jewish prayer there.
On two occasions within an eight-week period last year, the Chief Rabbinate issued a notice reiterating the stance of chief rabbis Shlomo Amar and Yona Metzger – as well as the revered late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef – that according to Jewish law it is unequivocally forbidden to visit the Temple Mount.
However, at Monday’s Knesset meeting, Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben-Dahan (Bayit Yehudi) announced he was seeking to reach an agreement with the Chief Rabbinate to allow Jews to pray there.
In the meantime, it appears little common ground has been gained concerning the issue.
“This [problem] is not going to be fixed until Jews are allowed to pray there as freely as Muslims,” said a woman who identified herself Wednesday only as Rachel.
“There is no room for further debate.”
Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.