Following the June 1967 war, when Israeli forces captured East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, then Defense Minister Moshe Dayan handed over control of al-Haram al-Sharif compound to the Muslim Waqf, or religious endowment, and ordered his soldiers to take down the Israeli flag from atop the Dome of the Rock. He also ordered them to vacate the site and prevent Jews from praying anywhere on the site that covers about a sixth of the area of the Old City of Jerusalem and contains the Dome of the Rock Mosque, the al-Aqsa Mosque, and a number of ancient buildings.
His orders had strategic value since he did not want the site, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, to become the source of a religious conflict between Israel and the entire Muslim world. At the time, Israel proclaimed that it had no territorial ambitions in the occupied territories and that—besides praying at the Western Wall, known to Muslims as the Buraq Wall—had no claim or desire to challenge Muslim control over the entire compound. In fact, the keys to the entrances to the site were physically handed over to the Islamic Waqf personnel, whose custodian status was officially recognized by Israel. The Waqf is actually part of the Jordanian Ministry of Religious Affairs, whose personnel handle properties dedicated to charitable and religious purposes.
Circumspection and Restraint
Dayan’s decision was in fact an easy one. Zionism is a secular movement, and while it uses religion where suitable to assert religious and historical rights for Jews in Palestine, Dayan was a secular person. So was David Ben Gurion, Israel’s founder and first prime minister, who merely used the Bible and the Book of Joshua to assert a Jewish right to Palestine. The few fanatical Jews who wanted to own and control the compound and build the Third Temple on the site were seen as a grave danger to the state. Dayan was lucky because religious leaders of Judaism were at the time also opposed to Jewish prayers at the site. Most of the religious Jews were anti-zionists, or at least believed that only the appearance of the Messiah will restore temple worship. Dayan quickly obtained a religious edict prohibiting Jews from entering the compound. The reasoning was that at the center of the ancient Temple was the Holy of Holies which only the High Priest could enter, and only once a year, to perform a sacrifice of an unblemished red heifer. According to tradition, anyone else who entered the Holy of Holies would die instantly. And since no one knows its exact location, it made sense to prohibit any Jew from entering the entire compound, lest he (or, God forbid, she) would inadvertently step on the location and desecrate it by walking upon it.
Dayan was a secular person. So was David Ben Gurion, Israel’s founder and first prime minister, who merely used the Bible and the Book of Joshua to assert a Jewish right to Palestine.
Signs were posted at all entrances to the compound prohibiting Jews by religious edict from entering. Yet a small group of Jewish fanatics thought that there was a great opportunity to change the trajectory of Jewish history, restore sacrifices, and rebuild the Second Temple that was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. Although this group was small even among the religious population and seemed to have little support in Israel itself, it did have support from an equally fanatical group of American evangelicals. These saw in the creation of the State of Israel and the capture of Jerusalem a sign of the End Times and were willing to contribute large sums of money to begin preparations for destroying al-Haram al-Sharif and building the Third Temple. Money was contributed to prepare the bejewelled vests and clothing of the High Priest, buy the necessary stones, and manufacture the golden equipment and utensils required for sacrifices to resume. Ni’mane Har Habayt (The Temple Faithful) as well as Ateret Cohanim were two groups that were established to secretly work on buying or taking over properties close to the site in preparation for the fateful day. The Israeli police were very concerned about these groups and attempted to infiltrate them. At least two plots were publicly announced where fanatics started an attempt to destroy the Dome of the Rock. In one such conspiracy, an Israeli military pilot reportedly made trial runs for a bombing mission, and in another, 200 kg of explosives were found on the rooftop of a yeshiva (religious school) in the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem, very close to the Western Wall, which abuts al-Haram al-Sharif.
Israeli police guarded the site mostly from the outside, cooperating closely with the endowment personnel who controlled the entry of visitors.
Every Israeli government—including those of Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, and Ariel Sharon—has publicly declared that it was opposed to Jewish prayers at al-Haram al-Sharif compound, which remained in the hands of the Islamic Waqf, which until today continues to be under the Jordanian government. Israeli police guarded the site mostly from the outside, cooperating closely with the endowment personnel who controlled the entry of visitors. Non-Muslim visitors pay a small fee and are directed to dress modestly. They are proscribed from praying or carrying out any non-Muslim religious activity. When the Dalai Lama visited the site in 1999, this author saw how Waqf officials stopped him from laying down a prayer scarf on the stones of the Dome of the Rock to get its blessing.
Agitation by Jewish Fanatics and Evangelical Christians
This arrangement—which acknowledged Muslim control over the holy site but allowed tourists, including Jews, to visit (but not pray)—was very convenient and respectful for all parties. It lasted for many years and was codified as a status quo agreement in the Jordanian-Israeli Peace Treaty of 1994. The major gap in this arrangement was the control of the Mughrabi Gate which provided access from the Western Wall to al-Haram al-Sharif compound. The keys to this gate remained in the hands of Israeli forces who claimed it was necessary to provide access to police and security personnel to enter the compound when needed to protect worshipers at the Western Wall from rocks allegedly thrown at them by Palestinians inside. This gate also provided access to Jewish Israelis to enter the compound in small numbers and under close guard without paying a fee or going through the regular tourist access which was handled by Waqf personnel.
The wooden bridge leading to the Mughrabi Gate collapsed in 2004 and Israel proceeded to build a new permanent bridge, over the objections of Jordan and the Palestinians who saw the continuious digging of tunnels around the periphery of the compound as an attempt to subvert the status quo. Israel claimed and continues to claim that the digging was only archeological in nature. It also claimed that Muslim fears were exaggerated conspiracies, and that the Israeli government has no desire or plans to change the status quo or to allow Jews to pray or worship on the site. Importantly, Israeli officials said that they do not want the destruction of al-Haram al-Sharif or the building of the Third Temple.
However, the entire arrangement was not acceptable to the Jewish religious fanatics who did in fact desire to build the temple, or to their evangelical supporters who believe that they could speed up the Second Coming of Christ, and indeed the end of the world. The government of Israel found itself continuously having to walk a fine line between its public commitment to the status quo arrangement and the pressure from the Jewish fanatics.
The entire arrangement was not acceptable to the Jewish religious fanatics who did in fact desire to build the temple, or to their evangelical supporters who believe that they could speed up the Second Coming of Christ, and indeed the end of the world.
The change in this status quo started in small steps that have accelerated in recent years because of the rightward drift among religious Jews who previously were anti-Zionist, participated in different governments only to preserve their financial benefits from the state, and were generally quite dovish. Gradually, however, they became more rightwing and nationalistic and increased their political power and influence in the Knesset and different coalition governments. Moreover, opportunistic leaders gave them political cover. For example, Ariel Sharon, as defense minister, invaded the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in 2000 with hundreds of soldiers and policemen in a public assertion of power and control, sparking the Second Palestinian Intifada. In an interview with an Israeli paper, he made it clear that his intentions were not religious, but that he wanted to assert political sovereignty in Jerusalem. But once he became prime minister, he too prohibited Jewish prayer on the site.
During the Trump era, and with no little support from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence, both evangelical Christians and avowed Christian Zionists, fanatics felt it was possible to advance their agenda. The so-called Trump peace plan actually spoke of the rights of Jews to peacefully pray at the Temple Mount: “Jerusalem’s holy sites should remain open and available for peaceful worshippers and tourists of all faiths. People of every faith should be permitted to pray on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, in a manner that is fully respectful to their religion, taking into account the times of each religion’s prayers and holidays, as well as other religious factors.” US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman also physically participated in settler activities and wielded a heavy hammer to help knock down a wall during excavations that many people saw as being part of a bigger plan to dig under al-Haram al-Sharif compound in order to enter it without going through the Waqf-guarded doors. These fanatics were also emboldened by the Trump Administration’s policy toward Jerusalem which he considered an exclusive Israeli issue, as well as by the Abraham Accords that seemed to provide Arab cover for such policies.
The fanatics also found that they could appeal to many Israelis on strictly political grounds. The argument was that allowing Jews to pray at the site was a necessary exercise of the sovereignty of the State of Israel over Jerusalem. In essence, the religious argument and the political justification allowed more and more Jews to access the compound and to hold prayers there. With power and unrestrained hubris, Israelis felt that they could change conditions and the status quo agreement. They were cognizant of the anguish this caused Palestinians, but kept on dealing with it as a security issue and no longer worried about negotiating with Arabs or Muslims.
The Start of a New Status Quo
Today, groups of Jews accompanied by Israeli policemen and soldiers regularly roam the compound, establish religious minyans (number of persons necessary to hold collective vigils), and attempt to pray—usually by murmuring their prayers in low voices. What helped this situation over the last few years of the Benjamin Netanyahu government were increased and hostile police intrusions onto the compound. Gratuitous violence and the use of tear gas and rubber-tipped bullets has become the norm. Recently, Israeli soldiers and policemen invaded al-Aqsa Mosque itself, injuring some 150 Palestinians and arresting over 400 others whom they accused of preparing for confrontations with security personnel and Jewish visitors. Even drones were used for the first time to drop tear gas on Muslim worshippers. The original formula that the state of Israel had held onto for a long time to allay Muslim fears is now being severely tested. Israel still insists that it abides by the status quo agreement, but its policies and behavior are increasingly suspect.
The original formula that the state of Israel had held onto for a long time to allay Muslim fears is now being severely tested.
And as if that were not sufficient, recent Israeli restrictions on Christian celebrations and prayers in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre do not inspire confidence either. For the first time ever, the police announced that they would restrict worshippers at the church during Orthodox Easter celebrations to 4,000. The Orthodox Church Patriarchate said that the Church usually accommodates 11,000 for the Holy Fire ceremonies. Secret and persistent efforts by Ateret Cohanim to acquire church property inside the Old City and around the sacred places also increased the anxiety of local Christians. There seems to be no rational reason for these restrictions other than to flex muscles and assert power and exclusive sovereignty, reflecting the increasing influence of religious Zionism within the Israeli political sphere.
Israel today is on the march to assert its full religious and political control over Jerusalem, including Muslim and Christian holy sites. The old status quo agreement putting Jordan in charge is fraying as religious fanatics and opportunistic Israeli politicians dictate the terms of a new arrangement under conditions of power imbalance and international ambivalence— specifically American despite repeated statements to the contrary. Continuing present Israeli behavior and policy is dangerous and is bound to lead to more violence and instability in an already unstable region.