Tisha B'av Events Underscore Dangerous Erosion of Status Quo on Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif

22 July 2021
On Sunday July 18, which was Tisha B'av—a Jewish day of mourning commemorating the destruction of the Jewish Temples and other Jewish tragedies over the course of history - the Israel police forcefully and indiscriminately removed Muslims from the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for fear of protests against Jewish visitors to the holy compound. Later that day, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett praised the Jerusalem police for "protecting Jewish freedom of worship on the Temple Mount" - a statement that is a blatant violation of the longstanding status quo whereby only Muslims are afforded worship rights while Jews have visitation rights.

Less than 24 hours later, an anonymous official at the Prime Minister's office retracted the problematic statement stating that, "There is no change to the status quo. The [Prime Minister's previous statement] referred to freedom of visitation [for Jews]".

Despite the necessary retraction, Prime Minister Bennett's statement reflects and is a result of the continuous erosion of the status quo that Israeli governments have initiated during the past decade. It should also serve as an alarm bell, indicating the Temple Movements and their allies in the Israeli government continued work towards fully dismantling the status quo in order to further their goals, which include the following steps:

  1. Allowing Jewish prayer at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif
  2. Establishing a spatial and/or temporal division of the Temple Mount Haram/al-Sharif between Jews and Muslims as is the case at the Cave of the Patriarchs/ Ibrahimi Mosque in the city of Hebron.
  3. The long term – but explicit – goal of the Temple Movements to ultimately rebuild the Temple where the Dome of the Rock stands today.
The following overview includes: 
  • Significant Israeli past declarations regarding the status quo
  • Examples of erosion of the status quo (with a focus on the main processes that led to Prime Minster Bennett's statement)
  • An analysis of how the events of July 18th/Tisha B'av and Bennett's subsequent statement are directly linked to the continuous erosion of the status quo.
  • Recommendations for how to reverse the current trends and reinforce the status quo on the Holy Esplanade
Note: This summary is not a comprehensive brief on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, but rather focuses on the most relevant events that have impacted the current state of affairs.

Past Declarations Regarding the Status Quo

  • After the capture of East Jerusalem in 1967, the Israeli government decided to uphold the centuries-old state of affairs whereby only Muslim prayer is allowed on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif while other religions have visitation rights. Israel also decided that the Jordanian Waqf would continue to administer the holy place.Israeli consensus was that "Muslims pray at the Temple Mount, Jews pray at the Western Wall". A government decision read "Jews who wish to enter [the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif] will be directed by security forces to the Western Wall". This Israeli decision came at a significant price to the Palestinian community in Jerusalem, seeing that the Israeli government razed the ancient Mughrabi neighborhood (dating back to the late 12th century) and uprooted the hundreds of residents who were living there in order to create what is today the Western Wall Plaza.
  • The 1994 peace agreement between Israel and Jordan includes an article stating that Israel "respects the present special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in Muslim Holy shrines in Jerusalem. When negotiations on the permanent status will take place, Israel will give high priority to the Jordanian historic role in these shrines". This is understood to mean that the Israeli government accepts the continuation of the Jordanian Waqf's administration of the Temple/Mount Haram al-Sharif. Specifically, Israel will not make unilateral decisions regarding the holy place – and certainly will not undermine the status quo - but will coordinate its actions with the Waqf.
  • In 2015, when Israel imposed restrictions on Muslim access to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, violence erupted in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In an attempt to subdue the violence, then Prime Minister Netanyahu made an explicit and public statement of commitment to the status quo: "Israel will continue to enforce its long-term policy: Muslims pray at the Temple Mount, non-Muslims visit it". The statement also said, "We welcome the growing coordination between the Israeli authorities and the Jordanian Waqf with the purpose of guaranteeing that worshippers and visitors respect the holy compound – all of this in accordance with the areas of responsibility of the Israeli authorities and the Jordanian Waqf".

    Netanyahu’s statement was significant for two reasons: It was the first time that an Israeli Prime Minister unequivocally and publicly stated that only Muslims enjoy worship rights at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, and it came at a time of growing Israeli attempts to undermine the status quo. No less important was the renewed recognition that the Jordanian Waqf has authority in the holy compound and that coordination with the Waqf is essential for the peaceful management of the holy site.

    Despite the statement's importance, it should be highlighted that it was essential only because of a crisis that erupted due to Israeli actions on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif that ran contrary to the status quo.

  • In January 2020, the American administration published the Trump Plan. The plan included two contradicting sentences with regard to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. On the one hand, it stated that "the status quo at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif should continue uninterrupted."  On the other hand, it indicated that, "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."
    One way to reconcile this contradiction is that the Trump Plan aimed to limit the status quo so that it pertained only to the Muslim shrines (e.g. the Qibli mosque at the southern edge of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif) and not to the whole compound. Such a limitation has no basis in the original intentions and meanings of the status quo nor in the actual manner in which the holy compound functioned before and since 1967.

    While the Trump Plan may not be considered relevant anymore, it must be taken into account that it was most likely drafted in close coordination with Israeli officials and thereby sheds light on alarming Israeli intentions regarding the holy place.

Ongoing Dismantling of the Status Quo

Over the past decade, as Temple Movements have gained growing political support and influence, pressures to flout the status quo have intensified. Instead of giving a full account of the process through which the status quo is being eroded, we will focus here on the main phenomena that are most relevant in the context of the events which took place on July 18. As seen below, the Israeli police play a crucial and harmful role in these events.
  • Allowing "informal" Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif – As recently as five years ago, there was strict police enforcement against Temple activists who tried to violate the restrictions against prayer on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. Police would not permit such acts and when activists tried to provocatively defy the restrictions, police would immediately escort them out of the compound.

    During recent years, this policy has gradually changed. It began with police allowing individuals to whisper a prayer, then they were ignoring the collective utterance  of short blessings, and eventually allowing group prayer for long periods of time (albeit mostly in silence and in more secluded parts of the compound).

    This marked change in police attitude was brought about through the directive of the Minister of Public Security at the time, Gilad Erdan, who repeatedly voiced his sympathy to the Temple Movements and his dissatisfaction with the status quo. Erdan was replaced by Amir Ohana, who continued with the same policy. Both were members of the Likud party.

  • Undermining the Jordanian Waqf – Another clear change in police action that took place under Erdan was replacing police coordination with the Jordanian Waqf with a strong-arm approach. This, of course, is in contradiction to Netanyahu's statement from 2015, quoted above, that spoke of growing coordination with the Jordanian Waqf.

    The police began to make a point of dictating decisions to the Waqf and constantly looked for ways to prevent them from carrying out basic tasks throughout the compound, such as electrical maintenance or structural upkeep.

    The police’s refusal to coordinate with the Waqf and respect its authority on the Holy Esplanade also expressed itself in the police’s refusal to work with the Waqf to de-escalate tensions and prevent confrontations. In the past, the Waqf could use the trust and authority it enjoyed with the Muslim public to disperse potential protests in the holy compound without use of force. But since it decided to stop cooperating with the Waqf, the police have since been dealing with such situations on its own.

  • The difficulty of such a challenge has been proven time and again, as the police now default to relying on massive use of force to disperse large crowds of Muslim worshippers in this most holy place.
  • Giving Precedence to Jewish holy days on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif - The custom (if not the explicit status quo) is that on Muslim holidays, when Muslims arrive to worship at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in large numbers, the holy site is closed to non-Muslim visitors. During 2019, Tisha B'av coincided with the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha - a rare congruence that happened due to the different systems according to which the Jewish and Muslim calendars operate.

    If, indeed, Jews enter the holy compound as visitors only and not for purposes of prayer, then the confluence of the Jewish and Muslim holy days should not have had any bearing on the precedent of the holy place being open solely for Muslim worshippers on Eid al-Adha.

    Temple activists understood that therein lies an opportunity for them to challenge the status quo, and demanded that due to Tisha B'av, Jews should be allowed to enter the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif despite the Muslim holiday. Their success would mean that Israel sees Jewish entry to the holy place not as a mere visit (which need not happen during a Muslim holiday), but in linkage to Jewish religious commemoration (and therefore on par with entry of Muslim worshippers) – a direct contradiction to the status quo and to the explicit statement of Netanyahu just four years earlier.

    Palestinians understood this, too, and many gathered in front of the entrance to the Haram al-Sharif in a form of nonviolent resistance to what they saw as a state-sponsored threat to their holy place. Here, too, Minister Erdan played a crucial and detrimental role as he instructed the Israeli police to ensure Jews enter the holy compound despite the Muslim holiday. Police forces dispersed the Muslim crowd with great use of force and allowed Temple activists to enter.

July 18/Tisha B'av Events in Light of the Erosion of the Status Quo
The events on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif on July 18/Tisha B'av, including Bennett's problematic statement, are a clear demonstration of the outcome of the ongoing erosion of the status quo.

Before 2019, while Tisha B'av held unique significance for Temple Movement activists, it did not attract much attention from Palestinians who previously did not oppose to Jewish visitation to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif on this day.

However, the government’s 2019 decision to allow Jewish entry to the Temple Mount on Tisha B’Av despite Eid al-Adha drastically changed Palestinian perspective regarding this day of mourning - a day that is now strongly linked to Israeli attempts to change the status quo. Despite the fact that Tisha B'av did not coincide with Eid al-Adha this year, the 2019 decision coupled with the recent events during Ramadan in Damascus Gate, the Old City and Al Aqsa, prompted Palestinians to protest Jewish entry to the holy place this year as a broader demonstration against the erosion of the status quo.

The Israeli police were aware of the potential for protests. As mentioned above, it could have dealt with the situation through coordination with the Waqf as it had done in the past; yet, Israel has since forfeited this more effective course of action due to its unwillingness to recognize the Waqf's authority on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.

The police were then left with two choices: either decide that Jews should not enter the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, or to use force to drive Palestinians out. As usual, the police chose the latter and attacked not only potential protestors but also thousands of Muslim worshippers who came to pray with no intention of protesting.

Heartened by the police’s actions, Temple Movement activists then entered and used the opportunity to pray in stark violation of the status quo. The Israeli media subsequently depicted the events as confrontations between police and Palestinian rioters, which prompted Prime Minister Bennett to issue his provocative statement on freedom of worship for Jews on the Temple Mount.

The fact that Bennett retracted his statement is important, but it cannot hide the fact that as Israeli police condones Jewish prayer at the holy compound, it becomes increasingly more likely that Israeli authorities will move to formalize "freedom of worship" for Jews. This will have far-reaching and negative implications on Muslim rights on the mount. Palestinian mobilization against this threat and subsequent use of force by the Israeli police is a constant source of unrest and instability.

Recommendations: How to Reinforce the Status Quo and Mitigate the Risk of a Repeat of the July 18th Events
It is likely that Bennett had to retract his statement regarding Jewish worship rights because of two main factors: His coalition being dependent on the Islamist party, Ra’am, and his strategic decision to repair Israel’s relationship with Jordan, damaged due to Netanyahu's policies in recent years. It is also important to note that the current Minister of Public Security, Omer Barlev, is from the Labor party.

These conditions can serve as an opportunity to also repair the damage done to the status quo in recent years. It is clear that the Israeli police's tactics and policy result time and again in escalation and destabilization. The time is ripe to demand that the Israeli police return to the basic guidelines it adhered to before 2015:

  • Close coordination with the Jordanian Waqf as the best way to solve conflicts and prevent escalations. If Israel forfeits its attempts to undermine the Waqf, the Waqf would serve as an excellent partner for dealing with volatile situations on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. 
  • Police allowance for Jewish prayer at the holy site must end. Instead of coordination with Temple Movements, the police should see them for what they are: political organizations whose extreme goals pose a threat to Muslims and Jews alike.
This alert was written by Ir Amim Researcher Aviv Tatarsky.