As both the holiest site in Judaism and home to a 1,400-year-old mosque, Jerusalem’s Temple Mount compound is a natural flashpoint of Jewish-Muslim tension. But the conflict over the holy site has been particularly heated over the past year, with the latest incidents coming during the recent Passover holiday.
In late April, a group of Muslims were removed from the Temple Mount for chanting “Allahu akbar” (“God is greater”) at nearly 1,000 Jewish and Christian visitors who had ascended the site during the Passover holiday. Prior to that incident, 13 Jews were removed from the Temple Mount for illegally praying at the site.
Following those incidents, Jordan’s government warned of “serious consequences” for Israel over what it has described as “the invasion of settler groups and Israeli occupying forces in the Al-Aqsa mosque.”
“There’s absolutely no basis for these claims,” Israeli officials countered. “Israel is behaving responsibly, and Jordan knows that.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly insisted that Israel will not change the Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian status quo—in place now for nearly 25 years—of a ban on Jewish prayer at the Temple Mount, despite pressure from some members of his own political party and ministerial cabinet to do so.
“Israel will continue to enforce its longstanding policy: Muslims pray on the Temple Mount; non-Muslims visit the Temple Mount,” Netanyahu has said.
Israeli officials have blamed their Palestinian counterparts for using the Temple Mount to incite a large portion of the past year’s terrorist attacks against Israeli Jews.
“We will not forsake our country and we will keep every inch of our land,” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said in September 2015. “Every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem is pure, every shahid [martyr] will reach paradise, and every injured person will be rewarded by God…The Al-Aqsa mosque is ours. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is ours as well. They (Jews) have no right to desecrate the mosque with their dirty feet, we won’t allow them to do that.”
The unrest over the Temple Mount has also been attributed to the Jordanian Islamic Waqf, Hamas, and the Islamic Movement in Israel. Gangs of Muslim men and women have harassed Jewish visitors at the holy site.
“Peaceful Jewish visitors are systematically hounded by agents of the Jordanian Waqf, and harassed by the Muslim mercenaries who are paid to torment them. This is the daily routine of a Jewish visit to the Temple Mount,” Rabbi Chaim Richman—international director of the Temple Institute, an organization whose stated mission is “to restore Temple consciousness” and reactivate the Temple era’s “‘forgotten’ commandments”—told JNS.org.
These Islamist gangs, known as Murabitat, have been filmed shouting “Allahu akbar” and trying to assault Jews and Israeli police officers on the Temple Mount.
“In any democratic society, such inciting behavior would be considered a blatant violation of the most basic civil rights, and an attack on human dignity. The fact that this takes place daily under the watchful and complicit eyes of the Israel Police, as policy set by the Prime Minister’s Office, is a scathing indictment of the total lack of Jewish rights at our people’s holiest site,” Richman said.
Last year, in a U.S.-brokered agreement between Jordan and Israel, Jordan promised to install security cameras at the Temple Mount in order to ease tensions there. But Jordan recently dropped those plans over Palestinian objections.
“It would seem that the Muslims realized that showing the world what really happens on the Temple Mount would be detrimental to their cause, and thus they cancelled their plan,” Richman said.
As the site of the two former Jewish Temples, the Temple Mount has long played a pivotal role in Jewish affairs and worship. Yet after the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the !1st Century CE, the site passed through a succession of foreign rulers, from the Muslim Caliphs and Crusaders to more recently the Ottoman and British empires. During the control of the site by the Muslim Umayyad Caliphate in 691 CE, the Dome of the Rock was constructed over the site of the former Jewish Temple—igniting much of today’s tension.
After failing to gain control of the Old City of Jerusalem during the 1948 War of Independence, Israeli forces captured the Old City and the Temple Mount from Jordan during the 1967 Six-Day War. Despite regaining Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount for the first time in nearly 2,000 years, Israeli leaders decided to relinquish religious sovereignty over the holy site to the Jordanian-run Islamic Waqf. Under that arrangement, which would become the “status quo,” Jewish prayer was forbidden on the Temple Mount and non-Muslim access was restricted to certain days and hours.
Jewish religious leaders in the haredi community have opposed Jewish worship at the Temple Mount and even visitation there, due to the inability of modern Jews to purify themselves properly before ascending the former site of the Holy of Holies. But Israeli public opinion is increasingly favoring increased Jewish rights at the Temple Mount. A poll released last year by the Yesodot Center for Torah and Democracy found that a majority of Israelis favor greater prayer access at the holy site. According to the poll, 37 percent of Israelis believe that their government should allow free access to adherents of all religions who wish to pray on the Temple Mount. Sixty-six percent of respondents said the Israeli government should have sovereignty over the site.
The push for greater Jewish access to the Temple Mount has also made its way into Israel’s political leadership. While Netanyahu has remained firmly opposed to any changes, cabinet members such as Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel (Jewish Home) have argued for increased Jewish prayer access and even for rebuilding the Temple.
“We’ve built many little, little temples, but we need to build a real temple on the Temple Mount,” Ariel said last year.
“It is tempting to be seduced by such rhetoric,” Prof. Yedidia Stern, vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) think tank, told JNS.org.
Such rhetoric “has fanned the flames of the intensive attempts to strengthen Jewish presence and renew Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount in recent years, and has swept up some 40 percent of Jews in Israel, who believe that the status quo on the Temple Mount should be changed,” said Stern.
Along with Uri Ariel, other Jewish activists such as Temple Mount rights promoter Rabbi Yehuda Glick—who survived an assassination attempt by a Palestinian terrorist in 2014—and the Temple Institute’s Richman are challenging the status quo.
“The so-called status quo is an illegal arrangement which makes a mockery of the basic human, civil, and religious rights of all non-Muslims at the Temple Mount. In a country that prides itself on its exemplary record of equality for all its citizens, the ‘status quo’ is a stain on Israeli society, a disgrace that should be uprooted,” Richman told JNS.org.
The Temple Institute, which says it has the long-term goal of “building of the Holy Temple in our time,” has already constructed “sacred vessels” that would be used in the future Third Temple, such as a pure gold menorah, a golden incense altar, and the golden Table of the Showbread.
“The government of Israel should defend and protect its citizens and uphold Israeli law, which clearly states that free and unrestricted access to all holy places be granted to members of all religions. The Temple Mount is the only site which is intrinsically holy to the Jewish people. The fact that Jews are prevented from praying at their only holy site, by the very government that should be protecting and upholding their rights, is inexcusable and unforgivable,” said Richman.
IDI’s Stern, meanwhile, said the Temple Mount issue is more “complex” than anything else on the public agenda in Israel. While he believes that “considerable weight must be given to the argument that we must never surrender to violence, and certainly not on the most symbolic issue of all—control of the Temple Mount,” Stern also reasoned that “we cannot ignore the realistic approach that considers the limitations of national power and seeks to exercise that power responsibly.”
According to an April 2016 poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, a majority of Palestinians (52 percent) believe that Israel is planning to destroy the Al-Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock. Furthermore, only 9 percent of Palestinians believe that Israel intends on maintaining the status quo at the Temple Mount.
“If we do not think carefully and act wisely with regard to the Temple Mount, 1.6 billion Muslims, fueled by religious fervor, are liable to mobilize and become active participants in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Stern said. “Arguments based on principle, as important as they may be, must be weighed against the likely outcome of their implementation.”