Tampering with Al-Aqsa status a catastrophe waiting to happen
It took Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett less than 24 hours to backtrack on a highly controversial and dangerous statement, in which he defended Jewish freedom of worship at what Israelis call the Temple Mount — the site of the Noble Sanctuary, with Al-Aqsa Mosque at its center, which is the third-holiest place of worship for Muslims. On Monday morning, Bennett’s office said “there is no change in the status quo.” It went on to say that Bennett’s statement on Sunday underlined the right of Jews to visit, rather than to pray at, the Temple Mount, as stated in the status quo agreement between Jordan and Israel.
On Sunday, following the storming of Al-Aqsa by hundreds of Jewish extremists under heavy police protection — when Muslim worshipers were forced to leave the mosque — Bennett’s office issued a statement that said: “The Prime Minister thanked the Public Security Minister and the Israel Police Inspector General for managing the events on the Temple Mount with responsibility and consideration, while maintaining freedom of worship for Jews on the Mount.”
Since the occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, Israel has loosely observed the status quo agreement that recognized Jordan’s special role with regard to Muslim holy sites in the city and allowed Jews to visit the Noble Sanctuary compound but not to pray there. But under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jewish extremists were permitted to break into the compound under police protection and provoke clashes with Muslim worshipers. As recently as May, during the holy month of Ramadan, such incursions reached unprecedented levels, with police storming the mosque itself and desecrating it. This incident led to an 11-day military assault on the Gaza Strip after Palestinian groups responded by firing missiles toward Israeli cities and settlements.
Like Netanyahu, Bennett is an extremist when it comes to encouraging Jewish religious groups, including far-right settler organizations, to breach Al-Aqsa compound and provoke clashes with Palestinians in the city. But he is the first sitting premier to openly call for freedom of worship for Jews at Al-Aqsa, the site where Jews believe a Jewish temple stood almost 2,000 years ago. What was dangerous about Sunday’s incursion was the fact that Jewish groups were allowed to perform Talmudic prayers openly and without interference from the Israeli police.
Bennett is the first sitting Israeli premier to openly call for freedom of worship for Jews at Al-Aqsa.
This, coupled with Bennett’s initial statement, sent shockwaves across the borders to Jordan and Egypt, in addition to the Palestinian Authority. All three condemned Sunday’s incursion and Bennett’s statement. Jordan’s Foreign Ministry called on Israel to respect the historical and legal status of Al-Aqsa Mosque, while adding that the entire compound is an exclusive place of prayer for Muslims.
However, Bennett’s swift backtracking came not in response to Palestinian and Arab government denouncements, but as a result of the strong reaction of his coalition partner, the United Arab List (UAL), led by Mansour Abbas, which issued a statement saying that “the people of the UAL and the activists of the Islamic Movement will defend the sanctity of Al-Aqsa Mosque with their bodies.” Bennett’s shaky coalition would have collapsed had he not averted this crisis.
Bennett’s initial statement came two days before Muslims marked the Eid Al-Adha feast and a day before King Abdullah met US President Joe Biden at the White House. Amman had clashed with Netanyahu numerous times over Al-Aqsa incursions and his departure signaled the possibility of a reset in Jordan-Israel ties.
The reality is that, like Netanyahu, Bennett relies on the support of religious extremists, especially the settlers. The settler groups are the ones financing campaigns to evict Palestinians from the East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan and are the ones leading the incursions of Al-Aqsa. Some openly call for the destruction of Al-Aqsa Mosque so that a Jewish temple can be built in its place. Jordan’s Waqf, which is responsible for the management and protection of Al-Aqsa, has repeatedly warned that Israel wants to divide the Noble Sanctuary in order to allow Jewish worshipers to pray there, just as it did with the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron. That mosque was the site of a horrific massacre of Muslim worshipers by a Jewish extremist in 1994.
In turn, Al-Aqsa triggered the second Palestinian intifada in 2000 following the provocative visit by Likud leader Ariel Sharon to the compound. An extremist had set fire to part of the mosque in 1969, resulting in heavy damage. Israel has also been carrying out archaeological excavations under Al-Aqsa and experts have warned of structural damage to the building.
Even though Bennett has backed down for now, the reality is that Israel will continue to disregard the status quo agreement and allow Jewish groups to storm the site. At some point, there will be a catastrophic incident that results in another intifada or even a regional war. The world needs to put limits on Israeli violations before such a catastrophe occurs.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010