During a weekly lesson delivered from the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in the wake of the beheading of French school teacher Samuel Paty, Palestinian Islamic scholar Sheikh Issam Amira stated that “it is a great honor for him [the murderer] and all Muslims that there was such a young man to defend the Prophet Muhammad.”
How has it come to pass that a religious leader speaking from one of the holiest sites in the world, in the capital of the Jewish state, is allowed to praise such an act and incite to further acts of violence?
How is it that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem has denied any Jewish connection to the Temple Mount? In recent weeks, how had he ruled that it is forbidden for United Arab Emirates or Bahrain nationals visiting Israel to enter the Temple Mount?
The answer is that subsequent Israeli governments since 1967 have allowed the Waqf, an Islamic religious trust, to control and manages the holy site. After the 1948 War of Independence, when Jordan occupied the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, the Waqf under the Hashemite Kingdom took over administration of the Temple Mount, and still supplies its funding. Though Israel recaptured the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six-Day War, it allowed the Waqf to remain in charge of civil affairs at holy site, with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem being in charge of Islamic affairs.
Then there’s the Supreme Muslim Council—the Islamic judicial body ruling on issues of Islamic law within Israel—which operates under Jordanian law. Since 1993, following the Oslo Accords, the Grand Mufti has been appointed by the Palestinian Authority, which pays his salary.
Ironically, while Jews are forbidden from praying on the Temple Mount—the holiest site in Judaism—it is Muslims beyond Israel’s borders who are beginning to complain about the way that the site has been overrun by hostile Palestinians.
This is becoming evident in the wake of Israel’s signing of the Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and normalization deal with Sudan. Following recent incidents of foreign Arab visitors to the Temple Mount being cursed at by Palestinians on the site, Saudi journalist Abdel Rahman al-Lahim wrote: “It is very important for the Emiratis and Bahrainis to discuss with Israel ways of liberating the Al-Aqsa Mosque from Palestinian thugs in order to protect visitors from Palestinian thuggery.”
Emirati political activist Laila Al-Awadhi, too, addressed this issue, telling Palestinians: “We will visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque because it does not belong to you; it belongs to all Muslims.”
Given that the Temple Mount holds special significance for Muslims around the world, it is becoming evident that the P.A. should not have any say or influence on how the site is run. Indeed, the time has come for the establishment of an international council—with Jewish and Muslim representatives from Israel and from Muslim-majority nations that formally recognize Israel—to administer the Temple Mount.
Any state with representatives on this council must acknowledge Israeli sovereignty over the site, however, and abide by all relevant Israeli laws, regulations and security concerns. Such a council should give Israel the right to remove the Grand Mufti under certain conditions, such as if he incites violence. It should also grant the right to people of all religions to pray there.
How representation in such a body is determined is one of many questions that would need addressing. Another is whether any change in the status quo would lead to diplomatic discord or an eruption of violence.
But one thing is clear: transferring control over the Temple Mount from a group of extremists to a wider, more moderate and inclusive entity would transform the site from a place of discord to one that draws people together, and even encourages additional Muslim-majority countries to make peace with Israel.
Josiah Rotenberg is a member of the Board of Governors of the Middle East Forum, and Chairman of Middle East Forum Israel.