Tisha B’Av, the day of remembrance for the destruction of the Temple, is an opportunity to understand why any change in the Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif compound is a revolution in itself.
1. Historical and Religious Background
The Temple Mount, known in Arabic as Haram al-Sharif, is the site of the First and Second Temples. Since the destruction of the Second Temple, Judaism abandoned the practice of animal sacrifices and shifted towards congregational prayer In the 7th century, Muslims established the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock on the site. According to Muslim belief, Prophet Muhammad’s night journey from Mecca concluded at Al-Aqsa. From the 12th century onwards, entry to the compound was restricted to non-Muslims. During the 19th century, a process of opening the Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif to non-Muslim visitors began, but prayer by non-Muslims was prohibited.
2. What is the Status Quo on the Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif?
The Status Quo was established by Israel in 1967. The decision was to leave the day-to-day management of the site in the hands of the Islamic Waqf and to allow only Muslim prayer. This decision was reinforced by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which prohibited Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif for halakhic reasons. The Status Quo enshrines the priority of Muslim prayer over any other activity on the compound, including Jewish visitation or ascent to the Mount. Both sides refrained from formulating the understandings in writing. The central challenge to the Status Quo began with the ascent of Temple Movements and their demand to pray on the Mount.
3. What is the connection between the Temple Mount and the Western Wall?
The decision to prevent non-Muslim prayer on the Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif led to the decision to restrict prayer exclusively for Muslims at the Western Wall and convert the wider area around it into a Jewish prayer zone. Until 1967 Muslims used to pray at the Western Wall as well. The Western Wall is part of the outer supporting wall of the Second Temple. In Muslim tradition, the Western Wall is called the “Hā’iṭ Al-Burāq,” named after the mythical beast Burāq, on which the Prophet Muhammad rode during his night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem and then tethered it to the Wall.
Immediately after the Six-Day War, Israel demolished the Mughrabi Quarter and evicted all its residents. The Western Wall Plaza was established on the ruins of this neighborhood. In doing so, the Israeli government effectively divided the site: the Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif under Muslim administration and the Western Wall for Jews.
4. Is freedom of religion and worship not fundamental rights?
In the State of Israel, there is no constitutional law that explicitly enshrines the right to prayer and religious freedom. The basis for religious freedom is based on Supreme Court rulings and in the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. Based on this law, some argue that Jews should be allowed to pray on the Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif as part of their religious practice.
Nevertheless, religious freedom is a fundamental right. However, this does not necessarily imply a violation of the religious freedom of others, as rights often conflict, and balancing between them is needed. The three main places of worship in Jerusalem are the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for Christians, the Western Wall for Jews, and the Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif for Muslims. Thus, these three monotheistic religions exercise their worship without impeding upon the religious sentiments and practices of others.
5. Why is prayer enforced for only one religion on the Temple Mount and at the Western Wall?
There are other holy sites where Israel restricts mixed prayer for Jews and Muslims. For example, starting from 1949, the Tomb of David on Mount Zion is designated for Jewish prayer only, despite its historical significance as a Muslim prayer site in the past. Many tombs of righteous individuals throughout the country were previously Muslim prayer locations and are now pilgrimage sites for Jews.
6. Are the Muslims continuously violating the status quo?
The Al-Aqsa Mosque is a site in constant use, so there is a need for renovations or arrangements of spaces for various and changing needs, such as adding prayer areas, opening study rooms (Madrasas), and so on. The main instance for which the Muslims are accused of violating the status quo is the destruction of antiquities on the Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif in the late ’90s. Without justifying the actions of the Waqf, one must look at the bigger picture. Then, the Waqf established a mosque, which, from their perspective, was done in response to the opening by the government of Israel of the Western Wall tunnels in 1996 and amid rumors that Israel would continue excavations. The Waqf’s concern was that Israel will excavate under Al-Aqsa. Nevertheless, a report by the Antiquities Authority found that the destruction of antiquities conducted while establishing the mosque were from Muslim Crusader and Byzantine periods and not from the Second Temple period. It should also be noted that the works were done during a period of low communication and coordination between Israel and the Waqf, which ultimately resulted in undesirable damage.
7. Why not allow Jewish prayer at a specific location on the Temple Mount?
Non-Muslim prayer on the Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif represents a radical change in the status quo. The Muslim world, especially in the Middle East, views any interference concerning Al-Aqsa as an attack on Islam, which could lead to destabilization in the Muslim world. Any alteration in the site, especially such as to divide a separate prayer area for Jews, is perceived as one that erases the Muslim identity of the Al-Aqsa compound.
Furthermore, many proponents of the Temple Mount movements do not hide their aspiration for a radical transformation in the religious arrangements on the site, including offering sacrifices, pushing out Muslims, and constructing the Third Temple. These movements seek a drastic change on the Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif that would affect not only the entire religious landscape but also Judaism itself. It’s essential to remember that after the destruction of the Second Temple, Judaism underwent significant changes, and the era of the Temple and animal sacrifices is no longer familiar to contemporary Judaism.
8. Is it true that Haram al-Sharif is sacred to Muslims due to the Jewish tradition that sanctified the Temple Mount?
As mentioned in the background information, Islam has a strong tradition regarding the Prophet Muhammad’s connection to the site. Additionally, in Islam, both David and Solomon are considered prophets, part of a sequence of prophets that begins with Abraham and culminates with Prophet Muhammad. From the perspective of Muslims, the site is revered because of its association with Prophet Muhammad, and its sacredness predates that, as they also view it as connected to their faith.
9. Why do the Palestinians claim that Israel is violating the status quo?
While the Muslim Waqf is the body responsible for the management of the Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif, access to the site is controlled by Israel. Palestinian claims revolve around Israel’s perceived encroachment on the Waqf’s authority, particularly regarding the increasing presence of Jewish prayers on the Mount and restrictions on Muslims’ entry (and prayer) at the site.
In recent years, Israeli authorities have allowed group prayers by Jews on the Temple Mount. At the same time, they impose limitations on the age of Muslim worshippers entering the compound. The restrictions and the growing prominence of Jewish prayers are seen by Palestinians as a blatant violation of the status quo.
10. Who decided that the Palestinians are responsible for the Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif?
The Palestinians are not responsible. The Muslim Waqf is the administrative body responsible for the management of the Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif, and the Jordanian government holds the official responsibility based on the peace agreements between Israel and Jordan in 1994. At the same time, the Al-Aqsa Mosque is a central landmark of the Palestinian national and Muslim identity. Therefore, any attempt to infringe upon the Muslim autonomy in the Haram al-Sharif faces strong resistance by Palestinians. This resistance was evident in the Magistrates’ Court Gate incident in 2017, violent events throughout the country in 2021, Israeli operations in Gaza, and a series of other challenging events.
11. Is it impossible to change the status quo?
Any agreement can be changed, but it must be based on the consent of both sides. Imposing changes through force or violence leads to conflicts, perpetuates the conflict, and is based on the power of the one enforcing the change. If and when Israel and the Muslim world decide together to change the status quo, then changes could occur.
12. Why does Israel need to consider Jordan’s opinion?
Following the peace agreement with Jordan, it was agreed that Jordan would have a special status on the Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif. This decision recognizes Jordan’s historical right to administer the site, even though Jordan does not have sovereignty rights over the area.
13. What are the international implications of unilaterally changing the status quo on the Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif?
Unilateral changes to the status quo on the Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif would have significant implications for the peace and the normalization of relations between Muslim countries and Israel. Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and others would find it challenging to justify maintaining peace or normalization with Israel if the holiest site under the country’s responsibility is affected or altered against their beliefs. It’s important to remember that over a billion and a half Muslims view any tampering with the Dome of the Rock as a declaration of war by Jews against Muslims, making it a powerful gift for Israel’s adversaries and opponents.