Internationalize the Temple Mount

During his weekly lesson from the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount following the jihadi beheading of French school teacher, Samuel Paty, Palestinian Islamic scholar Sheikh Issam Amira stated that „it is a great honor for him [the murderer] and all Muslims that there was such a young man to defend the Prophet Muhammad.“ How has it come to pass that a religious leader speaking from one of the holiest sites in the world, in the capital of the Jewish State, is allowed to praise such an act and incite to further acts of violence?

How is it also that the grand mufti of Jerusalem Sheikh, Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, has denied any Jewish connection to the Temple Mount? In recent weeks, how had he ruled that it is forbidden for UAE or Bahrain nationals who enter Israel via Israel to enter the Temple Mount?

Because the Israeli Government allows this kind of behavior to take place. It allows a small and unrepresentative group of Muslims from eastern Jerusalem to administer the Temple Mount. The results are a national and international embarrassment.

 

The grand mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, has ruled that it is forbidden for UAE or Bahrain nationals who travel to Jerusalem via Israel to enter the Temple Mount.

 

Non-Muslims (and now certain Muslims) are forbidden to pray on the Temple Mount. Observant Jews who enter the Temple Mount must be escorted by police who may remove them if they move their lips in a manner that might constitute prayer.

Then there is the matter of desecration. In 1996, Muslims treated precious archeological materials below the Temple Mount as trash, dumping it haphazardly at various sites in Jerusalem. Israeli authorities stood by idly as precious national heritage was wantonly destroyed. The debris was collected in 2000 and Israeli archaeologists have been sifting through the refuse for years and finding precious artifacts relating to both the First and Second Temple period.

The list goes and on. The point is clear: it is time to change who makes decisions on the Temple Mount.

It is time to change who makes decisions on the Temple Mount.

The United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine adopted in 1947 called for the creation of two states between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, one Jewish and one Arab, except for Jerusalem and its environs, which were to be governed by a Special Regime managed by the United Nations. This regime was to be responsible for the Holy Sites inside its boundaries. While the Jewish residents of Palestine accepted the Partition Plan the Arabs rejected it and, in the ensuing Israeli War of Independence, Jerusalem was split between Israel and Jordan with the Jordanians retaining control of the Old City and its Holy Sites including the Temple Mount. The Jordanians, like the British Mandatory Authority before them, passed legislation to administer the Temple Mount.

 

Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, Francesco Hayez, 1867.
Jerusalem’s Judaic history dates back thousands of years before the birth of Islam.

 

When Israel captured the Old City during the Six-Day War, the government intended to impose its sovereignty over the Temple Mount just as the Jordanians, British and Ottomans had done. The Protection of Holy Places Law passed on June 27, 1967, in the immediate aftermath of the war, states that „the Holy Places shall be protected from…anything likely to violate the freedom of access of the members of the different religious groups to the places sacred to them or their feelings with regard to those places.“ Other Israeli legislation that was already in place and mirrored the previous Mandatory Laws would, theoretically, apply to the administration of the Temple Mount.

However, a group of leading Muslim Jerusalemites, including the Jordanian Governor of Jerusalem, the Jordanian Mayor of Jerusalem, the Jordanian Mufti of Jerusalem and other leading citizens, protested these actions to the Israeli Military Government and in a letter dated July 24, 1967 declared themselves as the Supreme Muslim Council in charge of Muslim affairs in the West Bank and that they would be carrying out their responsibilities in such capacity in accordance with Jordanian Law as they did not acknowledge Israeli authority in the formerly Jordanian territory‏ .

As a result of this pressure from the Muslim community, Israel backed down and allowed the Supreme Muslim Council to administer the Temple Mount via the Temple Mount waqf. The Supreme Muslim Council continues to operate under Jordanian Law and the waqf is funded by the Kingdom of Jordan and acknowledges the King of Jordan as the custodian of the Temple Mount. However, since 1994 the Grand Mufti has been appointed by the Palestinian Authority and his salary is paid for by the PA.

 

Israeli security forces escort a group of religious Jews during a visit to the Temple Mount in August 2020. (FLASH90)

 

This arrangement in which the Israeli Government allows control of the Temple Mount to reside with an organization that it does not officially recognize – and which does not recognize it – continues to the present. It should be noted that Article 9 of the Peace Treaty between Israel and Jordan states that Israel respects the present special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in Muslim Holy shrines in Jerusalem. When negotiations on the permanent status will take place, Israel will give high priority to the Jordanian historic role in these shrines. As recently as 2015 US Secretary of State John Kerry brokered understandings which have not been published between Israel and Jordan, but Prime Minister Netanyahu publicly re-iterated Israel’s commitment to the status quo on the Temple Mount in which „Muslims pray on the Temple Mount, non-Muslims visit the Temple Mount.“

Israel’s recent agreements with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan, added to those with Egypt and Jordan, may have great implications for the Temple Mount. Given that the Temple Mount holds special significance for Muslims around the world, and not just in Israel and the Palestinian Territories does it make sense to take a page out of the 1947 UN Partition Plan and internationalize control of the Temple Mount?

Ironically, it may be the case that calls for just such an arrangement may come from Muslim citizens of countries that have normalized their ties with Israel and find it offensive that a small group of Palestinians are attempting to ban them from visiting one of their holiest sites. After a small group of Emirati visitors to the Temple Mount were insulted by Palestinian worshippers and compelled to leave the Temple Mount, several commentators have concluded that the time has come for change on the Temple Mount. For example, the Saudi Journalist Abdel Rahman Al-Lahim wrote, „It is very important for the Emiratis and Bahrainis to discuss with Israel ways of liberating the Al-Aqsa Mosque from Palestinian thugs in order to protect visitors from Palestinian thuggery.“

 

Saudi Journalist Abdel Rahman Al-Lahim (left) and Emirati political activist Laila Al-Awadhi bemoan Palestinian control of the Temple Mount.

 

In a similar vein, Emirati political activist Laila Al-Awadhi addressing Palestinians commented that „We will visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque because it does not belong to you, it belongs to all Muslims.“

The time has come to replace the Supreme Muslim Council with an international council with representatives from Muslim nations that formally recognize Israel, as well as representatives from Israel, both Jewish and Muslim and the Palestinian Authority (if it is willing). Israeli Muslims, in particular, have a unique opportunity to help bridge the divide between their Jewish fellow citizens and their co-religionists around the world.

In addition to requiring diplomatic relations with Israel, each state must acknowledge Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount. That includes abiding by all relevant Israeli laws and regulations including building codes as well as acknowledging that Israel is responsible for security. Israel has the right to remove the grand mufti under certain conditions (for example, inciting violence against). Finally, the new organization acknowledges the right of anyone, regardless of their religion, to pray on the Temple Mount.

Of course, this is a broad outline, with many questions left open. For example, how will representation in this organization be determined? Would each government be entitled to one vote, or should it be weighted by population? Or perhaps even weighted by the number of nationals who visit the Temple Mount? What about a country like India, which is not a majority-Muslim but has one of the largest Muslim populations in the world?

Control over the Temple Mount should be given to a more representative and moderate group of stakeholders.

This proposal has several advantages and one great disadvantage. It transfers control over the Temple Mount from a small, unrepresentative, and extremist group to a more representative and moderate group of stakeholders. It turns the Temple Mount from a place that sows discord and distrust to one that draws people together. It encourages more Muslim-majority countries to make peace with Israel.

The disadvantage? The Temple Mount is a powder keg waiting to explode in the Muslim street. Any slight change to the status quo could result in diplomatic repercussions, widespread rioting, and perhaps warfare.

Although dire predictions about the US Embassy move to Jerusalem and the agreements with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan proved false, the reaction to changes on the Temple Mount could be explosive. This points to the need to cooperate with Muslim states and to go slow, preparing the ground to show that this is not an Israeli power grab but a sincere effort to make a holy site accessible to all and defuse a tinderbox.

Josiah Rotenberg is a member of the Board of Governors of the Middle East Forum, and Chairman of Middle East Forum Israel.

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