Don’t let symbols blind you to the mundane at the Temple Mount

Once again Israeli leaders denounce UNESCO and tell their people with an odd tone of satisfaction: “The whole world is against us; we you told you so!”

UNESCO headquarters (photo credit: REUTERS)
UNESCO headquarters
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Once again the question of the Temple Mount and Jerusalem has been brought before UNESCO. Once again several Arab states – Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar and Sudan – promote there a draft text that denies the Jewish linkage to the holy site.
And once again Israeli leaders denounce UNESCO and tell their people with an odd tone of satisfaction: “The whole world is against us; we you told you so!” Focusing minutely on the draft’s terminology – does it say “Temple Mount” or “al-Aksa Mosque”? The “Western Wall” or “al-Burak”? “Yerushalayim” or “al-Quds”? – Israeli leaders seem to have forgotten to actually read the text. What does it really say? In a sentence, the resolution, drafted by Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, calls to reinstate the “pre- 2000 historical Status Quo.”
Is that good? Is that bad? And what is that status quo anyway? If you can get past the resolution’s lingo – contested to be sure – everyone has something to gain from managing the site according to the pre- 2000 status quo which it suggests.
The escalation following the failure of the Camp David talks and the Second Intifada manifested itself also at the holy site, leading to a volatile, oft-violent equilibrium at the site, from which all sides lose. Until 2000, non-Muslim visitors could purchase entry tickets for NIS 25 from the Jordanian Wakf and enter the two buildings atop the site – the Aksa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. They could enter the Temple Mount compound, also on Saturdays, from three gates, not only one – neither of which can they do today.
The pre-2000 situation was better for Muslims as well – categorical limitations on Muslim entry, based on gender or sex, were rare to nonexistent.
Between 2010 and 2015, with tensions rising at the site, Muslim entry was increasingly curtailed, with access oftentimes limited to men over 40 years of age.
Tourism too has suffered: since 2000, and in particular in recent years as violence at the site became more common, tourists are vanishing from the site. Since 2009 alone the number of tourists has dropped by half and stands today at less than 200,000 tourists a year.
The pre-2000 success was, to no small extent, the product of the relatively tight and successful coordination between Jordan and Israel regarding the management of the site.
The entry of non-Muslim visitors – which happened on Jordanian sufferance, which they did not abuse – contributed to decreasing tensions at the site. Ever since 2000, excluded from access decisions Jordan and the PA have referred to entry of religious Jews as “storming” of the site.
Coordination also used to include coordination of public works, maintenance and preservation of antiquities (including informal coordination with the Israel Antiquities Authority). While cooperation was never completely smooth, today we have reached a situation of such hostility that the Israel Police and Wakf guards clash recurrently, Israel at times arrests Wakf employees and the Israel Antiquities Authority virtually cannot operate at the site.
Until Arab-Israeli peace comes, whether one yearns for or opposes it, Jordanians and Palestinians will most likely continue to refer to the site exclusively as the Aksa Mosque (ignoring the Jewish link to the site) and the government of Israel will most likely continue to refer to the holy city only as Jerusalem (ignoring the Palestinian national link to al-Quds).
Names and symbols are of course significant in the conflict.
They shape behavior and animate violence. The parties will naturally continue to struggle over them but symbolic disagreement should not be allowed to stand in the way of addressing crucial questions about the site’s administration, especially when everyone can benefit and violence can be curbed.
Indeed, prominent Temple activists and (under Amman’s influence) PA officials agree they would like to see the pre- 2000 Status Quo revived. So they have all told me. The sides would gain more from hashing out the differences between them on what precisely this would mean at the site rather than on quarreling over how to name the site in UN documents.
The author is a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group’s Arab-Israeli Project