Hard Questions, Tough Answers - Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, and the Right-Religious Flag March (May 31, 2022)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q: Sunday’s Flag March in Jerusalem was ‘right-religious’? Can’t anyone participate in this annual Jerusalem Day celebration of the uniting of the city in 1967?

A: Theoretically, yes. In practice, the Flag March on Jerusalem Day has become a militant ritual of National Religious youth. Once again, it featured racist epithets and violence by Jews and provoked a like response from Jerusalem Arabs. Some 3,000 Israel Police personnel prevented anything worse.

The Flag March has become an occasion for incitement and religious fervor on both sides. Just a year ago, a modified Flag March which avoided the flashpoint Damascus Gate of the Old City nevertheless provoked a Hamas rocket attack from Gaza toward Jerusalem. Israel responded with Operation Guardian of the Walls. Eleven days of fighting ensued, escalating into Arab-Jewish clashes in Israel’s mixed cities, rockets from Lebanon, barricaded roads in Arab areas of Israel and even clashes abroad.

So this year’s Flag March, which provocatively included the Damascus Gate (Israel’s ‘sovereignty’ was ostensibly at stake, and Naftali Bennett had to outperform his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu as a right-wing nationalist), was held under high alert. The Israel Air Force overflew the Gaza Strip to deter Hamas. The good offices of Egypt and Qatar were invoked to induce quiet in Gaza. The police were everywhere. There was violence, but it was contained. Around 70,000 marched with flags, women separately from men. Several dozen Jewish hooligans were detained.

Regarding the Hamas response to Jerusalem Day or lack thereof, note that of late Hamas skillfully avoids antagonizing Israel from the Gaza Strip, thereby reaping economic concessions via Egypt and Qatar. But it escalates or threatens escalation everywhere else: the West Bank, South Lebanon, even threatening to attack Jewish targets globally--but especially Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.

Q: But why the repeated cries of alarm by Palestinians that “Al-Aqsa is under siege” and that Israel is violating the status quo there? The Damascus Gate is not Al-Aqsa. Jews on the Temple Mount do not approach Al-Aqsa.

(Note: Here we use the term Temple Mount for convenience. It is known to Muslims as Al-Haram Al-Sharif, the Holy Sanctuary.)

A: In Israeli eyes, there are really two issues here: Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. The Flag March took place in the Old City of Jerusalem but not on the Temple Mount. Palestinians and Muslims in general, tend to identify Jerusalem, or at least the Old City with the Temple Mount, just as they believe  the entire Temple Mount esplanade is part of Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam which occupies only one corner of the Mount.

As for the Temple Mount status quo, it is fast unraveling. It is being violated wholesale by both sides. For example, under rules agreed in 1967 no flags are supposed to fly on the Temple Mount. Israel usually maintains this rule. In contrast, we have recently seen the PLO flag, the Jordanian flag and the Hamas flag on the Mount. A small Israeli desk flag at the Temple Mount police station was removed recently following Muslim protest. On the other hand, on Sunday Jews visited the Mount brandishing Israeli flags, protected by Israel Police officers.

Even a relative pragmatist like Prime Minister Bennett has been caught between Jewish and Palestinian protests as he seeks to avoid alienating his potential political allies, who were among those praying on the Mount in violation of the status quo. Bennett’s solution on Sunday was to permit extreme Jewish nationalist demonstrations and smother them with a show of force to prevent escalation. He more or less succeeded. But for how long until Jerusalem again explodes?

The status quo was formulated by Defense Minister Moshe Dayan following the conquest of the Old City in 1967: Muslims pray, Jews and others may visit but not pray. For many years, the status quo permitted Jews to visit inside the mosques, at agreed hours, as tourists; today, no longer.

Dayan’s 1967 determination was rendered easier by an Orthodox Jewish prohibition of Jews setting foot at all on the Temple Mount, lest one tread directly on the remains of the two temples. Accordingly, initially only secular Jews visited the Temple Mount. In recent years, National Orthodox (not Haredi, i.e., ultra-Orthodox) scholars have calculated that there are places on the Mount where one can visit without fear of standing directly above the ruins of the first and second temples. A visit to the Mount by Jews mouthing ostensibly silent prayer there has become a demonstrative ultra-nationalist ritual by right-nationalist-messianic Jews.

On the Muslim side, an additional mosque has emerged on the Mount: the Al-Marwani Mosque, created by excavating a site known as Solomon’s Stables at the cost of dumping and destroying First Temple archeological remains. This also violates the 1967 status quo.

Moreover, Palestinians have taken to referring to the entire Mount as a single mosque, Al-Aqsa--a designation that used to refer solely to the structure at the southern end of the Temple Mount. Increasingly, this redefining of the scope of Al-Aqsa has been adopted at Arab and Muslim urging by international bodies. Accordingly, when the Israel Police or silently-praying Jews go up on the Mount, even if they are far from the mosque, they are accused of ‘violating Al-Aqsa’.

Q: Why shouldn’t Jews be allowed to pray on the Temple Mount, considering it is as significant for Jews as it is for Muslims?

A: Recently, a lower-level court in Jerusalem refused to banish from the Mount three youths who bowed and recited the ‘Shma Yisrael’ prayer there. On Sunday, Jerusalem Day, 2,600 National Orthodox Jews visited the mount, prayed openly and flew the Israeli flag in yet another violation of the status quo.

In a perfect world, Jews should indeed be able to pray at a Jewish holy place. But when the sight of Jews praying on the Temple Mount esplanade is liable to start a war, when it violates an international agreement, and when that prayer is in any case controversial among Jewish scholars, we should all prefer the status quo. And enforce it. For some 55 years it has allowed a modicum of coexistence, however troubled.

Q: Isn’t Jordan bound through its peace treaty with Israel to enforce the status quo?

A: Jordan’s status as guardian of Al-Aqsa has been eroded in recent years due to widespread violations: Hamas flags, Jewish prayer. The United States has tried lately to mediate Jerusalem status quo issues between Jordan and Israel. The Hashemite Kingdom, which in 1994 won back its pre-1967 guardian status by making peace with Israel, is loudly protesting Israeli violations of the status quo (but not Palestinian violations). How long will Jordan put up with this situation, which damages its Islamic prestige? The erosion of Jordan’s status is yet another Jerusalem-related powder keg.

Q: Hold on, here. Palestinian leaders, from Arafat and Abbas on down, have in recent years insisted that “there never was a temple on the Temple Mount”. In other words, according to the Palestinian leadership, Israel has no business at all negotiating the status of the Mount because the Mount is not holy to Jews.

A: It wasn’t always so in Palestinian eyes. Before conflict politics entered the picture, Muslim historiography pointed with pride to the Mount’s ancient Hebrew history, implying that by building al-Aqsa above the ruins of two Hebrew temples, Islam succeeded and superseded Judaism.

For example, in 1925 the Jerusalem-based Supreme Muslim Council, which was headed by Grand Mufti Hajj Amin Al-Husseini (who would go on to collaborate with Hitler), published A Brief Guide to Al-Haram Al-Sharif. The booklet establishes that the site is holy to Jews and that the ancient Jewish temples had stood there. On page four it states that "The site is one of the oldest in the world. Its sanctity dates from the earliest (perhaps from pre-historic) times. Its identity with the site of Solomon's Temple is beyond dispute. This, too, is the spot, according to the universal belief, on which 'David built there an altar unto the Lord, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings [2 Samuel 24:25].'"

Q: Yet no one on the Palestinian side protests the Palestinian leadership’s crass politicization of this issue. And in Israel? Is there anyone sensible on the right-religious side who is concerned over Israel’s politicization of its flag and of Jerusalem’s holy places

A: Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, of the center right, just called to outlaw the most violent Jewish groups that demonstrated on Sunday as ‘terrorist organizations’. And here is Moti Shklar, a media figure with impeccable right-religious credentials, writing inYediot Aharonot: “When flying the Israeli flag at the Damascus Gate is an expression not merely of sovereignty but also of violence and racist epithets toward Arabs, it is hard for many Zionists and proud Jews to identify with Jerusalem Day and the flags carried by the marchers.”

Now I know why, intuitively, I have stopped flying the flag on Israel Independence Day. In the hands of the country’s right-messianic mainstream, Israel’s flag is becoming an ugly symbol of occupation. I’m sorry to say that this year’s Jerusalem Day Flag March--militant, fanatic, regimented, racist--was eerily reminiscent of the dark days that ushered in fascism in Europe nearly 100 years ago.

Q: And what is Jerusalem today? Jewish? Zionist? United? Safe?

A: Today (according to official statistics just updated on the occasion of Jerusalem Day), about a third of Jerusalem’s population is Haredi, meaning ultra-Orthodox non-Zionist. The center of Jerusalem is 70 percent Haredi. One third or more of Jerusalemites are Palestinian Arabs, nearly all Muslim, who are legal residents of the city but, for the most part, not Israeli citizens.

Measured on this basis, Jerusalem is not united and not Zionist. Expressions like “united capital of Israel” and holidays like Jerusalem Day are exercises in hypocrisy.

There are parts of ‘united Jerusalem’ that are so dangerous, Jews fear to tread there. Indeed, Kafr Aqb in northern Jerusalem is out of bounds even to municipal officials: they use drones to measure the dimensions of new structures for tax purposes. A total of about 100,000 Arab legal residents of Jerusalem (including Kafr Aqb) live beyond a security fence erected to protect Israelis from Palestinian terrorists and illegals.

Q: Bottom line?

A: Nachum Barnea said it best in Monday’s Yediot Aharonot. I have added explanations in brackets for readers not familiar with the geography and the history:

“The Old City looked yesterday like an occupied city: [Arab] stores closed, crowded with uniformed [Israeli] personnel, expressions of hatred on the faces of [Arab] residents.

“That morning I was in Lod, a [mixed Arab-Jewish] city that shed blood on this same occasion last year. At least 15 buses from [the West Bank] brought [National Religious] youth to march in the city. . . . Everyone knew why: as a provocation against the Arab residents. Jerusalem as an excuse.

“That afternoon, Ammunition Hill [in East Jerusalem] witnessed the annual event of Battalion 66, the [IDF] paratrooper unit that lost 30 of its soldiers in bitter [1967] Jerusalem battles. The battalion’s veterans are nearing 80. No one danced. They just remembered the fallen, the hard fighting, the effort to hold onto humanity during the battle.

A yawning gap separates the Damascus Gate from Ammunition Hill. No flag dance can bridge it.”