Mondoweiss / April 7, 2023
Temple Movement activists are trying to enter the Aqsa compound to slaughter goats and challenge the Muslim presence in the holy site. Palestinian worshippers remaining in the mosque during Ramadan are resisting.
Around midnight Tuesday and again on Wednesday night, Israeli police broke into Al-Aqsa Mosque, throwing stun grenades, wielding batons, and using rubber bullets to arrest Palestinians who they charged had “barricaded” themselves behind the mosque’s doors. During Ramadan, many Palestinians remain overnight in the mosque following evening prayers to practice ‘Itikaf, when Muslim worshipers seclude themselves overnight in the mosque to pray and devote themselves to worship. This year, they also aimed to prevent Temple Movement activists from following through on their efforts—in contravention of the status quo—to enter the compound and slaughter goats in observance of Passover.
According to a Monday Haaretz article, “For Temple Mount activists, the Passover sacrifice (korban Pesach) is the most important of all holiday commandments and can only be done on the Temple Mount on Passover Eve.” Haaretz reported that Jewish activists, members of the Temple Mount Faithful, had done “all they could to provoke the Palestinians into a response. They ran ads in Arabic calling on [Jerusalem’s] Muslim Quarter residents to rent them a hiding place for the sacrificial goats, and distributed messages in Hebrew offering payment to anyone arrested while attempting to perform the Passover sacrifice.”
Not surprisingly, in their coverage of the Al-Aqsa incursions, mainline media haven’t mentioned the Jewish activists’ provocations. Surely reporters were asking themselves: “Would Americans believe—and how could we possibly explain in a three-minute segment or a few paragraphs—that the incident was caused by a small group of far-right religious Zealots who want to re-establish the practice of Old Testament sacrificial system; that the State of Israel continues to excuse them; and that increasingly the possibility of a just resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian divide depends on decisions made by a new Israeli government increasingly shaped by these Zealots?” That, and the media’s practice, in their unbalanced, pro-Israel reporting, to find fault with the Palestinians.
Who are these Jewish activists ?
An April 2022 report from the Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU) described three of the more extremist Temple Mount groups. The Temple Institute, funded by the Israeli government, is “actively working towards building a temple in the Noble Sanctuary [Al-Haram al-Sharif compound],” according to the IMEU, “including making plans with an architect, training priests and making vessels for ritual use in temple ceremonies, and indoctrinating Israeli schoolchildren with the belief that building a temple in the Noble Sanctuary is a religious and national imperative.”
The IMEU reported that The Temple Mount and Land of Israel Faithful Movement, a smaller group, “is more open about their desire to remove Dome of the Rock shrine and Al-Aqsa Mosque.” According to its website, “The goal of the Temple Mount and Land of Israel Faithful Movement is the building of the Third Temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in our lifetime in accordance with the Word of G-d and all the Hebrew prophets and the liberation of the Temple Mount from Arab (Islamic) occupation so that it may be consecrated to the Name of G-d.”
Return to the Mount is “one of the most extreme and dangerous Temple Mount groups,” according to the IMEU. The IMEU charges that the group “engages in provocations such as offering cash rewards to any Jew who sacrifices an animal in the Noble Sanctuary or gets arrested trying to do so. Members also disguise themselves as Muslims to enter the [compound] and pray.” Monday’s Haaretz reported the arrest of Rafael Morris, head of Return to the Mount, writing that Morris “is arrested almost every year before Passover eve to prevent him from ascending the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa Compound with a goat for sacrifice.”
Before Israel occupied Jerusalem in 1967, Jewish rabbinic law—going back centuries and prohibiting Jews from entering the Temple Mount—was largely observed. But following the war, settler activists called for a reconsideration of the ban, insisting that Jews shouldn’t be restricted from praying on the compound. Some extremists began to call for destroying the Islamic sites and building the Third Temple.
In a letter published in Jewish Currents, Joshua Leifer writes about Israel’s Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir and the growing influence of these religious Zionists in the new Israeli government. Ben-Gvir is head of the Jewish Power Party, the platform of which includes “restoring sovereignty and ownership over the Temple Mount” and “settling all parts of the Land of Israel.” Describing Ben-Gvir’s January visit to Haram Al-Sharif compound, Leifer writes that he “intended to send a message: He and his party of messianic religious nationalists hope to replace the Dome of the Rock with the Third Temple, and they were openly daring Palestinian protesters and resistance groups to stop him.”
Since taking office, Ben-Gvir has refused to say whether he intends to use his position to alter the status quo that has governed worship and other activities on the compound since 1967.
What is the status quo?
The Status Quo on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount compound is an informal agreement reached between Israel and Jordan following the 1967 war. According to the Status Quo (the “Existing Condition” in Hebrew), the Islamic Waqf administers the site and is responsible for its security, while Israel sees to the security and administration of the Western Wall and surrounding plaza. Since 1967, the Israeli government has accepted the division of worship sites: Haram Al-Sharif for Muslims; the Western Wall and the surrounding plaza for Jews.
In a nine-minute video released Tuesday, Ir Amim, Emek Shaveh and Peace Now—three Israeli NGOs—define the status quo, describe its history, and illuminate its troubling erosion. According to the video, A Tour of the Temple Mount/Al-Haram al-Sharif, maintaining the status quo’s “delicate arrangement… is an integral component in the relations between Jews and Muslims, between Israelis and Palestinians living under occupation, and between Israel and Arab countries, especially Jordan, where custodianship over the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif was even recognized in the 1994 Israel-Jordan Peace Agreement.”
The video continues, “The current government, preeminently extreme in its approach to the Temple Mount/Al-Haram al-Sharif, has committed to maintaining the status quo in its Guiding Principles, in its commitment published during the Aqaba Conference and, recently also, in the talks that took place in Sharm el-Sheikh.”
Still, because Israeli authorities have increasingly allowed extremist groups to pray on the compound, the Israeli NGOs charge, “The State of Israel has therefore violated both parts of the status quo: [the state] doesn’t allow for routine Muslim worship and permits Jewish worship.”
In January, Mairav Zonszein, Senior Analyst Israel-Palestine at the International Crisis Group, pointed to “the slow and steady erosion of the Jewish prayer ban” in her report, What’s at Stake at Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade? “The politicization of the Temple Mount issue by Likud politicians over the last decade, along with the growing popularity of the religious Zionist camp in Israel, has made visiting the site a major part of the right-wing agenda in Israel.”
She continued, “Jewish access to and prayer on the Temple Mount used to be a fringe phenomenon. Today, however, it has become relatively normalized. Increasingly, Jews pray at the site with varying degrees of openness (sometimes whispering, sometimes vocally, sometimes swaying or bowing) in direct violation of the Status Quo… Such practices undermine the delicate Status Quo; they are also a way for a small group of right-wing Israelis to use a hot-button religious issue to advance a maximalist political agenda in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.”
One has to ask: When will mainstream media cover the dangerous provocations behind the recent clashes on Al-Haram al-Sharif ?
Jeff Wright is an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)