Trouble on Holy Ground
Trouble on Holy Ground
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 11 minutes

Trouble on Holy Ground

Has Israel upset the centuries-old status quo at one of the holiest sites in Islam and Judaism?

The Holy Esplanade — known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif and to Jews as the Temple Mount — stands at the center of the current protest and violence in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. But despite U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest visit, meant to de-escalate the tension, the claims and counterclaims made about the Esplanade’s status remain as murky as ever.

The Palestinian leadership and Jordan accuse Israel of kicking off the unrest by violating the informal agreement that has prevailed at the holy site, more or less, since Israel seized Jerusalem’s Old City from Jordan in 1967. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denies the charge. Why are Palestinians so furious, Jordanians so indignant, and Israeli Jews so incredulous?

In 1967, to avoid a wider clash with the Muslim world, Israel left the management of the holy plateau with the Jordanian Waqf — the same Islamic endowment that had overseen it before the war. Indeed, the authority has controlled the site — which ranks as Judaism’s holiest and Islam’s third most sacred after Mecca and Medina — since the 12th century. In keeping with the centuries-old ban on non-Muslim worship at the site, even after 1967 when Jews were prohibited from praying there, though they were free to access it. Yet hardly any religious Jews did, given the prohibition in Halacha,or Jewish law, on ascending to the plateau. Israel’s capacities and prerogatives, limited to security and overall access, generally stopped at the site’s periphery.

This unwritten arrangement, known as the “Status Quo,” was an inheritance of the original Status Quo, a 19th-century Ottoman decree that confirmed Muslim control of the Esplanade and permitted occasional visits by non-Muslims. This label was appropriately named for another reason: It was intended as a temporary arrangement that would reflect and perpetuate the post-1967 status quo at the site until a permanent resolution for Jerusalem was reached. Each side’s understanding of the Status Quo (upper case) largely reflected its subjective perception of the status quo (lower case).

Nearly 50 year later, it is impossible to sort out exactly what the Status Quo is, making it easy for political leaders to proclaim their fidelity to it. While Palestinians were never consulted about the arrangement, the Palestine Liberation Organization, too, has called for the Status Quo to be upheld, even though, for the most part, Palestinians don’t particularly care what Jordan and Israel might have decided between themselves five decades ago nor what they agreed to during Kerry’s mediation last week. Their position, supported by international law, is that the site is occupied — its status is no different than anywhere else in the West Bank.

The situation at the Esplanade changed little after the 1967 war until the mid-1980s. But since the First Intifada, which was launched in 1987, conditions have shifted for a variety of political, religious, and sociological reasons, particularly because of the weakening since the 1990s of the Halachic ban on ascension. This led to significant changes in who accesses the Esplanade — most importantly, the number of religious Jews has risen dramatically — which in turn led Israel, in the 2000s, to change its policy on Muslim access. Israel contends these changes do not violate the Status Quo, though almost everyone else seems to disagree.

The allegation that Israel is violating the Status Quo is tricky to prove: It's hard to convict someone of violating the letter of the law when the law was never set down in letters. It’s harder, however, for Israel to maintain that it has consistently adhered to a fundamental purpose of the Status Quo: Israeli-Jordanian cooperation to maintain calm and security at the site and beyond.

By the same token, it’s hard for Jordan to maintain that it has always adhered to a second fundamental purpose of the Status Quo: ensuring that any change, mainly in terms of maintenance and construction work, is minimal. But with the Waqf’s flouting of the arrangement fading into the past, today it is Israel that stands first and foremost accused of violating the Status Quo.

How the Status Quo has changed

There are four main ways that cooperation, or lack thereof, over the holy site has changed since 1967.

Jordan’s role. Until 2000, Jordan had a voice in who entered the Esplanade. As Jordanian officials tell it, the Waqf had a veto over any potential visitor; Israeli officials disagree, saying that Israel merely chose to accede to Jordan’s wishes. But in practice it didn’t matter because the two sides worked together, and virtually nobody, with the occasional exception of Temple activists whom both sides considered provocative, was excluded.

With the eruption of the Second Intifada in September 2000, the Esplanade was initially closed to non-Muslims — of course, including Jews — by mutual agreement. But in August 2003, shortly after Ariel Sharon was reelected prime minister, Israel unilaterally renewed non-Muslim access over Jordanian objection (which had more to do with Palestinian objections than their own). In the years since, Jordan’s repeated offers to renew the informal coordination have been rebuffed; Israel, fearing that Jordan would prevent entry of religious Jews altogether, insists on maintaining sole discretion over who enters the Esplanade and when. During Kerry’s recent mediation, Jordan once again requested to renew joint decision-making on access; once again, Israel demurred.

The collapse of cooperation on renovations. Until the mid-1990s, Israel facilitated Waqf maintenance of the Esplanade. The work was relatively minor, as was Israeli oversight. But after Israel opened the Western Wall tunnels in 1996 — provoking unrest that killed scores of Palestinians and some 17 Israeli soldiers — the Waqf blocked inspections by the Israel Antiquities Authority. Beginning later that year, in the absence of archeological supervision, the Waqf permitted the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, headed by Sheikh Raed Salah, to carry out two extensive renovation projects in disregard of Israeli archeological standards — removing some 10,000 tons of earth replete with artifacts, Islamic and Jewish, which it discarded.

In response, Israel imposed strict limitations on the body. Today, despite the resumption of partial Israeli oversight, the Waqf has to request permission for the most minor repairs — and even those are often denied. The excavations of the 1990s were a violation of the Status Quo by virtually any interpretation and no doubt traumatic for Israel. But today, 20 years later, the substantial constraints on the Waqf mean that Palestinians and other visiting Muslims increasingly face a crisis of basic infrastructure, especially at holiday time, with bathrooms, ablution facilities, and prayer platforms in short supply or disrepair.

Incendiary statements and actions by senior Israeli officials. While Netanyahu has repeatedly affirmed his commitment to the Status Quo, senior Likud and government officials have done the opposite — and loudly. Since 2012, government representatives, such as former Knesset member Moshe Feiglin, have not only entered the compound but approached the Dome of the Rock, where they were filmed declaring Israeli sovereignty over the entire site. A small minority of activists, including a current Israeli minister, Uri Ariel, have gone further, violating the Jewish prayer ban and calling for the construction of a third Temple on the site.

Netanyahu has ultimately stopped legislative and administrative initiatives to enable Jewish prayer, but Palestinians can perhaps be forgiven for assuming that when members of the governing coalition do such things — especially in such an incendiary atmosphere — they have government approval. Netanyahu himself might not support these steps, but he also has not publicly condemned most of them — much less fired or expelled those who have engaged in such provocative acts. Nor has he stopped government money supporting such activities, which continues to flow, albeit in small sums, to organizations that call for building a third Temple.

Israeli “dilution” of Palestinian access. Both Jews and Muslims face access restrictions to the Esplanade. Sometimes the Israeli police, fearing Palestinian violence, bar Jews from the area. But even without threats, the entry of religious Jews faces more difficult conditions, longer waits, more constraints on movement, and greater scrutiny than in the past.

Israel began to impose limits on the access of Jerusalemites and Israel’s Palestinian citizens since it reopened the Esplanade to non-Muslims in 2003. Initially, Israeli authorities blocked only specific individuals, including Jews — but as tensions mounted during the Second Intifada, Palestinians intensified both invective and stone throwing, leading the police to completely close off Jewish access to the Esplanade on some days.

In order to head off violent Palestinian protest, Israel began restricting access by gender and age, based on whom it deemed most likely to precipitate clashes. This policy, known as “dilution,” has been used with increasing frequency since 2013. It was one of the key topics of discussion during the Kerry’s mediation, with Jordan pushing to end discrimination among Muslims worshippers. But while Israel has not invoked this policy since U.S. mediation began, it is unlikely that Netanyahu will end the practice for good. The Israeli security establishment will continue to insist on it, afraid that Palestinian deaths on the Esplanade would precipitate an enormous escalation.

Israel has also outlawed groups that it considers dangerous, such as the Palestinian Murabitun and Murabitat, or Guardians of the Holy Places, who confront Jews visiting the Esplanade. Israel recently indicated it would ban the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel for supporting these groups and spreading the notion, which Israel vehemently denies, that it intends to destroy the mosque or divide it between Jews and Muslims.

The double standards of the Status Quo

These recent changes make it seem that Israel is altering the rules of the game. For many decades, Muslim access and worship were primary — a reflection of the reality that hardly any Jews, or at least religious Jews, cared to ascend. Even over much of the past decade, as the number of Jewish entries climbed, Palestinian entries still took precedence, mainly because of their vastly greater numbers — some 12 million Muslim entries per year as compared with about 12,000 for Jews. The fear of Palestinian protest and violence, and the resulting strains on relationships with Arab countries, also factored into Israeli calculations of whose access to privilege.

Of late, however, Israel seems to have decided that Jewish access is a priority, even if that means sometimes “diluting” the Palestinian presence. For Netanyahu, securing Jewish access in this manner does not violate the Status Quo, since non-Muslims are entitled to access. But the way Israel has gone about it has raised fears that Israel plans to divide the site between Muslims and Jews.

There is precedent for this. Perhaps the most well-known example is Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque, which Israel divided between Jews and Muslims in 1994. But there is a precedent even around the Esplanade itself: In January 1968, Israel laid unique claim to the Western Wall, the sole remaining retaining wall of the second Temple, which is holy in Judaism and Islam. Today, an inconsistently enforced Israeli policy requires Palestinian residents of Jerusalem — and, of course, Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza who manage to enter Jerusalem — to obtain a special permit in order to access the Western Wall plaza, which was built on the ruins of a Palestinian neighborhood demolished weeks after the 1967 war.

Thus, even as Israel strongly objects to Palestinian opposition to growing Jewish visitation of the Esplanade, it limits Palestinian visitation to the Esplanade’s Western Wall. Israel creates bureaucratic obstacles that render Palestinian access to one holy site unpredictable and demands that another be accessible to all Jews. It paints Palestinians as intolerant for objecting to increased Jewish access to the Esplanade but sees no intolerance in its own prevention of Palestinians from accessing the Western Wall.

“Israel is committed to maintaining the Status Quo exactly as it’s been for many decades,” Netanyahu said recently. While Kerry coaxed the prime minister into affirming that Israeli policy is to prevent non-Muslim prayer at the site, other gaps in the Status Quo do not seem to have been bridged. In Netanyahu’s view, of course, the Western Wall will remain exclusively in Israeli hands. More importantly, in terms of the current unrest, Netanyahu is affirming a Status Quo that does not give Jordan a voice in determining access to the Esplanade; a Status Quo that does not permit the Waqf to carry out necessary repairs; a Status Quo that has not stopped inflammatory actions by senior Israel officials; and a Status Quo that permits Muslims to be excluded when Jewish access, as defined exclusively by Israel, is required.

Israel has reasonable concerns. One could argue that Jordan was dragging its feet in reopening the Esplanade to Jews during the Second Intifada. Waqf-led archeological projects have been destructive. Religious and political changes in Israel would have forced any Israeli prime minister to adjust access policy, and Palestinian violence has eroded any Israeli impulse to cooperate.

But if this newer version of the Status Quo is the one that Israel is trying to preserve, it is anything but a recipe for calm and stability.

Israel’s best option is to build a robust partnership with a Muslim interlocutor to manage the site. Jordan is currently willing to assume that role, but even if it manages to reach an agreement with Israel, it will continue to find itself squeezed between Israeli inflexibility and a Palestinian public intent on fighting Israeli occupation, not cutting a deal with its representatives.

Crisis on the Holy Esplanade

The Status Quo has aged poorly. It worked well only so long as few Jews, and even fewer observant ones, wanted to enter the Esplanade and were content to let it retain its character as an Arab-Islamic space while the question of its ultimate disposition was delayed. That day has passed. So, too, has the day when Palestinians entrusted their own Arab political leaders to preserve their interests.

The Status Quo, however, represents the only measure of consensus between all parties — and as such remains the only framework, however ambiguous, for restoring calm on the Esplanade and in Jerusalem. There are ways to bolster it that should be acceptable to all sides, as the International Crisis Group describes in a recent report.

Yet even should the arrangement be restored, people should not fool themselves about how much weight it can bear. As most Israeli Jews see it, they are faced today with a conflict over a holy place that the vying parties would all be able to share, at least for the time being, if only the Arab leadership would cooperate.

By contrast, even the most conciliatory Palestinians have little interest in cooperating with an occupying power on this issue, even temporarily. They face a dilemma: So long as they have no role whatsoever at the Esplanade (as has been the situation for most of the past 50 years), they will be unable to shape the reality there. But at the same time, with Israel and Jordan determined to preserve their own interests at the site and unwilling to allow an outside arbiter, it is unclear what effect a Palestinian role could have. Moreover, the optics within the Palestinian community will be difficult to manage, since many will see cooperating with the Jewish State to administer Islamic holy sites as tantamount to collaboration.

The Esplanade, after all, is not only a Muslim holy site but a Palestinian national one. It is the last expanse in East Jerusalem, which is in a state of clinical death, where Palestinians are relatively free to gather and organize. Given the momentum of recent developments — especially at a moment when the Palestinian national movement and the so-called peace process have hit a dead end — it seems like one of few effective political levers that Palestinians have. Welcome to the new status quo.

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