A photo of Knesset member Ariel Sharon in September 2000, surrounded by border police officers and a single journalist, who happens to be the author of this article, hangs in the offices of several senior officials of Shin Bet and the Jerusalem police force. Sharon and the officers are gathered at the entrance to the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif, as it is known to Muslims. Riots erupted in Jerusalem's Old City in reaction to Sharon's visit to the site. Some claim that his visit led to the eruption of the second intifada (2000-2005), but facts show that the visit was not the sole cause, or even the main cause, of the outbreak of violence. Nevertheless, his visit certainly provoked unrest in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Almost 17 years have since passed. On Aug. 29, two years after Knesset members were banned from visiting the Temple Mount for reasons of security, Yehuda Glick of Likud and Shuli Mualem of HaBayit HaYehudi ventured there, the first parliamentarians to do so during a trial period agreed to by the police and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Glick has spent decades fighting for the right of Jews to visit and pray on the Temple Mount, despite the opposition of most rabbis based on certain tenets of Jewish law. He almost paid for it with his life in a failed assassination attempt in October 2014. The perpetrator was an East Jerusalem Palestinian who was killed a day later by the Yamam counterterrorism unit when they tried to apprehend him at his home.
Glick told Al-Monitor that his motives are completely different from Sharon's. “Sharon wanted to demonstrate possession and sovereignty over the site, while I am going up there in total humility,” Glick said. “I'm very pleased to see Muslim worshippers in the mosques and Jewish visitors in the square. The average Muslim worshipper is not opposed to visits by Jews, but I understand them. This is the last Muslim stronghold in Israel.”
Yoav Horowitz, the chief of staff in the prime minister's office, had called Glick on Aug. 24 to inform him of the decision to allow Knesset members to visit the site one day a week. Glick was initially outraged by the restriction, but after a conversation with Netanyahu, he accepted what he called “clarification” by the prime minister. This was not lip service, he was told, nor was it an attempt to pre-empt a Supreme Court ruling on the issue expected to be issued in two weeks. Glick said that Netanyahu told him, “I want to restore the right of Knesset members to visit the site.”
Netanyahu's plan for the visits was accepted after lengthy discussions among the highest echelons of the police and Shin Bet about visits as a matter of principle. Some security officials argued that all visits by politicians should be banned, citing past experiences with Sharon and certainly with Glick, who is very much a red flag to Palestinians. One senior defense official told Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity that this position was criticized "internally and externally" for being what he termed “hysteria.”
The position argued by Yoram Halevy, the chief of the Jerusalem Police, ultimately won out. He contends that visits by Jews to the Temple Mount should actually be encouraged, since it would give the police easier access to the site for its own needs, as their presence would be required. It was also argued that as long as the visits were low key and avoided provocation, they would convey a sense of normalcy and quiet organizations dedicated to fighting for the site.
Halevy has advocated this position for many months now. Just last year, he initiated contacts with several right-wing Jewish organizations and activists. This has earned him their cooperation and kept them from engaging in provocative actions and incitement.
This decision to allow members of the Knesset to go up to the Temple Mount was made about one and a half months after the July 14 attack at the site that left three Israeli Arab perpetrators from the town of Umm al-Fahm and two border police officers stationed at the entrance dead. After the attack, Israel set up metal detectors at the entrances, but these were eventually removed in response to international pressure.
According to the same defense source, the basis for the decision and the planned overall policy is a desire to maintain several basic principles of the status quo, particularly a ban on Jewish prayer at the site. This was implemented by Defense Minister Moshe Dayan immediately after Israel captured the Old City in 1967 in the Six-Day War. The Israel Defense Force's chief rabbi, Shlomo Goren, vehemently opposed the decision and was quite upset about it.
The ban on Jewish prayer has often resulted in strange and extreme situations, like the arrest of people for just seeming to mumble or to sway in motions reminiscent of Jewish prayer. While the number of Jews attempting to pray on the Temple Mount despite the prohibition has been shrinking, the number of Jewish visitors to the site has actually increased. This year, their number is expected to reach 25,000, as opposed to just 14,000 in 2016.
The most significant measure in restoring calm and increasing visits by Jews, and by tourists in general, was the banning of activities by the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement. The faction has been fighting against Jewish visitors for years, under the banner “Al-Aqsa is at risk.” The movement's leader, Sheikh Raed Salah, has been calling for an all-out struggle to save the mosques on the Haram al-Sharif.
Members of the Mourabitoun (men) and the Mourabitat (women), organizations named after an early Muslim movement that fought heretics — “mourabit” means “defender” (of Islam’s holy places) — tailed Jewish visitors closely and tried to limit their movement, often by jostling and insulting them. These two groups and the Northern Branch, which supports the groups, were outlawed in November 2015, and after that, the mood at the site changed beyond recognition. On Aug. 15, Salah was arrested again on suspicion of inciting violence during a sermon he preached at the funeral of the three attackers from Umm al-Fahm.
Arab Knesset members from the predominantly Arab Joint List have reacted in a low-key manner to their Jewish colleagues' recent visit to the Temple Mount and have declined to go there. Knesset Member Ahmad Tibi told Al-Monitor, “This was an act of provocation by the right, for which the prime minister is responsible. The compound and the mosque are sites of Muslim prayer only. We own the site, and the mosque is ours.” According to him, by allowing Knesset members to ascend the mount, Netanyahu was sending an aggressive and threatening message to the Palestinians, Jordan and the international community, and in doing so, pressing for conflict.
That said, Al-Monitor has learned that at least two Arab members of the Knesset have approached the prime minister's office through a third party, hoping to get permission to go up to the Haram al-Sharif on Fridays, the Muslim day of prayer, beginning Sept. 1. Their request is under consideration.