Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount early last month put the site back in the headlines. The world was abuzz and fingers were pointed at Israel, blaming it for violating the “status quo” at the site and international law. The issue was even brought before the U.N. Security Council for an emergency discussion.
That discussion may have led nowhere, but that it was conducted in the first place should not be taken lightly.
Did Ben-Gvir’s visit violate the status quo?
Over the years, several ministers have visited the Temple Mount, among them Gilad Erdan, then public security minister (equivalent to today’s national security ministry), and Uri Ariel, then agriculture minister.
It is evident, therefore, that there is no merit to the claim that Ben-Gvir’s visit constituted a change to the status quo. Israeli citizens are permitted on the site. That extends to ministers, even those who are politically controversial. Moreover, the visit cannot be considered a provocation, as visits are legal, acceptable and frequent.
Israeli authorities have periodically restricted Jewish visits to the site due to security concerns. Still, the Israeli Supreme Court unequivocally recognized the fundamental legal right to visit in several petitions brought over the years. That said, there are certain restrictions on the visits of non-Muslims and their right to conduct religious rituals on the site due to the status quo set days after Jerusalem’s reunification in 1967.
The status quo
Shortly after the Six-Day War, then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan formulated a new status quo at the site.
The main principles were:
- Through its Waqf, the Jordanian Sacred Properties Ministry would continue to manage the site.
- Jews would be allowed to enter the site but not to pray.
- Israeli law and sovereignty would apply.
- Israel and its police force would be in charge of securing the area.
The legal status of the status quo
The status quo was never ratified in legislation. There are various references to it over the years by all branches of government, but not in a way that grants it an independent legal status.
Status quo means leaving things as they are. A status quo freezes a particular situation, as it is inherently a compromise that is presumably unsatisfactory to the parties involved. However, the assumption is that the benefits of the status quo are derived not from what it contains but from the danger of changing it.
A status quo cannot have a legal status, as its source and power are derived from the social/security situation. Thus, the discussion surrounding it can only exist on a political level.
The question periodically raised before the Supreme Court on the Temple Mount’s status quo is whether the assumed danger of changing that status quo warrants the continual violation of non-Muslim rights on the Mount.
Many petitions were filed with the Supreme Court over the years surrounding the issue of the Temple Mount, most of them dealing with the freedom to perform religious rituals, which are banned for non-Muslims at the site.
While the court repeatedly ruled against the petitioners, it did accept that existing restrictions constituted discrimination against non-Muslims and a violation of their fundamental human rights. These rights include equality and freedom of religion and movement. Ruling against these petitions, which were filed to compel the authorities to permit prayer for non-Muslims, the Court accepted the authorities’ supposition that there is a genuine concern about a significant threat to public security.
Expert opinions were brought to substantiate the claim that it is the authorities’ job and within their capabilities to deal with riots and disturbances, even if those emerge. Either way, their expertise is public order and not fortune-telling. The Supreme Court ruled against these petitions, in effect asking the petitioners to swallow the bitter pill of the infringement on their rights for the greater good.
The peace treaty between Israel and Jordan
In the treaty signed by Israel and Jordan in Oct. 1994, it was determined: “In accordance with the Washington Declaration, Israel respects the present special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem. When negotiations on the permanent status will take place, Israel will give high priority to the Jordanian historic role in these shrines.”
The Hashemites, who ruled the Hejaz from 1201-1925, held a particular role and title for many generations as guardians of Islam’s holiest places in Mecca and Medina. With Ibn Saud’s conquests in 1925, the Hashemites lost control of the area and their special status.
The Hashemites’ special status concerning Jerusalem and the Muslim holy sites on the Temple Mount originated with Jordan’s illegal conquest of the West Bank in 1948 and their control over the Temple Mount until the Six-Day War in 1967. Following its 19-year control over the Mount, Jordan claimed special status over it. That may not equate with Mecca and Medina, but it does grant Jordan a unique position in the Muslim world.
In the peace agreement between Israel and Jordan in 1994, Jerusalem agreed to honor the status that had been maintained in the 27 years since the Six-Day War. However, Jordan was not granted any legal status in that agreement, nor was the status quo mentioned or a commitment to maintaining it.
Kerry’s understandings, 2015
Following the Temple Mount riots in October 2015, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brokered an understanding between Israel and Jordan. These understandings included a few principal clauses, but the important one here is the Israeli commitment to the continuation of the current policy on the Mount, which means the right of Muslims to pray and the right of non-Muslims to visit but not to pray.
Those understandings constituted a change in the state of affairs, as until then, there was never an official statement regarding the Israeli commitment to the status quo. That is important for two reasons: First, it constitutes an agreement by both Jordan and the U.S. for the right of non-Muslims to visit the site. Second, it recognizes the inherent discrimination in the status quo regarding religious rights.
That said, it is hard to see how it is within the power of those understandings to change the legal status of the Temple Mount or the fundamental human rights of those who wish to visit. As mentioned, even the Israeli High Court acknowledged those rights are a fundamental part of the basic human rights in the democratic State of Israel and saw fit to restrict them based solely on current security concerns.
Claims that Israel has violated international law regarding the Temple Mount are usually based on the false premise that it is a territory under belligerent occupation. But even if, for the sake of argument, we accept this false premise, it is still impossible to resolve the relevant rules dealing with the responsibilities of the occupier towards the territory and its civilian population with demands to discriminate against a portion of the population, even if it is the majority population of the so-called occupying power.
The Geneva Convention has determined the obligations of the occupying power towards the occupied civilian population and its property in order to prevent violation of rights and exploitation. The Convention refers to the right to life, freedom of movement, property, due process and so on. The Convention, however, obviously does not warrant a violation of the civilian population’s civil rights by the occupying power. It only demands the application of certain rights to the occupied population.
International law enshrines equality and does not promote discrimination. Therefore, no argument insisting on the infringement of the rights of visitors to any site based on their religious identity can be accepted. Discrimination upon entry to religious sites is unacceptable, certainly in the democratic world. In fact, except for Mecca, which non-Muslim visitors are entirely forbidden to visit, it is hard to think of a single example where a visitor is asked about his religion before entering a religious or public site.
Accordingly, there is no basis for the legal claims against Israel for violating the status quo and Israeli or international law due to infringement of Palestinian or Muslim rights on the Temple Mount or the status of the Muslim holy sites.
Indeed, the existing Israeli policy on the Temple Mount continuously infringes upon the rights of non-Muslims. Moreover, in addition to the Temple Mount being a religious site, it is also a historic, tourist and educational site. The limited scope of visiting days and hours, and the restrictions on the freedom of movement of non-Muslims on the site, constitute an actual violation of international law.
The decisions made by various Israeli governments over the years regarding those restrictions derived from considerations of stability, security and international relations. They were made despite the violations of non-Muslim rights mentioned above. While one can debate the wisdom or justice of these policies, there is no doubt that there is no basis for any legal argument against Jews visiting the Temple Mount, whether it is an anonymous civilian or a minister.
Yifa Segal is the former chair and CEO of the International Legal Forum (ILF) and served as chief of staff to Israel’s Ambassador to the United States.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.