October 12, 2015 - The Temple Mount and the current wave of violence



This week, Alpher discusses the arguments that the Temple Mount and the al-Aqsa Mosque are at the heart of the current wave of terror that began in Jerusalem and explains what happened; PM Netanyahu's banning both Jewish and Arab members of Knesset from visiting the Mount and, earlier, banning two of the extremist Israeli Islamist movements; why shouldn’t Jews who wish to do so be allowed to pray on the Mount; what Netanyahu’s options are; and sums up the characteristics of the violence now that we are two weeks into this wave and there is no sign of it letting up

Q. We are told that the Temple Mount and the al-Aqsa Mosque are at the heart of the current wave of terror that began in Jerusalem. Militant Islamist Arabs in Israel and Palestinians in general sound the rallying cry “al-Aqsa is in danger” because Israel is “violating the status quo”.  Can you deconstruct these arguments and slogans and explain what has happened?

A. There is a great deal of ambiguity and dishonesty here on both sides. There is also some logic to both Arab and Jewish arguments regarding the Mount.

First, what is “al-Aqsa”? In Muslim eyes, al-Aqsa is synonymous with the entire Temple Mount, meaning that the entire Mount is the equivalent of a mosque. Hence, Jewish visitors to the Mount are entering or even violating a mosque even if they never set foot inside the al-Aqsa structure or in the second mosque on the Mount, the gold-domed Mosque of Omar or “Dome of the Rock”. (Jews have not been allowed to enter the two mosque structures for several years now.)

But the definition of the entire Mount as a mosque is not recognized by Jews. And it seems problematic for Muslims, too: no one is required to remove his/her shoes when walking around the Mount as long as they don’t actually enter the two sacred structures. It’s altogether too convenient for Palestinians to argue that every Jewish foot set on the Mount’s ample grounds violates the sanctity of a mosque.

Next, what is the “status quo”? For some 1500 years until June 1967, the status quo on the Mount was that Jews were forbidden to be there--both by Muslim edict and by Jewish rabbinic authority. When in June 1967 Israel conquered the Old City, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan quickly recognized the ongoing authority over the Mount of the Jordanian Muslim religious authority or Waqf, while stipulating that Jews could visit the Mount.

At the time, rabbinic authority continued to prohibit Jews from setting foot on the Mount lest they violate the Holy of Holies, meaning those portions of the Second Temple that were forbidden to all but certain priests; no one knew exactly where underneath the Mount lay the ruins of the Temple. Hence the only Jews visiting the Mount for several decades after 1967 were secular, and for the most part a modicum of coexistence prevailed on the Mount. So Dayan’s amendment of the status quo more or less worked.

But in recent years a growing number of Orthodox Jews, spurred on by the messianic nationalist settler movement, have cited revisionist archaeological theory to argue that the ruins of the Temple lie under the Mosque of Omar and that, accordingly, it is permitted for them to visit other areas on the Mount. Some want to pray there; some ostensibly have been seen to move their lips in silent prayer; a fringe group talks about destroying the mosques and rebuilding the Temple.

In retrospect, the provocative visit to the Mount (not the mosque structures) by Ariel Sharon in September 2000 might be deemed the point of departure for this dynamic. Sharon was a totally secular Jew. But at the time he spearheaded the settlement movement. His visit, precisely because it was primarily political and not religious, appeared to energize the messianic political agenda of the Orthodox Jewish Temple Mount movement. It also launched a series of events that developed into the second intifada.

Do provocative visits by religious Jews constitute a violation of the post-1967 status quo? Netanyahu’s government argues that they do not. Yet clearly some Muslims interpret these activities and rhetoric as a further change in the status quo that justifies the slogan “al-Aqsa is in danger”. The Israeli Islamist movement has escalated both its rhetoric and its sponsorship of movements and activities that provoke violence and friction with Jews on the Mount itself. Even secular Israeli Arab politicians identify openly with the Islamists. The Temple Mount issue has helped blur many of the lines that once defined the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: between Palestinian Palestinians and Israeli Palestinians; between the West Bank and Israel; between what the IDF is supposed to do and what the Israel Police is supposed to do.


Q. PM Netanyahu appeared to have grasped the danger involved in all these activities when his government banned both Jewish and Arab members of Knesset from visiting the Mount and, earlier, banned two of the extremist Israeli Islamist movements.

A. Better late than never. In November 2014, when tensions on the Mount were also high, Netanyahu responded to a Jordanian demand (he met with King Abdullah II and Secretary of State Kerry in Amman) by barring messianic Jews from the Mount. But once things calmed down Netanyahu yielded to right-wing pressure and allowed the Jewish extremists to renew their visits. Matters have been escalating ever since.

So Netanyahu’s latest “bannings” would not have been necessary had he understood or respected the persistent nature of the dynamic on the Mount and kept extremists away throughout the past year. Now, once again, he is subject to pressure from his own Likud and coalition right wing to facilitate Jewish access to the Mount.


Q. Why shouldn’t Jews who wish to do so be allowed to pray on the Mount? After all, it is a Jewish holy place. Since 1967, Jews and Muslims rotate their worship in Hebron at the Cave of the Patriarchs with relatively little disruption.

A. One could argue that the radical separation arrangements put in place regarding Jewish settlers and veteran Muslim residents of Hebron constitute a huge disruption for the city’s Muslims. Be that as it may, unlike in Hebron the Palestinian narrative regarding the Temple Mount has been radically amended in the course of the past century or so of Zionism. Whereas once Muslim historiographers acknowledged that the mosques were deliberately built on the site of the Temple, now Palestinian politicians, led by Mahmoud Abbas, resolutely deny there was ever a Temple on the Mount. Recall Abbas in his latest UNGA speech describing Jerusalem and the Mount as “sacred to Muslims and Christians”. Recall, too, that “Jesus was a Palestinian”. . .

Put plainly, Jews should indeed be allowed to worship wherever they want, including on the Temple Mount. Yet it is hard to argue that this does not change the status quo. Israel can of course radically alter the status quo by force if it wishes, but even most right wingers understand that this would be the equivalent of declaring World War III with the Muslim world. So restoring stability in and around Jerusalem would appear to require some sort of pragmatic Jewish respect for something that can be called “status quo”.


Q. What, then, are Netanyahu’s options?

A. One very bad option is to revert to being Netanyahu: suppress Palestinian acts of violence resolutely, eventually give in to the right wing and allow extremist Jews back on the Mount, renew settlement construction, and hope for the best. In other words, repeat last November’s sequence. This keeps his coalition together. With a little luck, things will calm down until next time. But it is likely that next time matters will be even worse, both locally and in terms of Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbors and the world. Meanwhile, calm is not returning.

Another option might be to accept and act on the ugly domestic Israeli political truth that this wave of violence has made so obvious: leaving aside Moshe Kachlon and his Kulanu ministers who focus strictly on economic issues, Netanyahu himself is now the left wing of his own right-wing nationalist coalition along with Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and Aryeh Deri of Shas. Virtually all other Likudniks and certainly Naftali Bennet’s Jewish Home Party are more hawkish than the prime minister regarding both prayer on the Mount and settlement construction.

But Netanyahu has traditionally sought to position himself at the political center of his coalitions so as to maximize his political maneuverability and play the extremes off against one another. Hence the widespread media speculation regarding a move to bring the Herzog-Livni-led Zionist Union into the coalition. Netanyahu spoke approvingly of the idea of a unity government at a press conference last week. For the moment Herzog is keeping his distance, proclaiming the government’s failure and condemning it. Whether this reflects mere bargaining considerations or an assessment that eventually Kulanu and possibly Shas will bring down the government over the violence issue, remains to be seen.

Finally, lest we forget, all concerned parties accept the “special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem” as it was enshrined in the 1994 Jordan-Israel peace treaty. Currently, King Abdullah is reportedly so angry at Netanyahu over the violence that he is refusing to take calls from him, making relations with Jordan part of Netanyahu’s Jerusalem problem. Conceivably, however, with a different approach on Netanyahu’s part, Jordan could play a role in an attempt to redefine the status quo on the Mount and create new and agreed rules that both sides’ extremists might oppose but that their mainstreams could endorse.


Q. Finally, can you sum up the characteristics of the violence now that we are two weeks into this wave and there is no sign of it letting up?

A. The violence in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Israel proper is largely leaderless. Most attackers are young male “lone wolves” who have no criminal record, security file or even Islamist orientation and are inspired by social media incitement focusing on Jerusalem. Arab anger is directed not only at Israel; the Palestinian Authority leadership is also taken to task for its impotence. The weapon of choice for attacking Jews is the kitchen knife, though there are plenty of stoning and Molotov cocktail incidents. 

Escalation between Israel and Hamas in Gaza could tip the West Bank balance and turn this into a full-fledged intifada. Last weekend, Hamas permitted masses of youth to charge the border fence, leading to around ten Palestinian deaths, a few rocket attacks, Israeli retaliation and Hamas threats. Hamas is under pressure to show solidarity, yet really does not want another round of widespread fighting.

Not only extremist Palestinians but extremist Israeli Jews as well are busy inciting through social media. One Jewish knife attack on Arabs has already been recorded, in Dimona in the Negev. More such attacks or Jewish lynch mobs could be additional sources of escalation.

So far, this is not an intifada in the by-now “classic” sense. But it is not going away.