US calls on Israel to expand space for egalitarian prayer in Jerusalem

Middle East Monitor  /  April 17, 2023

The US President Joe Biden’s administration yesterday called on Israel to expand the space designated for egalitarian prayer at the Buraq Wall in Jerusalem (referred to in Israel as the Western Wall).

“I visited the Western Wall for the first time today and met with Rabbi of the Wall Shmuel Rabinowitz. I reiterated US support for implementation of the 2016 Western Wall agreement to expand the egalitarian space at the Wall,” said US Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, Rashad Hussain, on Twitter.

The deal was initially put forward by a previous Netanyahu government with broad support from across the political and religious spectrum in 2017. However, Netanyahu later suspended its implementation after pressure from after the Haredi Orthodox United Torah Judaism party and the Sephardi Orthodox Shas party, to scrap the agreement, including threatening to leave the coalition government.

The Western Wall is a sacred place of prayer for Jews, for whom the Temple Mount is their most sacred site. According to Haaretz, members of the previous ruling Bennett-Lapid coalition pledged to implement the deal, but cancelled the plans due to tension from their own Orthodox coalition partners, further dragging out a point of contention with Diaspora Jewry.

The US Ambassador’s public statement comes after Israel’s attack on Christian monks, clerics and other worshippers participating in the Holy Saturday celebrations in occupied Jerusalem as “violations” of international law.

Hussain also visited Al Aqsa Mosque for Friday prayers and met with the Director of Jerusalem Waqf Department, Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib, where the US Office of Palestinian Affairs says they “discussed developments during Ramadan and reiterated the US commitment to the status quo in Jerusalem”.

This year, the sensitivity around religious festivals in the Old City has been particularly high, with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the Jewish Passover holiday and Easter coinciding at a time of heightened Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

Jordan’s ruling Hashemite family has custodianship of the Muslim and Christian sites and appoints members of the Waqf institution, who oversees the site.

Israel captured the site in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it with the rest of East Jerusalem and adjoining parts of the West Bank in a move not recognised internationally.