Attention Required To Israeli Decision On Temple Mount/Haram AlSharif During Lockdown

September 15, 2020
Due to ever growing rates of COVID19 the Israeli government has decided to begin a lockdown from Friday, September 18th. The lockdown period is supposed to continue for two to three weeks after which limitations on movement will gradually ease depending on the situation.

The lockdown period coincides with the Jewish High Holidays: Rosh Hashana (September 19-20), Yom Kipur (September 28) and Sukkot (October 3-10). Normally this is a peak period for the Temple Movements including campaigns and bug groups of Jewish supporters of the Temple Movements visiting the Temple Mount/Haram alSharif.

We anticipate that Temple Movements and their supporters within the government will exert pressure on the Prime Minister to allow Jewish visits to the Temple Mount/Haram alSharif claiming that since gathering for prayer is allowed during the lockdown these visits should continue. If the Israeli government allows Jews to visit the Temple Mount/Haram alSharif even during the lockdown it will be a declaration that Jewish visits to the Mount happen as an act of worship – a stark violation of the status quo.

According to the lockdown regulations most daily activities will be forbidden and public places will be shut down. People are required to stay at a distance of no more than 500 meters from their homes.
Among the activities still allowed even during lockdown - while adhering to limitations on number of people, staying at a distance of 500 meters from one's home etc. - is gathering for prayer. According to the status quo the Temple Mount/Haram alSharif is not a site for Jewish worship. In 2015 Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu explicitly stated his commitment that "Muslims pray on the Temple Mount; non-Muslims visit the Temple Mount".

Therefore if the status quo is respected the holy place should be closed to visits of non-Muslims during lockdown while Muslims who live in the vicinity of the Temple Mount/Haram alSharif should be allowed to pray there while adhering to specified limitations. 

Despite Netanyahu's declaration from 2015 we have seen a continuing erosion of the status quo. A notable example was the opening of the Temple Mount/Haram alSharif for Jewish visitors during the Muslim holiday of Eid alAdha in 2019 when normally only Muslim worshippers are allowed to enter the holy place. The reason given for that change was that coinciding in 2019 of Eid alAdha with the Jewish atonement day of Tisha B'Av. That was an alarming signal that the Israeli government is working against the status quo by giving weight to Jewish holidays in regards to the the Temple Mount/Haram alSharif. Another very worrying development took place with the announcement of the Trump Plan in January this year. The Trump Plan states that "People of every faith should be permitted to pray on the Temple Mount/Haram alSharif" (this despite another statement in the plan which reads "the "status quo in the Temple Mount/Haram alSharif should continue uninterrupted").

In March when COVID19 first appeared in Israel friction between police and Muslim worshippers regarding free access to the holy place were a cause for tension around the Temple Mount/Haram alSharif. The volatile situation was diffused when Israel coordinated with the Jordanian Waqf the closure of the compound for a period of two months to both worshippers and visitors with only Waqf personnel continuing to operate there. So far there is no sign that such an idea is being considered.

During the two months when due to COVID19 the Temple Mount/Haram alSharif was closed, Temple activists campaigned to allow Jews to enter the compound. That campaign was not successful. Still we can expect that in the coming lockdown a similar campaign will gain extra power due to the fact that this is the time of the Jewish High holidays, the holiest period in the Jewish year and when Temple Movements' supporters are especially active. Temple activists will probably also use the fact that Muslim worshippers are allowed to enter the Temple Mount/Haram alSharif (which is in line with the permission to gather for prayer and with the status quo). Knowing the Temple Movements' discourse it is likely that their campaign will base itself on the fact that gathering for prayer is still allowed in lockdown.

Such a campaign will once again present to the Israeli public the status quo on the Temple Mount/Hara, alSharif as an unjustified violation of Jewish worship rights and a hurt to national pride. Since the government never aims to challenge these claims nor does it explain to the public the justifications for the status quo, the Temple Movements' campaign will in the least achieve more public support for their demands to end the status quo.

If the Israeli government actually heeds the campaign and allows Jews to enter the Temple Mount/Haram alSharif it will be a dramatic breaking away from the status quo according to which the Temple Mount/Haram alSharif is a place of Muslim worship alone. Such a step will have far reaching ramifications.