(February 25, 2019 / The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs) Senior Fatah sources claim that the Jordanian government, with the approval of King Abdullah, is leading the effort to take control of the Sha’ar HaRachamim (“Gate of Mercy”) building on the Temple Mount.
Palestinian Authority and Fatah representatives were surprised by the new Jordanian initiative but are cooperating with it fully. The Jordanian initiative was first presented at a meeting of the new Waqf Islamic Council on Feb. 14, which was held on the Temple Mount.
The meeting was attended by senior representatives of the Jordanian Ministry of Endowments, who came especially to the Temple Mount and even took a guided tour of the “Gate of Mercy” compound.
Why did King Abdullah II of Jordan decide to lead the current effort to take control of this compound?
Senior Fatah sources give two explanations:
A demonstration of Jordanian power before the public release of U.S. President Trump’s “deal of the century.” Jordan has a special status on the Temple Mount. Abdullah’s great-grandfather, Abdullah I, was assassinated there. According to the peace agreement between Jordan’s King Hussein and Israel in 1994, Jordan is the guardian of the Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem. King Abdullah of Jordan is afraid he might lose this status as a result of Trump’s upcoming Mideast peace plan. Therefore, the effort to take control of the Temple Mount is a message to the U.S. president and the Israeli government showing that Jordan will not agree to any harm being done to its status on the Temple Mount.
Jordan fears that Israel will take it by surprise and establish a synagogue near the “Gate of Mercy” as the publication of the Trump plan draws closer to create facts on the ground. Jordan and the Palestinians seek to limit the Jewish presence on the Temple Mount. Senior Fatah figures reported in recent months that there had been an increase in the activities of “settlers” going up to the Temple Mount daily. The focus on the visits of Israelis to the Temple Mount and the photographs they have taken at the site have increased Jordanian concerns.
Therefore, King Abdullah has decided to “preempt” Israel and to establish facts on the ground. Its main concern is that it will be alleged that while the Hashemite Kingdom was serving as guardian of the Al-Aqsa mosque, Israel managed to take a physical hold of the place. That would go down in Muslim history as an eternal disgrace and would severely damage the image of the Hashemite dynasty, which claims it is directly descended from the prophet Mohammed.
The Jordanians are very pleased with the success of their effort, which took Israel by surprise. Jordan has given full backing to the leaders of the Waqf Sheikh Abdul Azim Salhab and Najah Bakirat, who were arrested by the Israel police and has issued a formal demand to Israel to release them immediately.
Indications on the ground suggest that Israel has come to terms with Jordan’s efforts, and it does not intend to close the “Gate of Mercy” compound, which was shut for 16 years. It is possible that legal measures will be taken against whoever physically burst into the compound in contravention of a legal order, but the compound will not be closed.
Officials of the Islamic Waqf have begun cleaning out the area and preparing it for regular prayer services. The Waqf council announced that it would assign an imam to the new prayer room, and it will prepare a program of renovations for the building.
Waqf sources claim that Israel has a legal problem, and it cannot justify a new closure of the compound because the organization that caused its closure in 2003 no longer exists.
This organization, the “Al-Aqsa Committee for Islamic Tradition,” is identified with Hamas, which held acts of provocation in the “Gate of Mercy” compound. The group has subsequently closed down and been dismantled.
Nevertheless, Palestinian Authority sources claim that Israel is not currently interested in struggles with Jordan in the run-up to Trump’s plan. Israel also is attempting to find a solution to the issue of Naharayim Peace Park, located between the two countries in the Jordan River Valley.
On Oct. 21, 2018, Jordan announced that in accordance with its peace treaty with Israel, it would end its 25-year lease on the “Island of Peace” and the lease of the Israeli Tzofar agricultural enclave to the State of Israel. Within a year from that date, Jordan would assert its full authority over these areas.
Taking control of the “Gate of Mercy” compound is burned within Palestinian consciousness as a great triumph against Israel in the struggle for control of the Temple Mount as a continuation of the victory in the battle against the magnometers erected at the gates to the Temple Mount in July 2017.
There is concern in Israel that the new Waqf council will now turn the gate into a giant house of prayer, which is what the northern faction of the Islamic movement did with “Solomon’s Stables” (known as Musallah Marwani in Arabic) in 1996.
At that time, deep digging was carried out underground beneath it to expand the area into a large house of prayer. During a tour of the area that I took in 2014, together with the former head of the Antiquities Authority Shuka Dorfman, he told me that he reckoned considerable damage had been done to Jewish archeological relics from the First Temple era during the digging.
Who will now supervise the renovation of the “Gate of Mercy” compound? Does Israel have the ability to prevent digging inside the building so that serious damage will not be caused to archeological remains that are important to the Jewish nation?
The new Waqf Islamic council, which is composed of officials from Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, has managed to pass its first test of its leadership, and it will be much emboldened by its seizure of control, without any Israeli resistance, of the Gate of Mercy compound.
This council and its provocations will become a source of great concern for Israel in the run-up to the public release of Trump’s Mideast peace plan. It would only be appropriate if the political echelons and security sources would express its opinion already at this point and take measures against it, using all of the legal means that it has at its disposal.
Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as director general and Chief Editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.