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Israel brushes up against ‘status quo’ atop Temple Mount

The rising number of Jewish visitors to the site is putting in question the future of the status quo established following the Six-Day War.

An Israeli flag, with the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Old City in the background, as seen from the Mount of Olives observatory, on April 24, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
An Israeli flag, with the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Old City in the background, as seen from the Mount of Olives observatory, on April 24, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller on Monday criticized as “provocative” recent visits by Israeli ministers and lawmakers to the Temple Mount.

After calling for all parties to “respect the sanctity” of the site, Miller emphasized that Washington supports the “historic status quo” at Jerusalem’s holy sites and Jordan’s role as custodian of the Muslim ones. 

The status quo was established in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War, when then-Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan unilaterally ceded control of the Temple Mount to the Hashemite monarchy of Jordan via the Waqf, or Islamic trust. Since then, Jewish presence on the Mount has been restricted to a few hours a day, five days a week; Jewish prayer and signs of Israeli sovereignty such as flags are outright forbidden. 

In recent years, however, this arrangement has become strained.

The official visits criticized by Miller, for example, mark the reversal of a trend stretching back two decades. In 2000, opposition leader Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount was cited by Yasser Arafat’s PLO as one of the sparks that ignited the Second Intifada, leading to a stark decline in visits by lawmakers and ministers.

According to a recent study published by the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research (JIPR), there have been “rapid shifts” in the status quo during the years since.

“The number of religious Jewish visitors has been growing, and a variety of (illegal) religious rituals, including prayer services and Torah lessons, have gradually been shaping a new reality on the compound,” wrote senior JIPR researcher Amnon Ramon.

He attributed these changes to “developments that are taking place among the Jewish public, particularly the national-religious public, regarding the place of the Temple Mount in religious consciousness.”

And the numbers would seem to bear this out: In 2022, 51,483 Jews visited the Temple Mount, up from 34,651 in 2021 and 20,684 in 2020, according to statistics compiled by Beyadenu, an NGO dedicated to strengthening the Jewish connection to the site.

On May 18, just before Jerusalem Day, the Mount was visited by Yitzhak Wasserlauf, minister for the development of the periphery, the Negev and the Galilee.

Jerusalem Day celebrates the reunification of Jerusalem and the liberation of the Temple Mount during the Six-Day War.

Later that day, three more MKs—Amit Halevi, Ariel Kallner and Dan Illouz of the Likud Party—visited the Mount, singing Israel’s national anthem as they walked up the wooden bridge leading to the site.

“It is impossible to accept the premise that the presence of a Jew in a particular place, especially if that place is the holiest site for the Jewish people, is a radical action,” said Illouz. “As a person who immigrated to the Jewish state out of a deep sense of Zionism, I cannot accept the position that the mere presence of a Jew can be called a provocation. This is simply despicable,” he continued.

Halevi agreed, saying, “It is obvious that we are not provoking anyone. It is unimaginable that in the holiest site for us, it would be forbidden for Jews to be present. We must be allowed to pray anywhere. This mountain must return to being the beating heart of Israeli society.”

Then, on Sunday morning, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir ascended the Mount.

“The Temple Mount was liberated 56 years ago and is the holiest site for the Jewish people. It is the natural right of every Jew to go up here and celebrate its liberation. I am happy that thousands are choosing to do so,” said Ben-Gvir. 

He took the opportunity to send a message to Hamas, the terrorist group that rules the Gaza Strip and which has attempted to intimidate Israelis into not visiting the Mount. 

“Hamas threats will not stop us, We are the owners of Jerusalem and the whole Land of Israel,” Ben-Gvir said.

However, some lawmakers, even within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party, criticized the visits.

According to Likud MK David Biton, they were a sign of increasing radicalization in the party.

“I see it as unworthy that several members of Knesset from the Likud Party have gone up to the Temple Mount. This is not what should be done. People have turned radical,” he said.

Regardless of the criticism, however, according to a National Security Ministry spokesperson, Ben-Gvir has no intention of curtailing such visits in the future.

“Minister Ben-Gvir affirms the right of every Jew to go up to the Temple Mount and himself intends to continue going up,” the spokesperson told JNS. The spokesperson also took issue with the U.S. State Department’s criticism.

“We will not be intimidated by threats of violence. The Temple Mount is the natural shared heritage of the Jewish people, and calling Jewish visits to the mountain ‘radical’ or ‘provocative’ is ignorant,” they said.

Mumbling prayers under my breath

Tom Nisani, the director of Beyadeyno, praised the ministry’s stance on the matter.

“This is what is required of our elected officials: courage and integrity. There must be permanent exercising of sovereignty by elected officials on the most important and holiest site for the Jewish people,” he said. 

However, alongside the rising number of visits to the Mount, Nisani also noted an accompanying negative trend.

“We are also witnessing arrests, bans and detentions of hundreds of Jewish visitors to the Mount, not because they acted violently or illegally but for absurd reasons like praying, waving the Israeli flag or trying to eat sufganiyot [jelly doughnuts, a treat associated with Chanukah] on the Mount. This must change,” he said.

Attorney Yehoshua Cohen, a Jerusalem resident and a frequent visitor to the Mount, told JNS he had been detained and harassed even for “mumbling prayers under my breath.”

Even setting aside this violation of his freedom of religion, he said, it was “despicable” for Jews to allow and even encourage the arrest of fellow Jews for praying at the site of the Jewish Temples.

Fifty-one Jewish visitors to the site were arrested in 2022, while 90 Jewish worshippers were detained. Fifty-two visitors were banned by police order.

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