A Likud lawmaker’s plan to divide the Temple Mount between Jews and Muslims has drawn outrage from Muslim political, religious and terrorist corners. The real outrage, say Temple Mount activists, is that Jews don’t have equal rights to Judaism’s holiest site.
Knesset member Amit Halevi floated the idea earlier this month of recognizing separate areas on the Temple Mount for the two faiths. He noted that there was plenty of room for Jews and Muslims: 144 dunams, or 35 acres.
According to Halevi’s plan, Jews would receive the central and northern parts, where the First and Second Temples once stood (the gold-plated Dome of the Rock now stands on the site, but as Halevi noted, it is not a mosque). Muslims would receive the southern part, where the Al-Aqsa Mosque is currently located.
“It will be a historical, religious and national statement,” Halevi told Zman Israel, a Hebrew-language news site. The Muslims have created a “narrative” about the Temple Mount and claim complete ownership over it, according to Halevi. “Just because they pray there, that does not make the entire Temple Mount a holy place for Muslims,” he said.
Yisrael Medad, a Temple Mount activist for over 50 years, who made his first trip to the site in October 1970, told JNS that Halevi’s plan isn’t so far out.
“It parallels the situation at Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs, which basically works on that principle,” he said. There, certain days are reserved for Muslim prayer and other days for Jewish prayer.
“According to Amit Halevi’s proposal, the area reserved for Jews would put them mostly out of sight of the Arabs. In other words, it’s a very large place and therefore, can be very easily divided,” said Medad, noting that he and others had proposed interim plans in the past to provide areas for Jewish prayer without upsetting Muslim sensibilities.
One idea was to cover part of an existing colonnade, that runs for 400 meters (1,300 feet) along the Temple Mount’s western wall, with one-way mirror plexiglass so that Jews could enter and pray without drawing attention from Muslims. Another was to convert a small building, located about about 50 meters (160 feet) from the Gate of the Tribes, into a synagogue (it’s currently used as a storeroom).
“I’m being overly sympathetic to the Muslim position, but there are at least three different areas where you could have Jews enter the Temple Mount area in a very unobtrusive fashion that wouldn’t upset Muslim sensibilities,” said Medad.
The problem is that the Muslims treat the entire Temple Mount as if it’s their property. A 2013 agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Jordan leaves no stone undeclared for Muslims: “144 Dunums, which include the Qibli Mosque of al-Aqsa, the Mosque of the Dome of the Rock and all its mosques, buildings, walls, courtyards, attached areas over and beneath the ground and the Waqf properties tied-up to al-Masjid al-Aqsa, to its environs or to its pilgrims (hereinafter referred to as ‘Al-Haram Al-Sharif’).”
The “Waqf” refers to the Islamic Waqf, a Jordanian religious trust, which retains administrative control on the Temple Mount. Although Israel drove Jordan out of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War, then-IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan handed control of the site to Jordan in an attempt to defuse the religious aspect of the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Arnon Segal, a journalist who writes a weekly column on the Temple Mount and authored a 2020 book on the subject, said that while it’s easy to blame Dayan for everything, it’s not right.
“After all, this agreement has been maintained by the government … until today. [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is no less guilty of this. How is it possible that today in 2023 Jordan still controls the Temple Mount? How is it possible that we go to consult them about what is happening there?” he said.
“It’s against the law. The state authorities violate the laws of the state itself,” he continued. “There is a Basic Law: Jerusalem the Capital of Israel, which prohibits the transfer of the territories of Jerusalem to foreign sovereignty or foreign control, and this is exactly what they are doing on the Temple Mount.”
Halevi’s plan calls for abolishing Jordan’s status on the Mount.
“I realize it’s an event. It’s an agreement between countries, but we have to deal with it. It requires change even if it is a process that will take time,” said the lawmaker.
Muslim reaction to the proposal was swift. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh called for “imposing sanctions on Israel to prevent any change at Al-Aqsa Mosque.” The Supreme Muslim Council in Jerusalem said, “The Aqsa Mosque is a redline.” The P.A. Ministry for Jerusalem Affairs warned, “The implementation of this plan will lead to religious war.”
Muslims often refer to the “status quo” when they sense any change on the Temple Mount favoring Jews. Said Segal, “’Status quo’ is a respectable term for racial discrimination and an apartheid policy toward the Jews on the Temple Mount, in which Muslims can enter through nine of the 10 gates of the Mount and for all non-Muslims there is one gate, and at that, religious Jews are discriminated against.”
Most of Israel’s political leadership, whether right or left, favor maintaining the status quo for fear of igniting Arab violence. For example, when Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir visited the Mount in early January, sparking a cascade of criticism from Arab countries, terror groups, and even the U.S. embassy, Netanyahu’s office quickly released a statement saying he was “committed to strictly maintaining the status quo, without changes, on the Temple Mount.”
More dramatically, Netanyahu, explaining his government’s failure in March 2020’s election, said that one reason was his refusal to accede to Ben-Gvir’s demand to allow prayer on the Temple Mount.
“I know it would set the Middle East on fire and raise the wrath of a billion Muslims against us. I said there is a limit, there are things I am not willing to do in order to win the elections, I will protect the State of Israel,” he said.
The problem with the status quo, say Jewish activists, is that it’s a one-way street. “It’s the most non-static of status quos,” said Medad. “Arabs have continuously changed the status quo to their advantage over the past 50 years.”
The most infamous example of such a change was when the Waqf began an unsupervised construction project in 1996, digging up an area in the southeastern section of the Mount called Solomon’s Stables and turning it into a large mosque.
In 1999, the Waqf built a monumental entrance to the new mosque, illegally bulldozing a giant pit. Most of the 9,000 tons of soil from the project was unceremoniously deposited from dump trucks in the Kidron Valley.
Israeli archaeologists, hoping to turn lemons into lemonade, initiated the Temple Mount Sifting Project in 2004, making discoveries in the archaeologically rich soil dating from the Middle Bronze Age II (1950–1550 B.C.E.) to the present. Most finds date from the First Temple period (10th century B.C.E.).
“Muslims deny there’s any archaeology there,” said Medad. “They spin a completely illogical, ahistorical version of events. They deny there ever was a Temple. They deny we have any historical rights. At the same time, there isn’t a word in the Koran about Jerusalem.”
Particularly frustrating to Segal is how other nations lay claim to Jewish history and tradition—“They claim that they’re the true Israel”—while “we scorn the most sacred place in our tradition.”
At last month’s coronation in England, Segal noted, King Charles was crowned with anointing oil made from olives from the Mount of Olives, pressed near Bethlehem. His throne sat above the Stone of Scone, which legend traces to the rock which Jacob rested on in Beit El. And at the moment Charles was crowned, Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’ was played, with lyrics inspired by the biblical account of the anointing of Solomon.
“The whole world imitates our tradition, and we behave as if our country appeared out of nowhere and has no past and no history. Jews have prayed 2,000 years, three times a day, to return to this spot and now we are running away from our faith. It drives me crazy,” he said. “Do you know there is not a single sign in Jerusalem in Hebrew that points to the Temple Mount? They direct passengers either to the Western Wall or to ‘Al-Aqsa.’”
“You will see a sign from the rabbinate saying it’s forbidden to enter the Temple Mount. It’s a lie. There is no Jewish law forbidding visits to the Temple Mount. The rabbinate, too, runs from the holy site,” he said.
Despite the obstacles, Segal is optimistic, pointing to the statistics.
“In 2009, 5,000 Jews went up to the Temple Mount. In 2022, 50,000 Jews went up, 10 times as many.”
Segal said these are still not the numbers he would like to see. Part of the problem, he said, are the limitations placed on Jews.
“It’s a trial to go up there. The hours are inconvenient. If I come wearing a kippah, the state restricts me in a thousand ways, and even if I go, it’s under constant threat of arrest due to any deviation from the path, even moving too fast or too slow. It’s like being an army recruit.
“It’s no wonder people aren’t so eager to go up. It’s unpleasant to feel as if you’re in exile, as if Ottoman rule has returned.”