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Why the status quo on the Temple Mount isn't sustainable

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

A sign warns of the destruction of Al-Aqsa mosque sat Najah National University in Nablus, West Bank, September 26, 2013. The signs were hung by students in protest of visits by Jewish nationalists to Al-Aqsa Mosque and suspected Israeli intentions to divide the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount between Muslims and Jews. (Photo by Ahmad Al-Bazz/Activestills.org)

A sign at Najah National University  in Nablus warns of the destruction of Al-Aqsa mosque, Nablus, September 26, 2013. The signs were hung by students in protest of visits by Jewish nationalists to Al-Aqsa Mosque and suspected Israeli intentions to divide the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount between Muslims and Jews. (Photo by Ahmad Al-Bazz/Activestills.org)

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.

Palestinian youth throw stones during clashes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ras al Amud, with the Aqsa Mosque seen in the background. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Palestinian youth throw stones during clashes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ras al Amud, with the Aqsa Mosque seen in the background. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

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.

Read more: Disturbing the ‘peace’ in Jerusalem’s holiest site

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.

Palestinian youth hold a Palestinian flag outside the Aqsa Mosque in the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount compound, East Jerusalem. (Photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Palestinian youth hold a Palestinian flag outside the Aqsa Mosque in the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount compound, East Jerusalem. (Photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

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.

Related:
Disturbing the ‘peace’ in Jerusalem’s holiest site
In Silwan, the settlers are winning – big time
PHOTOS: Protests in Jerusalem over Aqsa Mosque closures

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    COMMENTS

    1. Pedro X

      If the status quo is unsustainable, then close the Temple Mount to Jews, Muslims and Christians. I have never understood the argument that Jews who want to pray on the Temple Mount can not but Muslims can. This is simply a human rights issue, freedom of religion and freedom of assembly. There was a Jewish synagogue on the Temple Mount during early Muslim rule for hundreds of years and Jews prayed there while Muslims prayed at the Al Asqa Mosque.

      Reply to Comment
      • TruthSeeker

        “This is simply a human rights issue” you say. How about the human rights for the Palestinians, or as Israel has shown the world time and time again, there is no such thing as human rights for the Palestinians. As the IDF soldiers stated, “We are trained not to see Palestinians as humans”, giving them further justification for their barbaric treatment towards the Palestinians. And oh yeah, think Israelis would let Palestinians to go pray by the wailing wall? Google Israelis spitting on Christians. Israel treats everyone who is not Jewish as inferior, be they Muslim, Christian…

        Reply to Comment
        • Pedro X

          Israeli Arabs enjoy the fullest human rights of any Arabs in middle east countries. Arabs are allowed to pray unimpeded at their mosques and holy places in Israel. This includes both Christians and Muslims. The Bhai faith has its own world wide temple in Haifa and no one prevents the Bhai from exercising their faith. Arabs in Israel can vote, run for public office, serve in the highest courts, no occupation or calling is closed to them. They have equal access to medical care and social services. Arab municipalities receive more per capita funding than Jewish municipalities except those in Judea and Samaria who have extra defense costs. Arabs in Israel have freedom of speech and freedom to travel inside and outside of Israel as any Jewish Israeli can.

          Palestinian Arabs are denied their rights by their governments who deny the most basic rights, the right to vote, the right of free speech and assembly, the right to equal gender treatment, the right to choose one’s sexual orientation, the right to be free from arrest, detention and torture. The Palestinians in 1949 could have established an egalitarian state of their own in the West Bank and Gaza but they did not. They had several chances since then and since the 1993 Oslo Accords to establish a human rights loving state and they have not. Instead of human rights, the Palestinians have promoted terrorists’ rights and the emulation thereof. No wonder their societies are so violent and full of hate.

          You should read this article how Palestinian society treats its widows:

          http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/10/widows-gaza-increase-confiscation-rights.html

          Reply to Comment
      • Yeah, right

        PX: “If the status quo is unsustainable, then close the Temple Mount to Jews, Muslims and Christians.”

        Israel is the occupying power, it is not the sovereign power. It does not have the “authority” under int’l humanitarian law to make such a decision.

        PX: “I have never understood the argument that Jews who want to pray on the Temple Mount can not but Muslims can.”

        *sigh*

        Israel is the occupying power, it is not the sovereign power. It does not have the authority under int’l humanitarian law to make that decision.

        Honestly, this isn’t difficult: Israel doesn’t own this territory, it has only seized it at the point of a gun.

        So Netanyahu and his gang of right-wing wing-nuts can argue till they are blue in the face that Jerusalem is “forever united” and they are simply tugging on your chain.

        They. Know. Better.

        They also know what *you* want to hear, and so their are mouthing the words.

        But that proves nothing other than that they are very, very good at talking out of both sides of their mouth at once, because They Know Better, even if you – obviously – don’t.

        Reply to Comment
        • Pedro X

          Israel is the sovereign power of all of Jerusalem having liberated the eastern part of the city from Jordanian occupation in 1967. Jerusalem has never been a Palestinian city. It is the undivided capital of Israel.

          Reply to Comment
          • Yeah, right

            PX: “Israel is the sovereign power of all of Jerusalem having liberated the eastern part of the city from Jordanian occupation in 1967.”

            You can’t acquire sovereignty over territory merely by seizing it by force of arms, regardless of whether or not you hang a label called “liberation” on that act of seizure.

            Israel has to show that it had sovereignty over prior to the Jordanian occupation.

            Israel can produce no such document, ergo, its seizure of Jerusalem is no different from Jordan’s seizure of Jerusalem i.e. in both cases the result is an “occupation”, nothing more and no less.

            PX: “Jerusalem has never been a Palestinian city.”

            It has never been an “Israeli city” either, which means that “Israel” can’t claim that city for itself merely by seizing that city by force of arms.

            PX: “It is the undivided capital of Israel.”

            Again, I have to point out that you have leapt over a necessary step, and that means that you have just taken an (unwarranted) leap of logic.

            Israel seized the western part of Jerusalem in 1948. That means “occupation”. In 1967 it seized the eastern part of Jerusalem and, again, that means “occupation”.

            To turn that into sovereignty requires “annexation”, and that’s where Israel’s argument falls apart i.e. the acquisition of territory by war is quite illegal, and so Israel can’t unilaterally annex any of Jerusalem.

            It can play pretendies with itself, sure, it can. But nobody else is going to get into that sandbox with it.

            Q: Why not?
            A: Because the rest of the world is run by grown-ups, and they aren’t interested in Israel’s World Of Make-Believe.

            Reply to Comment
          • lewis

            “You can’t acquire sovereignty over territory merely by seizing it by force of arms, regardless of whether or not you hang a label called “liberation” on that act of seizure.” Based on your reasoning Britain would need to hand back Australia and Canada to the indigious people and who would get the southwestern USA? Mexico, Spain, or the Native Americans?
            The Jewish faith was practiced on that mount 1500 years before Islam existed.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Victor Arajs

      The Haram al Sharif is holy to Muslims and Muslims only. Wall Street is holy to Jews. Jews need to keep off the Haram al Sharif as they will make the Muslims angry and there are a lot more Muslims than Jews

      Reply to Comment
    3. Ariel

      Anyone can provide a recent video footage of storming? It is all lies by Muslim leaders by heat the street.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Tomer

      He who controlls the Temple Mount, controls the entire land.

      The Islamicist murderers have no right to control the source of Judaism’s spiritual energy. When Feiglin is PM, the islamic Waqf will be dismantled and full Israeli Jewish soverignty will be applied to Temple Mount.

      Problem Solved!

      Reply to Comment
      • tod

        Why this article starts from the history of the “Temple Mount” with the Jews (actually the Israelites)? The place was holy much earlier than the Israelites and hosted a pagan temple much before the “First Temple”.

        Reply to Comment
        • Andrew

          While pagan temples did exist in areas near the temple mount, there is no evidence that they existed in the exact spot of the temple mount. But that is not the point. The Jews have the most ancient historical claims to the temple mount of any group that exists today. The Jebusites aren’t clamoring for prayer rights there because the Jebusites don’t exist.

          And nobody here has given answer to the following question: Regardless of sovereignty, occupation or any other political issue that exists about whose territory the temple mount is, why should individual Jews not have the right to pray there (as Muslims do – and should, and as Christians or anyone else should)? And as for anyone who says that Muslims wouldn’t be allowed to pray at the Wailing Wall, that is patently false. I have been to the Wailing Wall and I have seen people of many faiths and backgrounds pray there. It is not closed off to anyone. If Muslims choose not to pray there, fine, but they certainly are allowed to. And i have seen them use the plaza at the Wailing Wall as a thoroughfare to get to the Al Aqsa mosque through the Mughrabi Gate.

          Reply to Comment
          • Piotr Berman

            “And nobody here has given answer…”

            The answer is simple: property rights. Waqf is the owner, and it should decide what is allowed. Customarily, the entrance of non-worshippers to a religious compound is conditional on showing the regard for the respective religion, not disturbing religious observances of THAT religion etc. If Jews are allowed to pray in their manner in St. Peter Basilic by the Vatican, then this is OK, and if they are not allowed, it is OK too, Vatican can set the rules. What happened 2000 years ago have no bearing on the ownership title today — we are not returning England to the Britonic people, are we?

            Reply to Comment
    5. Andrew

      Piotr, I hear your point. I would agree with it in principle (at least for within the actual Al-Aqsa mosque (or any other mosque) and the Dome of the Rock. I would disagree in the open-air areas of the temple mount since I don’t see those areas as part of a religious structure and Muslims don’t either as evidenced by the fact that they do all sorts of things (play ball, dump garbage, etc.) that they never would do inside a mosque.
      In any event, I said I would agree with in principle were it not for the fact that these rules (that the owner of a religious site gets to decide what is and is not allowed) aren’t applied anywhere else insofar as uttering prayer is concerned. Try going into a church today and praying to Allah (just uttering a prayer, nothing else) and now see what would happen if the pastor in the church would try to outlaw it. Owners of businesses in the U.S. are now facing difficulty over providing services to same-sex weddings based on religious prerogative.
      In fact, in Israel, there has been a long-running case involving Jewish practices at the Western Wall. The Wall has been administered by the Orthodox Jewish rabbinate since 1967 and thus has always required certain decorum there such as separation of the sexes. However, a womens group has tried to subvert this practice based on discrimination. They have been somewhat successful in getting the courts to allow them to do what they want at the Wall even though the rabbinate (which does the same job at the Western Wall that the Waqf does on the Temple Mount) doesn’t allow it. And the things the women want to do there are actions (such as breaking decorum rules) rather than essentially whispered speech, something that is protected in a democratic country like Israel (BTW, Israel still “owns” the mount. After the ’67 war, they gave administration rights to the Jordanian Waqf).

      Reply to Comment