By Nadav Shragai
(Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs via JNS) The status quo on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, as formulated by Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan in 1967, no longer exists. Today, the reality on the mount is very different from what it was 55, 40, or 30 years ago.
One of the explanations the Palestinians often give for the recurrent riots and violence on the mount is that Israel is violating and altering the status quo in ways that favor Israel and the Jewish side and harm Muslims. They call this an “assault on Al-Aqsa,” an “invasion of Al-Aqsa” and, most frequently of all, proclaim that “Al-Aqsa is in danger.”
Yet, a careful look at the changes on the mount during the 55 years since the Six-Day War reveals an opposite picture. The changes in the 1967 status quo, and in the arrangements that were made in its light, have greatly improved the Muslims’ status and hold on the Temple Mount. At the same time, the new reality has eroded the status of Jews and Israel there.
First, it is worth looking at the main features of the status quo put in place in 1967.
The Dayan status quo: main features
1. The Waqf, a branch of Jordan’s Ministry of Awqaf Islamic Affairs and Holy Places, would continue to administer the site and would be responsible for the religious and civil arrangements there.
2. Jews would not be allowed to pray on the Temple Mount, but would be able to visit it. This freedom of access was eventually anchored in Israel’s Law on the Preservation of the Holy Places.
3. The Israel Police and the Israeli Security Agency (Shin Bet) would be in charge of security for the sacred compound, including its walls and gates.
4. Israeli sovereignty and law would be applied to the Temple Mount, as it was to the other parts of Jerusalem after the Six-Day War (a measure that was approved more than once by the Israeli Supreme Court).
5. The display of flags of any kind on the Temple Mount would be prohibited.
6. The essence of the arrangement, which was informal and remained unwritten, was to freeze the existing situation and create an unofficial division of the prayer areas between Muslims and Jews, whereby Muslims would pray on the mount and Jews at the Western Wall—the retaining wall of the Temple Mount compound, which derives its holiness from the mount and beside which Jews have prayed for centuries.
The main changes to the status quo since 1967—four new mosques
1. The Dome of the Rock: This structure, which originally was not built as a mosque, was used as such by Muslims in the 1970s and 1980s, mainly on Fridays and mainly by Muslim women.
2. The El-Marwani mosque: In Solomon’s Stables, located underground on the southeastern part of the mount, the Waqf and the Northern Branch of the Israeli Islamic Movement established another mosque, the largest ever in the Temple Mount compound. This was done without authorization, to the severe detriment of the antiquities there.
3. The “Ancient Al-Aqsa” mosque: Under the existing mosque, in 1998 yet another mosque, “Ancient Al-Aqsa,” was established without authorization.
4. At the Golden Gate (or Gate of Mercy): A prayer area was set up near the gate in 2019 without authorization, which eventually became a mosque.
5. Paving: Considerable parts of the Temple Mount plaza were paved over the years, and they too serve as prayer areas for Muslims.
The expansion of the Muslims’ prayer areas and the establishment of additional mosques on the mount stemmed from a new definition of the Temple Mount compound by the Muslims, who began to refer to all of it as “Al-Aqsa” and to regard the entire mount as one great mosque. They began to call the Al-Aqsa mosque itself, which is on the mount’s southern edge, “Al-Jamia al-Kibli”—the Mosque of the Direction of Prayer (in the direction of Mecca, signifying Jerusalem was Muslims’ first direction of prayer).
Until the Six-Day War the southern mosque was defined differently from the other parts of the compound, and was called by its real name, Al-Aqsa; the compound as a whole was called “al-Haram al-Sharif” (the Holy and Noble Place). But after the Six-Day War—as the Jewish-Muslim dispute over the mount intensified—the situation gradually changed and the Muslims applied the name “Al-Aqsa” to the whole compound, with all its buildings, streets and walls.
Restriction of Jewish visits to the mount
In the first decade after the Six-Day War, Jews were allowed to enter the mount through, among other openings, the Chain Gate and the Cotton Merchants’ Gate. But the Muslims closed these two gates to Jews, and today Jews can enter only through the Mughrabi Gate, which is located at the center of the Western Wall (on its upper level). All the mount’s other gates are open to Muslims only.
For two decades after the Six-Day War, Jews’ visiting hours on the mount were more flexible, less formal and included more hours of the day. In past years, Jews were also allowed to visit all parts of the mount, even the interior of the mosques, and could visit on Shabbat.
Today, Jews’ visits to the mount are limited to Sunday through Thursday, three and a half hours in the morning and another hour in the afternoon. On Shabbat, they cannot visit at all, and visits inside the mosques also are not permitted. For religious Jews, who are now most of the Jewish visitors to the mount (and sometimes also for secular Jews), certain fixed routes and areas were established. In the past, these visits were accompanied by police officers and Waqf personnel; today they are accompanied by police officers only.
Limiting the rule of Israeli law
In the wake of the Six-Day War, Israeli law was extended to the mount. Israel’s Antiquities Law was enforced much more effectively, with careful supervision. For several years Israel’s Planning and Building Law was also partially enforced on the mount, and overseers from the Municipal Inspection Division worked there.
The situation has been different, however, for many years. Overseers from the Jerusalem Municipality are not allowed to enter the mount today. The Israel Antiquities Authority operates there in coordination with the Waqf and with police mediation. Sometimes the supervision is tighter, sometimes looser. As Shuka Dorfman, who was director-general of the IAA for 14 years, stated in his 2014 book “Mitachat l’Pnei Hashetach“ (Under the Surface):
“For years the chief decision-makers in the Israeli government did not deal appropriately with violations of the law and the enforcement of Israeli sovereignty on the Temple Mount…. This situation had major consequences for the Israel Antiquities Authority’s work on the mount. The authority is indeed responsible for safeguarding the Temple Mount’s antiquities, but unlike at other ancient sites, where it operates according to the law, precisely at the most important site for the Jewish world, it does its work in a limited way only.”
The latest outcome of this loose supervision is that during the recent riots on the mount, dozens of ancient shards and pieces of masonry were used as obstacles against police. Over the years, countless reports, official and unofficial, have highlighted the damage to antiquities on the mount from all eras. Foremost among these, of course, was the use of bulldozers to excavate tons of relic-rich earth.
Upgrading Jordan’s status on the mount
Originally, the status quo gave Jordan a role in administering the Temple Mount through the mechanism of the Waqf, which, as noted, is an arm of the Jordanian Ministry of Awqaf Islamic Affairs and Holy Places. But from the beginning of the 21st century, Jordan’s role on the mount greatly expanded. Formerly confined to managing religious affairs there and paying the salaries of Waqf employees, Jordan now influences Israeli policy on the mount, and even regarding its walls and surroundings.
The first public acknowledgment of Jordan’s special status on the mount was made in the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty. An article of this document gave Jordan precedence on the mount over other Arab actors whenever a comprehensive, permanent settlement is reached. In practice, for various reasons—including common security interests and an attempt to lessen the influence of radical Islamic elements such as the Northern Branch of the Israeli Islamic Movement—Israel decided to upgrade Jordan’s status on the mount even before a permanent settlement is reached.
Thus, Jordan was given the task of renovating the mount’s southern and eastern walls when cracks and bulges appeared in them. Israel also allowed Jordan to veto a permanent replacement for the temporary wooden Mughrabi Bridge (which leads to the Mughrabi Gate), which was built after weather conditions and a mild earthquake caused the collapse of a dirt ramp leading to the gate.
Israel has also refrained for years, in the face of a Jordanian veto, from clearing out building debris and trash from behind tin sheets along the “little Western Wall” (the Western Wall’s continuation into the Muslim Quarter). In one instance, a discussion of the Temple Mount issue in the Knesset plenum was even deferred after a Jordanian request.
The close coordination with Jordan on Temple Mount matters sometimes involves security as well—such as deciding whether Israeli security forces will enter the mosques when riots originate therein, to seize stockpiles of rocks and iron bars or to make arrests. In recent years, the number of Waqf workers and guards funded and maintained by Jordan on the mount has grown by hundreds.
Ending the prohibition on flags on the mount
The rule against displaying flags on the mount goes back to 1967. Yet, in practice, the only flags not displayed there are Israeli ones. The Palestinian Authority, PLO, Hamas and Hizb al-Tahrir flags can often be seen there, sometimes even Islamic State flags, and the Israel Police take no real action. Yet, many years ago even a small flag on the desk of an officer at the Temple Mount police station was removed following Muslim protest. After riots on the mount last month, a PLO flag was flown for days on the Dome of the Rock itself.
Violence, incitement and terror on the mount
For years, the Muslim side has been accusing Israel of plotting to destroy the mosques on the Temple Mount and build the Jewish Temple in their place. These baseless libels have taken many forms. They were detailed in my book “The ‘Al-Aksa Is in Danger’ Libel: The History of a Lie,” which the Jerusalem Center published in 2012.
In recent years, this libel has gone beyond lies and incitement to outbreaks of terrorism and violence, generating hundreds of attacks and attempted attacks over the years. That process is the focus of another book, “Teror Al-Aqsa—m’Alila l’Dam” (“Al-Aqsa Terror—From Libel to Blood”), that I wrote a year and a half ago.
Along with many terror attacks in Israel and in Judea and Samaria (including shootings, vehicular assaults, stabbings and the throwing of countless stones and fire bombs), and attempted attacks on the Temple Mount itself—most of them thwarted riots organized on the mount have included attempts to harm police officers, Jewish visitors, and even Jewish—worshippers at the Western Wall.
This onslaught of violence—which turns a place sacred to Judaism and Islam into an arena, a target, a pretext for violence and terror and a means to an end—is part of the ongoing assault on the status quo to which Muslims pay lip service.
Quiet Jewish prayer on the eastern Temple Mount
After a succession of changes to the status quo by the Muslim side in the past 50 years, a change was also made on the Jewish side. For several years, on the eastern flank of the Temple Mount, with the permission and under the eyes of the police, Jews have been praying, sometimes in a quorum (but without prayer shawls, phylacteries, or prayer books). These are referred to as “non-demonstrative” prayers, usually done in low voices or from texts uploaded to cell phones.
For years, Dayan’s original status quo had banned Jewish prayer on the mount, but allowed Jews to visit. Indeed, for a long time the Jewish side exercised that right only to a very limited extent, leading Muslims to think Israel had forgone it completely. For many years, both Haredi and national-religious rabbis prohibited Jews from entering the mount, whether for prayer or visitation, on the basis of halacha (Jewish religious law).
For the police, whose main concern was quiet on the mount, that stance was convenient, even ideal. Thus, the last prerogative the State of Israel left to Jews on the mount—the ability to visit it—became largely theoretical. Few Jews ascended, mainly secular Jews for tourism purposes. It was not because of Muslim opposition at that time but because of the halachic ban that so few Jews ascended the mount.
How, then, did the reality change to the point that Jews now pray on its eastern side?
This development stems from an increase of about 1,000 percent in the number of Jews who visit the Temple Mount each year. If a decade ago about 4,000 Jews visited the site annually, today that number is approaching 40,000.
This surge occurred amid a growing demand by the Jewish public to visit its holy places, as well as a change in the rabbinical stance on Jews entering the mount: today close to a thousand rabbis permit it. The new state of affairs differs fundamentally from the sweeping prohibition by religious-Zionist and Haredi rabbis in the first three decades after the Six-Day War.
The spike in the number of Jewish visitors also reflects a change in the stance of the police, who have enabled and even encouraged (while Gilad Erdan was internal security minister) more visits to the mount by Jews. For several years the police have also succeeded to keep out the vocal and threatening Muslim men and women of the Murabitun and the Murabitat, offshoots of the illegal Northern Branch of the Israeli Islamic Movement that harass Jewish visitors to the mount.
When the Israeli Supreme Court was indirectly asked about allowing more Jews to visit the mount, it responded favorably. In 2017, attorney Iris Edri petitioned the court in the name of religious Jewish visitors to the mount. They complained of discrimination compared to nonreligious visitors, due to being required to stand in a separate line and undergo various checks. Although the judges rejected the petition, for the first time they addressed the growing quantity of Jewish visitors to the mount, stating that “the numbers of Israelis visiting the Temple Mount in recent years speak for themselves, and prove the success of the police in implementing the right of access to the mount.”
This reference to “success” demonstrates that, even though the Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected petitions on Jews’ right to pray on the mount, in a broader sense, it views the right of access and visitation there positively and sees it as a worthy objective.
Nadav Shragai is a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as a journalist and commentator at Ha’aretz between 1983 and 2009, is currently a journalist and commentator at Israel Hayom and has documented the dispute over Jerusalem for 3o years.
Caption: A Jewish group tours the Temple Mount under police supervision. Note the ‘Al-Quds’ caption claiming they were “breaking into the Al-Aqsa Mosque” on the “so-called Passover holiday.” Source: Al-Quds.