Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Who is really challenging the “status quo” in Jerusalem?

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This past month Israel has faced a wave of Palestinian terror attacks, with many attacks incited by the false claim that Israel is changing the status quo on Jerusalem's Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.  But a quick look at recent events reveals that it is not Israel but the Palestinian leadership that has been seeking to change the "status quo" in Jerusalem's Old City.

Since Israel took control of east Jerusalem in a war of self-defence in 1967, it has agreed for the sake of peace to uphold a "status quo" that only Muslims are allowed to pray on the Temple Mount but that non-Muslims may visit the area at restricted times. Under the "status quo", the "Waqf", the Islamic trust which is an arm of the Jordanian Ministry of Sacred Properties, manages the site and is responsible for arrangements for religious and civil affairs. (For more information, read Nadav Shragai's "A brief history of the status quo").

The Temple Mount is the holiest place for Jewish people, and the third holiest place for Muslims.  In principle, all people should be able to pray at the holy site under the notion of freedom of worship - yet Israel has restricted the rights of non-Muslims in the interests of peace with its Muslims citizens and neighbours.  Under the arrangement Israel provides security for the site, which it did when it was recently discovered that Palestinians were hiding weapons and explosives in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and therefore temporarily restricted the age of Palestinians who could attend the site to prevent unrest and restore security.

While Israel has maintained the delicate status quo, the Palestinian leadership has been seeking to change the status quo of Jerusalem's Old City at the United Nations. In October, the Palestinian leadership backed by Arab states (Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates) submitted a draft resolution to UNESCO which sought to designate the Western Wall - Judaism's holiest place of worship, an "integral part" of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.  The resolution ignored the Jewish peoples religious and historical connection to the Western Wall (and the Temple Mount) dating back over 2000 years.  The Western Wall is part of the retaining wall King Herod built for the Temple Mount, and it is also holiest site where Jews are allowed to pray due to its proximity to the ancient site of the "Holy of Holies" inside the destroyed Temple.

Fortunately, following strong criticism from US, UK and even the head of UNESCO Irina Bokova - the reference to the Western Wall was dropped at the last minute.  But that did not stop the resolution from accusing Israel of "aggression and illegal measures taken against the freedom of worship and access of Muslims to Al-Aqsa Mosque and Israel's attempts to break the status quo since 1967". The resolution also recognised two Jewish holy sites  - Rachel's Tomb and the Tomb of the Patriarchs  - as an integral part of Palestine, and implied Jewish worshippers have no rights there.

Furthermore, official Palestinian media appears to treat all Jewish visits to the Temple Mount as a violation of the supposed "status quo" - even though such visits have consistently been allowed since 1967. Thus the official Palestinian news agency WAFA reported on a visit of some Jews to the site in these terms on Nov. 1:

"Israeli settlers Sunday resumed their provocative tours into al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, despite of [sic] recent remarks made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, where he vowed that ‘his' government will not change the status quo at the compound, according to local sources.

WAFA correspondent said groups of Jewish settlers, accompanied by a police escort, entered the site through the Moroccan Gate, before they were confronted by Palestinian worshipers [sic] who chanted religious slogans to protest their entry.

This came amid intensified presence of outdoor students and Islamic Waqf personnel who barricaded themselves inside the compound to confront illegal Jewish entry to the Islamic holy site."

Both in the UNESCO resolution and in claims by official Palestinian sources, it seems that the Palestinians are demanding a new "status quo" - one which says no Jew may visit the Temple Mount and all such visits are "illegal" - while maintaining that Israeli failure to comply with this new demand are themselves violations of the "status quo."

Moreover, that the Palestinians even sought to submit the draft resolution reflects a broader problem of denying Jewish people's historical and religious connection to the land of Israel, which includes the phenomenon of "Temple Denial."

Recently, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Sheikh Muhammad Ahmad Hussein was asked in a TV interview if he accepts that the Jewish Temple existed at the site, the Mufti said, "the Aksa Mosque was an Islamic mosque since the world was created." He added, "It was never anything other than a mosque."

"Temple Denial" is a relatively new phenomenon because according to many Islamic scholars the Koran affirms Judaism's special connection to the Temple Mount. However, in recent years it has grown following comments made by former PLO leader Yasser Arafat who denied that the Temple ever stood in Jerusalem, and even PA President Mahmoud Abbas who has said,  "[Jews] claim that 2000 years ago they had a holy place there. I challenge the assertion." Abbas also recently said on October 14, "Al-Aksa is ours and so is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. They [Jews] have no right to desecrate them with their filthy feet."

The Jewish people have been connected to the site of Temple Mount for thousands of years, but the connection is not only religious and cultural, but backed by historical and archaeological evidence.  Just last week it was reported that there was a new archaeological find by a 10-year-old Russian boy, Matvei Tcepliaev, who found a 3,000-year-old seal from the time of King David. Jerold Auerbach wrote in the Wall Street Journal:

"The artifact was nestled in the hundreds of tons of earth and rock that had been illegally excavated from below the Temple Mount in the late 1990s by the Muslim Waqf, a trust that retains authority over the contested site...

The sifting project in Emek Tzurim National Park in Jerusalem, started in 2005 and has uncovered several historically significant objects, but the seal may be the most important. Dating from the era of King David's conquest of Jerusalem and the building of the Jewish First Temple by his son and successor, Solomon, the seal confirms the ancient Jewish presence in Jerusalem-more than a millennium before the Muslim Dome of the Rock was built above the ruins of the ancient temples.

If it is ironic that the Muslim excavation, undertaken to build an underground mosque, ultimately confirmed Jews' historical claims, it is no less ironic than the fact that the Waqf came to rule the site at Israel's instigation."

There have also been incidents of the Waqf allowing building works that have damaged and destroyed archaeological evidence that many believe are remnants of the time of Jewish Temples. For example, the Times of Israel reported last year:

"The Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, the institution overseeing the al-Aqsa Mosque compound, carried out excavations on the Temple Mount between 1996 and 1999 as part of the construction of a subterranean mosque in an area known as Solomon's Stables. Tens of thousands of tons of dirt - roughly 400 truckloads - were excavated by heavy machinery, without the supervision of archaeologists, and were dumped outside the Old City."  

Professor Gabriel Barkay has been sifting through this archaeological evidence with his team.  He called the excavations a "barbaric thing" and "a crime against human civilization" and compared the Waqf's actions to those of the Taliban in destroying the Buddhas of Bamiyan.

Recently, the US brokered an arrangement between Israel and Jordan to install surveillance cameras on the Temple Mount to restore calm. But, the Palestinian Authority is against the move.  Arab-Israeli journalist Khaled Abu Toameh suggests why that might be the case:

"Another reason the Palestinians oppose King Abdullah's idea is their fear that cameras would expose that Palestinians have been smuggling stones, firebombs and pipe bombs into the Al-Aqsa Mosque for the past two year.  The cameras are also likely to refute the claim that Jews are ‘violently invading' Al-Aqsa Mosque and holding prayers on the Temple Mount. The cameras will show that Jews do not enter Al-Aqsa Mosque, as Palestinians have been claiming. Needless to say, no Jewish visitors have been caught trying to smuggle weapons into the holy site."

It sounds like the surveillance cameras cannot come soon enough.

Sharyn Mittelman

 

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