|Two days ago, Israeli media reported that the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court ruled in favor of Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. Although these reports, initiated and propagated by the Temple Movements, are far from accurate, they indicate yet a further dangerous shift in the predominant Israeli consensus concerning the Status Quo and ultimately contributes to its destabilization. Such a shift is a direct result of the increasing mainstreaming of the Temple Movements, Israeli government policy regarding the Status Quo, and police conduct on the Holy Compound.
Background & the Court’s Decision
On May 15, three Temple Movement activists were removed from the Temple Mount/Haram a-Sharif after they prostrated themselves and recited a Jewish prayer on the Mount. The police issued a restraining order, barring them from entry to the Old City for a period of 15 days on the basis of obstructing the police and engaging in conduct that risks disturbing the peace.
The three individuals filed an appeal against the order and on May 22, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court ruled on their behalf and lifted the entry ban to the Old City.
The judge stated that he did not accept either of the charges based on the claim that the activists did not resist the police and adhered to their orders to leave the Mount. He also concluded that the specific circumstances did not constitute a disturbance of the peace and asserted that Jewish prayer on the Mount is not a criminal offence. In his decision, the judge likewise lent weight to a statement presented by the appellants which was made by the Israel Police Commissioner on April 15 citing that "The Temple Mount is open. We are permitting all residents of Israel and the territories who come to pray to ascend and conduct acts of worship.”
It should be noted that this statement was manipulatively removed from its context and exploited by the Temple Movements’ to advance their goals. The quote was extracted from a longer statement that the Police Commissioner made concerning Friday midday prayers during Ramadan and was clearly directed at the Muslim population, aiming to reassure them that the police had no intent of disturbing prayer in the holy place.
While the judge accepted the appeal, he also underscored that his decision was based solely on whether their conduct amounted to police obstruction and disturbance of the peace. He stated that he did not intend to interfere with police enforcement nor with the ban on Jewish prayer on the Mount. The judge likewise specifically cited that police regulations forbid “visible worship or religious activity” [by non-Muslims], and the police reserve the right to act when these regulations are violated.
Although the verdict does not overturn the Status Quo, it indicates the lethal outcomes of its constant erosion by the Temple Movements, the Israeli government and the police.
The court’s decision underscores the ongoing deterioration of the Status Quo and the overall shift in Israeli discourse and public perception surrounding the issue. In the past, violations of the Status Quo by Temple Movement activists were perceived by Israeli authorities and the public to be driven by an extreme nationalistic ideology and political campaign aimed at ultimately rebuilding the Jewish Temple on the ruins of the Dome of the Rock. For this reason, police decisions against activists who were caught praying or prostrating in the Holy Esplanade were in the past typically upheld by the courts.
Yesterday’s court ruling is hence a direct reflection of the shift in public sentiment which considers the demand for Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount/Haram a-Sharif as a legitimate cause.
This change is an outcome of the Temple Movement’s strategic adoption of a human rights discourse and the continuous support they receive from the political establishment and the Israeli police. Most notable is the fact that in stark breach of the Status Quo and in contradiction to explicit statements made by Israeli ministers, the police consistently allow Jews to conduct prayer in the Holy Compound. This was widely exposed in Israeli media last year, and yet the current government has not undertaken any measures to curb it.
Such police policy hence directly contributes to the growing legitimization of Jewish prayer on the Mount in general and specifically to yesterday's verdict, which further undermines the status quo.
Temple Movements’ Manipulative Actions
The Temple Movements see the verdict as an important victory and have manipulatively characterized it as a lift on the prohibition of Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. This is galvanizing Temple Movement activists to further engage in actions which violate the Status Quo as indeed already happened yesterday. Their inaccurate portrayal of the verdict is echoed by mainstream Israeli media and thus contributing to the further legitimization of Jewish prayer on the Holy Esplanade in the eyes of the Israeli public.
In light of this intentional misrepresentation, Palestinians and the larger Muslim public likewise assume that the court has sanctioned Jewish prayer in the Holy Compound, and yet the government has done little to assuage their fears. Despite the statement released by the Prime Minister’s Office on Sunday evening, which noted that there is no plan to change the status quo, the reality is that Jewish prayer continues to take place nearly unencumbered on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif daily in clear violation of the Status Quo.
According to media reports, the police blasted the Magistrate’s Court decision and particularly criticized the judge's adoption of the misleading interpretation of the statement attributed to the Police Commissioner. The Police filed an appeal to the District Court against the lower court's decision yesterday. It should be noted, however, that despite this, the police actions continue to be contradictory. Footage from the Mount yesterday circulated on social media showed the police permitting several Jews to prostrate and pray without police intervention. There were likewise incidents of police officers who refrained from citing the prohibition on Jewish prayer, as is customary protocol, before visitors entered the mount via Mughrabi Gate.
In order to repair the damage caused by the Magistrate's Court decision, the Israeli government must act to ensure complete adherence and enforcement of the status quo, including the full cessation of Jewish prayer on the Mount.
Against this backdrop, on Sunday, May 29, Israel will mark Jerusalem Day, which commemorates its "unification" of Jerusalem. Large numbers of Temple Movement activists rallying to visit the Mount along with the nationalistic Flag Parade slated to pass through Damascus Gate and the Muslim Quarter are liable to inflame already simmering tensions in the city.
The Magistrate’s Court’s verdict increases friction towards these events and together with them is part of the ongoing campaign of nationalistic movements aided and abetted by the state to further entrench Israeli sovereignty over the Old City, its surroundings, and the Temple Mount/Haram a-Sharif.