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Will waqf expansion strengthen Jordan’s control of Jerusalem holy sites?

The Jerusalem Waqf Council is now witnessing changes after years of no activity. With the change of names and an increase in the number of representatives, is the council now more or less representative of the Palestinians?
Israeli policemen check the ID of an employee before he enters Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem on March 23, 2020, due to its closure following the Waqf decision in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

After years of the Jerusalem Waqf Council being dormant with very few changes occurring, a more vibrant council is emerging with the Jordanian government taking a more active role in making changes to ensure the council is more reflective of Palestinians in Jerusalem.

Established after 1967, the council is usually composed of about 11 Islamic religious personalities. Numbers would sometimes change if members passed away or were unable to fulfill their duties. But in February 2019, the Jordanian government took the previously unprecedented move of widening the membership and adding nonreligious political local leaders and experts to the council. The Jordanian government attempted to avoid political appointees so as not to be accused of interfering in local Palestinian politics.

The council was expanded to 19 with businessmen, academics, journalists and lawyers added, making the Jerusalem Waqf Council much more representative of the people of Jerusalem. Without local elections taking place in east Jerusalem, the council became a de facto representative body for Palestinian Jerusalemites.

The move toward a more representative council witnessed yet another change on March 9, 2021. A new waqf council was announced with yet another expansion from 19 to 23 members. The Jordanian Waqf Ministry will recommend the names, and the Jordanian Cabinet must approve. Some in the Israeli media claim that the new council is less PLO and more Jordanian, but the reality doesn’t necessarily back this claim.

Two former PLO and Palestinian National Authority officials were removed, but their replacements were also from within the Palestinian national movement. Former Fatah Revolutionary Council member Hatem Abdel Qader and former Minister of Trade Mazen Sinokrot were removed. Abdel Qader, who has been vocally supportive of Nasser Al Kidwa and his new list with Fadwa Barghouti, the wife of Marwan Barghouti, as its No. 2, can be seen as a nod to President Mahmoud Abbas and not against him.

The removal of businessman Sinokrot, although unexplained, hardly represents a change since Sinokrot himself told Al-Monitor he is independent. “I am extremely proud of the work we have done. As an independent Palestinian, I can say with full confidence that I and all others are totally supportive of the Hashemite custodianship of the holy places in Jerusalem.” 

Sinokrot, who has been in the council for two terms, spoke about the changes the council has implemented. “I am quite satisfied with the efforts we have made while I was in the council during its last two rounds. We have improved the Waqf Council’s effectiveness and streamlined its organizational operative work.”

While it is difficult to put Palestinians in political categories, at least one of the newly appointed members, Yousef Dajani — who is the former head of the East Jerusalem Electric company, a bastion of Palestinian nationalism — is considered a PLO man.

A senior Jordanian source familiar with the Waqf Council told Al-Monitor it is hard to speak about influential Jerusalemites who do not have political backgrounds and affiliations. “They all grew up in crisis under occupation; the council function, as part of the status quo, is supervisory and supportive of the waqf affairs. It is not a parliament, it is not designed to be so and can never replace Palestinian political representation," the source explained. "The size of the council also must reflect the size of waqf properties, which form more than 80% of the historic properties in the Old City and its surroundings. These properties are rented to businessmen, doctors, lawyers, churches, cemeteries, NGOs and shopkeepers. A dynamic council can help to deal with the diversity of these interests," the Jordanian source added.     

The new board does include two Jordanian officials, which could explain the claim of the new council being tilted toward Amman. The new members are Wasfi Kailani, director of the Hashemite Fund for the Reconstruction of Al-Aqsa Mosque, and Abdel Sattar Mohammad Qudda, director of Al-Aqsa affairs in the Jordanian Ministry of Waqf.  A number of other additions worthy of mention include engineer Bassam al-Hallaq, chief engineer of the rebuilding efforts of Al-Aqsa Mosque, and Nazeeh Alami, the waqf lawyer who will provide much-needed legal advice during the sensitive deliberations of the council.

But Khalil Assali, editor of the Jerusalem-centric website Akhbarelbalad and a member of the council for the second round, tells Al-Monitor the two new Jordanian officials will actually help. “Having those two key officials on the board of the Jerusalem Waqf will give the council badly needed teeth to operate in a very difficult and sensitive situation,” he said. He said he hopes the new council will help improve work in areas such as tourism, communications, and engagement with the local and international public.

Assali’s comment refers to the fact that since the start of the second intifada, Israel has succeeded in diverting all tourists who come to visit the Islamic shrine to the Mograbi gate, which Israeli security has sole control over. All other gates to Al-Aqsa Mosque have dual waqf guards and Israeli security. Officials of the waqf are hoping to be able to convince tourists to use the regular Bab al-Sislieh gate and pay a symbolic entrance fee. They see this as a way of reinstating their control over the site, which radical Israeli groups are saying should somehow be shared or worse yet destroyed and a Jewish temple be built in its place.

A new waqf council that will be more effective and efficient will certainly help preserve and improve the ability of the Jordanian government to better manage Islam’s holiest site.

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