About that new Waqf council and the Temple Mount …

The focus of new tensions on the Temple Mount has not been chosen by chance by the Waqf council (in its new, broader, extreme composition) as the arena for provocation against Israel at the holy site.

“Gate of Mercy” (Golden Gate, or in Hebrew, Sha’ar HaRachamim). Credit: JCPA.
“Gate of Mercy” (Golden Gate, or in Hebrew, Sha’ar HaRachamim). Credit: JCPA.
Nadav Shragai and Lenny Ben-David

The latest confrontation over the “Gate of Mercy” (known as the Golden Gate, or in Hebrew, Sha’ar HaRachamim), which has been disputed in the past, reflects a new pact between the opponents of Trump’s upcoming Mideast peace plan. That consists of the Palestinian Authority, Turkey and Jordan, all of whom are concerned about its future status on the Temple Mount.

The new tensions on the Temple Mount—the “Gate of Mercy” or Golden Gate compound—has not been chosen by chance by the Waqf council (in its new, broader, extreme composition) as the arena for provocation against Israel at the holy site. The new members of the council, who identify with Fatah, Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey, are very familiar with the previous rounds of the conflict over the area.

They have specifically chosen it for several reasons:

  • They believe there is the potential for changing the unofficial status quo of the site that has existed there since 2003.
  • The area of the “Gate of Mercy” is on the Temple Mount route used by the Jews, and extremist Muslim elements are seeking to block them.
  • The present conflict is intended to give a clear message to anyone thinking of removing Jordan or the Palestinian Authority from their current or future position on the Temple Mount.
  • All of this is against the backdrop of Trump’s upcoming Mideast peace plan, called the “deal of the century” (which is supposed to be made public after the April 9 elections in Israel). The Jordanian-Palestinian concern is that the plan will weaken their position on the Temple Mount.

Four previous conflicts around the Golden Gate make it attractive to the new Waqf council as a fitting arena for another dispute with Israel:

1. On the outskirts of the “Gate of Mercy,” the external passage of the Temple Mount wall lies the Muslim Al-Yousoufiya cemetery. In recent years, the Muslims have illegally extended its area southward and have prepared additional territory for burial in the vicinity. Some of the work included constructing supporting walls and was done at night. The area is designated as open public land that was not part of where the Waqf concentrated its burials in the past.

The cemetery outside of the sealed Golden Gate
The cemetery outside of the sealed Golden Gate (1897, Church of Ireland’s Representative Church Body Library)

By law, this area, like the Al-Yousoufiya cemetery, is part of the national park around the walls of the Old City. After a legal battle led by attorney Dr. Shmuel Berkowitz, previously a member of the Council for the Prevention of the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount, the police began to take action on this issue. During the tenure of Avi Dichter as minister of internal security, Muslim work in the area was halted. From time to time, they attempt to renew the burials in the area, and the police stepped in and put a stop to it.

The beams piled up
The beams piled up in an open courtyard of the “Gate of Mercy” (Judy Lash Balint)

2. Ancient wooden beams have been stored in the inner compound of the “Gate of Mercy” inside the Temple Mount compound, for several years. They were removed from the Al-Aqsa mosque after the mosque collapsed in the 1927 earthquake.

ancient wooden beams
Above and below. The ancient wooden beams used as rafters and exposed on the Al-Aqsa mosque after the 1927 earthquake. (Israel Antiquities Authority Archives)
ancient wooden beams
(Israel Antiquities Authority Archives)
Al Aqsa Mosque after removal of rafters
Al-Aqsa mosque after removal of rafters before reconstruction. (circa 1937, Library of Congress)

The Muslims have not allowed the Antiquities Authority to remove the beams from the Golden Gate complex, although other wooden beams from the roof of the mosque stored elsewhere on the Temple Mount have been removed. According to various investigations by Professor Nili Lifschitz of Tel Aviv University, the Weizmann Institute of Science and the Antiquities Authority, some of the beams are very ancient, dating from the periods of the First and Second Temples.

carved beams
(Israel Antiquities Authority)
carved beams
Are these carved beams from the Jewish Temple? (Israel Antiquities Authority)

After the earthquake, some of these wooden beams and panels were removed from the Temple Mount by the British Antiquities Authority and placed in the Rockefeller Museum. The Waqf sold others during the 1970s to an Armenian antiquities dealer. Members of the Jewish community in Ofra purchased them from the dealer and investigated them privately. Some of the beams remaining on the Temple Mount were first stored in the subterranean Solomon’s Stables before it was turned into a mosque. Afterwards, they were transferred to other places on the Temple Mount, including the “Gate of Mercy” compound. These ancient wooden beams have been exposed for some years to the weather—heat, cold and rain—but the Antiquities Authorities have not managed to convince the Waqf to allow it to release them for research and protect them.

Two of the beams aroused particular interest. One was found to have been taken from a 2,600-year-old cypress tree; the other came from a 2,800-year-old Turkish oak. Some researchers believe that these beams were used during the period of the First Temple. They assume that the Muslims reused them when they built the Al-Aqsa mosque 1,300 years ago, in the same way that they would use other building materials from more ancient structures that were erected on the Temple Mount, which were also utilized for the construction of the mosque in those days.

3. In 2003, a Palestinian nonprofit organization identified with Hamas attempted to take control of the “Gate of Mercy” complex and use the chamber within it for classrooms and a place for prayer. The Israeli security services reacted by closing down and locking the compound. Later, as part of talks with the Muslims, the police allowed the Waqf to use one classroom in the hall, and from time to time hold matriculation exams for 12th-graders. At the same time, the Muslims were prohibited from holding prayer services there.

The chamber within the Golden Gate
The chamber within the Golden Gate, “Gate of Mercy” (circa 1870, Bonfils, Library of Congress)

4. In 2018, when the Muslims on the Temple Mount took ancient stones scattered around the “Gate of Mercy,” uprooted them, and made them into benches, the police responded by taking a position above the “Gate of Mercy.” This position has been manned occasionally since then.

The present dispute began when the Waqf tried to use the chamber in the “Gate of Mercy” on the Temple Mount for prayer. In response, the police locked the compound and even removed provocative elements from it.

The New Waqf Council

The main, most dramatic change in the composition of the Waqf, which initiated the new conflict, was the joining of Sheikh Akram Sabri, currently chairman of the Supreme Muslim Council and former Mufti of Jerusalem. Sabri is now identified with the Muslim Brotherhood’s “the northern faction of the Islamic Movement” in Israel, and he follows the orders of Turkey and its President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Some also believe that he is close to Hamas. At the beginning of the Second Intifada, Sabri identified with suicide-bombings, and he is known for his extreme pronouncements against Israel. He was integrated into the new council following pressure from the Supreme Muslim Council and Erdoğan’s intervention.

Other new members of the Jordanian Waqf, who Jordan agreed to allow into the new council after it was expanded from 11 members to 18 are mainly affiliated with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. They include:

  • P.A. Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Adnan al-Husseini, who is responsible for the office that invests NIS 64 million from the Palestinian Authority into Jerusalem every year.
  • Hani al-Abadin, former P.A. minister of health.
  • Khattam al-Qadr, senior Fatah official in Jerusalem and advisor to Mahmoud Abbas on Jerusalem affairs.
  • Imad Abu Kishek, deacon of Al-Quds University and an associate of Jibril Rajoub.
  • Mahdi Abdul Hadi, senior Fatah official and one of the heads of the PASSIA institute.

According to Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs researcher Yoni Ben Menachem (“Jordanian-Palestinian Collaboration against the Deal of the Century”),1 Jordan and the Palestinian Authority have created a joint council for managing the Temple Mount and the holy sites in Jerusalem as a step towards torpedoing Trump’s “deal of the century.” Jordan is concerned that the plan would affect Jordan’s status on the Temple Mount and an intra-Muslim religious administration would be appointed in its place, where Saudi Arabia would receive a senior position.

Jordan has a unique status on the Temple Mount, and the 1994 peace agreement with Israel  stipulated that when negotiations would take place on final status, “Israel will give high preference to Jordan’s historical role in the holy sites in Jerusalem.” Israel has moved the fulfillment of this obligation forward.

Israel has already given status and preference to Jordan on the Temple Mount for more than 15 years due to its desire to remove extremist elements such as Hamas and the northern faction of the Islamic Movement from the Temple Mount. Jordan’s position is also part of more general Hashemite interest and relations (defensive and economic). As part of this framework, there is also a liaison and dialogue for joint coordination between Israel and Jordan about various issues related to the Temple Mount.

There is also an understanding between Jordan and the Palestinian Authority with regard to the Temple Mount. In January 2013, King Abdullah of Jordan and P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas came to an agreement stipulating that Jordan would be the “Guardian of the sites holy to Islam in the Jerusalem.” Jordan would also represent the interests of the Muslims in the city, including the interests of the Palestinian Authority, about anything relating to the Temple Mount until the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

Until the establishment of the new Waqf, the council most of its members were pro-Jordanian. Its new composition expresses a united front between all factions who are opposed to the Trump deal—the Palestinian Authority, Fatah and people like Sheikh Akram Sabri—and anyone who fears for Jordan’s future status on the Temple Mount. It is a joint coalition against the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.

Israel may try to bring Jordan back to its side and hold contacts on the issue. Within this framework, Jordanian demands will be expected, at the center of which will lie the usage of the Gate of Mercy chamber for Muslim prayers.

This week, the Waqf unofficially stated that the disputes around the “Gate of Mercy” are a sign of Jordan following the extremists of the “Islamic Northern Faction,” who are attempting to regain their influence on the Temple of Mount after being banned from there and outlawed in 2015.

Nadav Shragai is a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as a journalist and commentator at Haaretz between 1983 and 2009, is currently a journalist and commentator at Israel Hayom, and has documented the dispute over Jerusalem for thirty years.  

Lenny Ben-David is the Jerusalem Center’s Director of Publications. Ben-David served 25 years in senior posts in AIPAC in Washington and Jerusalem. He served as Israel’s Deputy Chief of Mission in the Embassy in Washington, D.C. He is the author of the American Interests in the Holy Land Revealed in Early Photographs (Urim Publications).

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The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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