Over the course of the last week, a new crisis has broken out over questions of control, access and security at the Holy Esplanade of Jerusalem’s Old City, known to Jews as the Temple Mount (formerly the site of the ancient Jewish Temple) and to Muslims as the Haram-al Sharif (site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock). For years, controversies involving the holy site, which is jointly controlled by Israel and Jordan and administered by the Islamic Religious Trust known as the Waqf, have generated major tension between Israeli and Palestinian leadership and between devout Muslims and Jews. Now, in the wake up of a shooting attack last week that killed two Israeli policemen at the site, those tensions are dangerously close to boiling over.
To help you get a handle on the causes of this situation, and where it might lead, we’ve put together a brief Q&A on what’s happening. For a more in-depth discussion and analysis, we’ll be holding a briefing call on Monday with Jerusalem expert Ofer Zalzberg of the International Crisis Group.
Register now for our emergency briefing call on the Temple Mount crisis this Monday, July 24, at 3pm Eastern.
Q: What sparked this latest crisis?
A: On Friday, July 14, two Israeli Border Policemen were shot and killed (and another wounded) inside the Holy Esplanade complex by three Palestinian citizens of Israel, who were then themselves shot and killed by police. According to video footage recently released by the Israeli police, the attackers were aided by an accomplice -- since arrested -- who brought the guns on to the Temple Mount and left them in the Al-Aqsa mosque on the morning of the shooting. While the site has seen violent clashes before, the use of firearms was particularly shocking and provocative. It is unclear whether the attackers, who came from the city of Umm al Fahem in northern Israel, had any particular political affiliation or precisely what their motivation was.
Q: How did Israel respond to the attack?
A: Israeli authorities immediately closed off all the entrances to the site and conducted extensive searches for further weapons, but found no additional firearms. They closed the site for the day and barred access for the thousands of non-resident Muslims who had traveled there for Friday prayers. This marked the first time in decades that the site was closed for Friday prayers.
The most significant measure taken so far seems to be the decision to install metal detectors at the entrances to the site. While Israeli officials apparently viewed the move simply as a prudent security measure, many Palestinian leaders and clerics have denounced it as an attempt to transform the “status quo” at the site (see below) and as a continuation of what they see as a pattern of Israel tightening its control over the site and increasing restrictions on Muslim access.
In the wake of the attack, Prime Minister Netanyahu held calls with both President Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah. While the two Arab leaders condemned the shooting and urged Israel to react responsibly, the prime minister promised them that he was committed to upholding the site’s status quo.
Q: What is “the status quo” at the Holy Esplanade?
A: In many ways, the root of this crisis is that understandings of what the status quo actually is at the Holy Esplanade vary widely.
Dating back to Ottoman rule in the 19th century, visitors of all religions were permitted to visit the site, while the Muslim holy places were administered by Muslim authorities, an arrangement that has broadly informed the status quo since then. Since Israel captured the Old City, East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan during 1967’s Six-Day War, it has maintained de facto overall control over the site, but allows the Jordanian Waqf to administer it for Muslim worshippers, a role that was formally recognized in Israel’s 1995 peace treaty with Jordan. Israel is technically supposed to secure the entrances to the site, while the Waqf maintains security inside. However, over time, Israel has stepped up its security presence and operations inside the site -- especially during times of rising violence.
A key pillar of the generally accepted “status quo” was that the site would be fully open to both Muslims and non-Muslims for visits, but that only Muslims would be allowed to worship there. In recent years, however, Israeli Temple Mount activists who wish to secure greater Jewish access and rights to worship at the site have increasingly agitated for changes -- greatly angering and unsettling the Waqf and other Palestinian and Muslim leaders. Israel has allowed increasingly large groups of these Jewish activists to visit the site -- and to protect them, they have at times imposed major restrictions on which Muslims are allowed at the site. That includes sometimes barring all Muslims from the site, or barring all Muslim men under the age of 30 or even under the age of 50.
Q: What recent attempts have been made to solidify and maintain the status quo?
A: In 2014 and 2015, during periods of major unrest in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Jordanian King Abdullah held discussions, in part facilitated and encouraged by the United States, to reach informal “understandings” about administration of the site. Israel committed to refrain from limiting Muslim access based on age or gender, to keep provocative Jewish activists away from the site and to bar Knesset members from making visits. Jordan committed to keeping young Palestinians from entering the compound at night.
Prime Minister Netanyahu subsequently banned Members of Knesset from visiting the Temple Mount. Visits by right-wing Israeli politicians to the site have often sparked tensions -- most notably when then-Prime Ministerial-candidate Ariel Sharon made a well-publicized visit in 2000, one of the events that is viewed by some as sparking the Second Intifada.
But pressure from Temple Mount activists, including MK Yehuda Glick, who petitioned Israel’s High Court against the ban, caused the prime minister to order earlier this month that the ban be lifted for a “trial period” beginning July 23. Now with tensions rising, the ban has already been extended an additional week and, likely, beyond. Moreover, in the past month Israel twice imposed age-based limitations on Muslims accessing the site in order to protect visits by Jewish activists.
Q: What has the Palestinian response to the crisis looked like over the past week?
A: The Waqf and Palestinian leaders have reacted with outrage to the installment of metal detectors, which they allege create further restrictions on entry to their holy place. PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah has said that he rejects “Israel’s security pretexts in changing the status quo.” Waqf officials and Jerusalem’s mufti have urged worshippers not to enter the site while the metal detectors remain, and instead to conduct prayers in protest directly outside the complex. These massive prayer gatherings have been mostly non-violent, but some have resulted in some clashes between young Palestinians and police, with injuries on both sides -- including to well-known Palestinian leader Mustafa Barghouti, who was hit in the head with a rubber bullet. Further clashes between Palestinians and police have taken place in other Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.
Q: What might happen next?
A: The crisis may be headed to a new boiling point. The Waqf will be shutting down all of Jerusalem’s mosques this Friday (July 21) in an effort to encourage Muslims to flock to prayers outside Al-Aqsa. Israel is deploying thousands of extra police and putting the IDF on alert for possible confrontations in the West Bank.
It appears that Israel, the PA and Jordan do not want to see any further escalation -- but with so many tensions and complexities at play, events could get ahead of them. The Shin Bet and the IDF are reportedly urging the prime minister to consider a solution that would withdraw the metal detectors. Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan has defended the new security arrangement, but acknowledged that Netanyahu may “consider changing the decision.”
Jordan and Saudi Arabia certainly want to see the crisis resolved soon -- and have reportedly urged the US to get involved in order to help find a compromise. In a statement on Wednesday, the White House expressed concern over the situation -- and called on Israel and Jordan to “make a good faith effort to reduce tensions and to find a solution that assures public safety and the security of the site and maintains the status quo.”
Remember, for more information, we welcome you to join our emergency briefing this Monday with Ofer Zalzberg of the International Crisis Group.