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The Delicate Status Quo Around Jerusalem’s Holiest Site Is Unraveling

It took less than a week for Israel’s new far-right government to become embroiled in its first international incident.

The cause was a 15-minute visit on Tuesday by Israel’s newly inaugurated national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir to Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, home to the holiest site in Judaism, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, and the third-holiest site in Islam, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, or Haram al-Sharif. Ben-Gvir did not use his visit to pray on the site, something that is forbidden to Jews by religious law, but which he and others have long advocated for.

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Still, the move was seen as a deliberate provocation—one that risks upending the delicate status quo in one of the most volatile holy sites in the Middle East. The visit invited condemnation from Palestinians and Israel’s international allies alike and even appeared to prompt the postponement of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s long-coveted trip to the United Arab Emirates, which condemned Ben-Gvir’s visit as a “serious and provocative violation.” The United Nations Security Council is poised to convene an emergency session to discuss the incident as early as this week.

To understand why Ben-Gvir’s visit has courted so much controversy, it first helps to understand the tenuous status quo on the holy site, why Jews are not permitted to pray there, and its role in sparking past—and, if the Israeli government is not careful, future—violence.

What is the status quo around the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif?

An arrangement was reached in the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel took control over East Jerusalem (including the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif) and the West Bank. Under an agreement with neighboring Jordan, which continues its historical custodianship of the holy site, non-Muslims are permitted to visit. Only Muslims, however, are allowed to pray there.

This status quo has not undermined Jewish religious practices. According to Jewish law, it is prohibited for Jews to set foot on the site, much less pray there, in part because the site is too sacred to be tread on; others argue that those who wish to visit must undergo certain religious preparations before doing so. But Israelis are more divided than rabbinic authorities on this issue, and more extreme nationalist voices such as Ben-Gvir have been calling for greater Jewish access to the site, including the right to pray there.

Has the Israeli government’s position changed?

In the past, Netanyahu’s position on the holy site has been described as: “Muslims pray on the Temple Mount; non-Muslims visit the Temple Mount.” But recent trends suggest that the Israeli government’s commitment to maintaining the status quo is faltering. As the once-fringe campaign for Jewish prayer on the holy site becomes more mainstream, Israeli police have reportedly begun quietly easing restrictions on Jewish prayer in the compound. Some have even been seen accompanying prayer groups on the site.

But the tensions over the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, much like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more broadly, is best understood not as a religious conflict, but a territorial one. The holy site has become a proxy for who controls Jerusalem (the eastern part of which remains occupied under international law and which both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital) and of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict writ large.

“Ben-Gvir’s visit there had absolutely nothing to do with piety,” says Seidemann. “It had everything to do with sticking it to the Arabs and the Palestinians and showing them who’s boss and courting his base.”

How do Palestinians see this?

Palestinians regard Al Aqsa and the golden Dome of the Rock situated beside it as a symbol of Palestinian identity as well as a reminder of their aspiration for a capital in East Jerusalem in a future state.

While Ben-Gvir’s decision to visit the site was not necessarily surprising to Palestinians, for whom Ben-Gvir is widely seen as a Jewish supremacist and provocateur, it is nonetheless indicative of a larger pattern of incitement against Palestinians in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

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“Ben-Gvir has said explicitly that his priority is to change the status quo arrangement on the holy sites in Jerusalem, so when he goes up to visit, we can only assume that it is a nod in that direction, that it is with that goal in mind,” says Khaled Elgindy, the director of the Middle East Institute’s Palestine and Israeli-Palestinian affairs program. The worst-case scenario, he adds, is if Ben-Gvir succeeds in normalizing such actions to the point that they are no longer seen as a big deal. “It’s just like the settlements,” Elgindy says, referencing the seizure of Palestinian land for Israeli settlement in the occupied territories. “The whole settlement enterprise didn’t overnight become 700,000 settlers. It was built brick by brick, house by house, road by road. That’s how the erosion of the status quo is happening.”

What happens next?

The Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif has long been regarded as a tinderbox, and with good reason. “Virtually every outbreak of violence in Jerusalem that I can think of erupted in some way as a result of a real or perceived threat to the viability of the sacred space of Al Aqsa,” says Seideman. The visit by then-Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the site in 2000 is remembered as the trigger for the second Palestinian uprising, or intifada, that lasted for several years. More recent violence such as the 11-day conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas was preceded by an Israeli police raid on Al Aqsa during the holy month of Ramadan. “It is a detonator,” says Seidemann.

Even if Netanyahu wanted to calm tensions and restore the status quo, it’s no longer clear if he can. Unlike in previous governments, Netanyahu is now beholden to his more far-right partners to keep his nascent government alive. Netanyahu, who is the subject of a years-long and unresolved corruption trial, won his electoral mandate last year with the support of Ben-Gvir and other far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties. Should he lose their support, he could also lose power. This incident has proven that Netanyahu may be in the top office, but he is not the only one in power.

“What is new in this situation is the unapologetic assertion of ultra-national triumphalism,” says Seidemann. “That it is coming from within the government, that is taking place with the knowledge and the consent of Netanyahu, and it’s coming against the backdrop of hopelessness on the Palestinian side and a tinderbox in the West Bank. What could possibly go wrong?”