Israel’s tightening grip on the Temple Mount — and reactions to it — cannot be disconnected from the wider political reality. Tensions on the Temple Mount lead to unrest in the streets of East Jerusalem, many argue, not the other way around.
By Yonathan Mizrachi
With the escalating violence and tensions in Jerusalem in recent months, the Temple Mount has become a major item on the social and political agenda. Aspirations of apparent extremists to change the status quo on the Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif are raising concern among many Israelis, the Arab world, and the international community — which seeks to maintain the status quo there; that is, to maintain the autonomy of the Muslim Waqf in managing the complex, while allowing Jews to visit the Mount on certain occasions.
Some argue that the tension in East Jerusalem is tied to the question of sovereignty over the Temple Mount: that is, tension on the Mount leads to unrest in the streets, not vice versa.
If we examine the history of the Temple Mount over the past 2,000 years, we see that its rulers have changed many times, and each sovereign altered the situation on the ground. In the first century CE, the Jewish temple was destroyed, but already in the second century CE, the Romans had built a pagan temple in its place.
When Christianity became the official religion of the Byzantine Empire in the fourth century, the Temple Mount became a waste area — seemingly out of disrespect for its status, yet the Christians’ need to turn the mount into a place outside of the boundaries of the city attests to their desire to redefine it.
The Arab conquest restored the mount’s religious centrality, and from the end of the seventh century, structures of prayer and commemoration were built there. The most recognized are the Aqsa Mosque and the memorial building that later became a mosque — the Dome of the Rock. In addition to these, the Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif contains collonades, madrasas (Islamic seminaries) and domes, and other structures that make it what it is today – the sacred precinct of Islam.
But even during Muslim rule, the picture on the mount was not uniform, and changes took place according to the political situation. The Umayyad leaders (seventh century) strengthened the sanctity of the place, while the rulers of the House of Abbas (eighth century) reduced its value.
Crusaders in the 12th century turned the Aqsa Mosque into a church and identified it as one of the holy sites of Christianity. Immediately after Jerusalem reverted to Muslim rule during Mamluk reign in the 13th century, the mount underwent rapid development and religious structures were once again built to reinforce its importance in Islam. Even in the years when the mount was under British control (the Mandate period), changes were made to the status quo.
When Israel decided to manage the political conflict rather than resolve it, and to strengthen its control over East Jerusalem, it likewise sought to manage the situation on the Temple Mount. Management does not mean freezing the situation. Yet when the faithful Israeli public sees that Israel is deepening its hold on East Jerusalem, it will likewise require a change in the status quo in the holy place.
The yearning of millions of Jews for the Temple cannot be solved by managing the conflict or maintaining the status quo, but only by a political solution to the conflict as a whole. Otherwise, Israel will change the situation on the Temple Mount, as it continues to change the situation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
When one takes into account the status of the Temple Mount in Judaism, the military and political power of Israel in the region, and the unwillingness of many Israelis recognize the importance of the site in Islam in general and to the Palestinians in particular, it becomes evident that Israel’s tightening grip on the Temple Mount is a result of the wider political reality.
The author is an archaeologist in Emek Shaveh, an organization that deals with the role of archeology in the political conflict.