Who is breaking the status quo on the Temple Mount?

The common Muslim protest against Israel’s violation of the status quo is completely baseless. In fact, the opposite is true.

Two Jewish men look at Jerusalem’s Old City, including the Temple Mount, from the Mount of Olives. Credit: Rachael Cerrotti/Flash90.
Two Jewish men look at Jerusalem’s Old City, including the Temple Mount, from the Mount of Olives. Credit: Rachael Cerrotti/Flash90.
Nadav Shragai and Lenny Ben-David

The “Gate of Mercy” (Sha’ar HaRachamim) compound is the fifth mosque that the Muslims have created on the Temple Mount. After 1967, there was only one functioning mosque there.

The Muslims are not satisfied with this and have been eroding the status quo over the past three decades in many ways. There is no basis for their constant protests against Israel for violating the status quo on the Temple Mount.

Map of the Temple Mount
Map of the Temple Mount  (British Survey of Palestine, 1946, collection of Lenny Ben-David)

The Waqf and the Muslims are turning the tables and rewriting history, which they are well aware of, when they describe Israel’s attempt to close the “Gate of Mercy” as a breach of the status quo on the Temple Mount.

Israel closed the compound in 2005 because a Hamas-related organization was operating at the site. The closure of the compound in 2005—first with a military order and then with a court order—was periodically extended until several months ago.

However, current Muslim activities in the compound are not only an attempt to retake possession of the compound, which they held in the past (just as they held the entire Temple Mount), but they are also attempting to take a very significant step further: to establish at the compound a fifth mosque on the Temple Mount. This effort demonstrates a process that has been going on for more than 30 years to increase the Muslim prayer areas on the Temple Mount and to erode the fragile status quo established at the holy sites.

Here are the facts:

The first and second mosques: After the Six-Day War, only one mosque operated on the Temple Mount—the Al-Aqsa Mosque, where Muslims have always prayed. During the 1970s, as part of a gradual process, they also used the Dome of the Rock building, which was not originally a mosque, as a site for regular prayers. They now hold regular Friday prayers there, primarily for Muslim women.

Temple Mount, 1915.
Al-Aqsa Mosque on the left and Dome of the Rock on the right (Ottoman Archives, circa 1917, Lenny Ben-David collection)

The third mosque: In 1996, the Muslims also converted Solomon’s Stables in the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount into an underground mosque. There had not been a mosque in Solomon’s Stables previously; it had served as a storage area for Waqf equipment and as a kind of site of antiquities, occasionally attracting tourists and researchers under Waqf supervision. The Muslims carried out the renovation work at Solomon’s Stables, converting them into the Al-Marwani Mosque and causing serious damage to antiquities on the Temple Mount.

Solomon’s Stables on the Temple Mount
Solomon’s Stables on the Temple Mount (circa 1870, Bonfils, Library of Congress)
Unauthorized excavations at the Solomon’s Stables site in 1999.
Arab earth-moving machinery excavating “Solomon’s Stables” (Temple Mount Sifting Project)

The fourth mosque: A short while after the construction of the mosque in Solomon’s Stables, the Muslims converted parts of ancient Al-Aqsa, under the upper Al-Aqsa Mosque, into a mosque.

The fifth additional mosque: The seizure of the “Gate of Mercy” by the Muslims is characterized by the same modus operandi as was employed at Solomon’s Stables. They began holding prayer services at the site, spread carpets and announced the appointment of an imam for the mosque of the “Gate of Mercy.”

Muslims praying at the Golden Gate
Muslims praying at the Golden Gate (Bab al Rahma) site. (Arab press)

Taking over more areas for prayer: Over the years, the Muslims have paved extensive areas on the Temple Mount that have also been used for prayer services, especially on Muslim festivals and Ramadan.

But these are not the only changes that the Muslims have made to their benefit in the status quo on the Temple Mount over the years. Here are several more, prominent examples:

  1. Closing the gates: During the 1970s, tourists could enter the Temple Mount through the Chain Gate and the Cotton Gate, and not just through the Mughrabi Gate, which is the only way today. At a certain point, the Muslims closed the two other gates, only allowing Muslims to pass through them to the Temple Mount.
  2. Restricting visits to the Temple Mount: The times of visiting and the areas that can be visited on the Temple Mount have become more restricted over the years. In the past, they were more flexible and informal. It was also possible to visit the Temple Mount on Fridays and Saturdays and to enter the mosques. Today, this is no longer allowed, and the police limit the visits of Jews to specific areas on the Temple Mount, especially the visits of religious Jews.
  3. An upgrade in Jordan’s status on the Temple Mount: Another prominent change in the status quo on the Temple Mount relates to Jordan’s position there. After the Six-Day War, Jordan, through its Ministry of Endowments, oversaw the Waqf and paid the salaries of its workers, but it was barely involved in ongoing administration. Today, under the terms of the peace treaty with Israel and other formal and informal understandings with Israel, Jordan has become Israel’s silent partner on the Temple Mount, and it has a strong influence on what goes on there. Its most recent step to expand the Waqf council and add extreme elements to it indicates a change in its policy, which, of course is opposed to Israel’s position. Fatah, the Palestinian Authority, and even Sheikh Akram Sabri, who identifies with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Northern Faction of the outlawed Islamic Movement, Turkey and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, , now have their representatives on the Waqf council.
  4. The spread of Muslim influence to the areas at the foot of the Temple Mount: As opposed to the past, Israel takes into account the Muslim position today and Jordan’s position in particular, when it comes to the areas around the Temple Mount, outside its walls, and at the foot of the mountain. For example, the Jordanians were given the task of restoring the eastern and southern walls of the Temple Mount, which had become unstable and showing cracks. Israel did not react until this day after Jordan vetoed Israel replacing the unsteady and temporary Mughrabi Gate Bridge with a permanent bridge. Israel also didn’t responded to Jordan’s veto with regard to the removal of construction waste and debris “stuck” behind metal strips in the alleyway of the “Small Kotel” in the Muslim Quarter (which is a continuation of the Western Wall and a Jewish prayer site).
Newspaper clipping
Newspaper clipping (1921) in Hebrew signed by Ronald Storrs, British “Civil Governor of Jerusalem and Judea,” detailing days and times of Jewish visits to the Temple Mount. The announcement restricts visits during the Muslim month of Ramadan. It calls on visitors to act with decorum at the holy site, refrain from smoking and bringing dogs. No restrictions on Jewish prayer is mentioned. (Collection of Lenny Ben-David)

The only change to the status quo that favors the Jewish side relates to the possibility of allowing Jews to visit the Temple Mount. Until five years ago, the police severely limited the number of Jews entering the Temple Mount at one time. Under the “watch” of Interior Security Minister Gilad Erdan and former Police Commissioner Yoram Halevi, this policy changed, when it was decided that the status quo permits freer access for Jews to the Temple Mount (as opposed to the right to pray there, which is forbidden). In 2018, more than 30,000 Jews visited the Temple Mount, as compared to just a few thousand until 2013. Most of the Jews visiting the Temple Mount follow police instructions and do not attempt to pray there. Demonstrative and public efforts to pray on the Temple Mount are almost always prevented. Silent prayers or prayers whispered in a way that is unseen and not demonstrative are not stopped.

So, the common Muslim protest against Israel’s violation of the status quo is completely baseless. In fact, the opposite is true. It has been the Muslim side that has been violating the status quo over the years on the Temple Mount. Israel has shown helplessness and weakness in its way of dealing with the constant erosion by the Muslims of the status quo on the Temple Mount. The “Gate of Mercy” incident is another test of Israel’s ability to stand against this ongoing process.

Nadav Shragai is a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as a journalist and commentator at “Haaretz” between 1983 and 2009, is currently a journalist and commentator at Israel Hayom, and has documented the dispute over Jerusalem for 30 years.

Lenny Ben-David is the Jerusalem Center’s Director of Publications. Ben-David served 25 years in senior posts in AIPAC in Washington and Jerusalem. He served as Israel’s Deputy Chief of Mission in the Embassy in Washington, D.C. He is the author of the American Interests in the Holy Land Revealed in Early Photographs (Urim Publications).

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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