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Israeli Deputy Minister Tzipi Hotovely said it was her “dream” to see the Israeli flag flying over the Temple Mount and called on the Israeli government to allow Jews to pray there. By making these statements on the Knesset’s TV channel on 26 October 2015, Hotovely (Foreign Affairs) added more fuel to the already heated Temple Mount debate. On the same day, a spokesperson of Prime Minister Netanyahu hastened to say that Israel’s commitment to the Temple Mount status quo would remain unchanged, urging Hotovely to recast her statement as “personal.”
Hotovely’s remarks came as a blow to Netanyahu’s efforts to preserve the image that Israel is committed to that status quo, which stipulates that only Muslims can pray on the holy site and people from other religions can only visit. Only one day before, the prime minister had agreed with Jordan and the United States that cameras would be placed on the Temple Mount, in order to provide video evidence of possible violations of the status quo.
The Temple Mount has been a focal point in the eruption of widespread violence in Israel and Palestine that has taken 11 Israeli and 75 Palestinian lives since mid-September 2015. Many Palestinians fear that Israel wants to change the status quo and let Jews pray at the site, or worse, take part of the site for themselves. Their nightmare became reality 20 years ago in Hebron, where the Ibrahimi Mosque was divided into Muslim and Jewish parts. Despite Netanyahu’s efforts, the remarks by his Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs will worry the Palestinians.
The Temple Mount—or al-Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary), as as it is called by Muslims —is a plateau in East Jerusalem. Two Muslim shrines, the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque, dominate the mount. The Jews consider the site to be the holiest place in their religion, because it was the site of a Jewish temple until it was destroyed by the Romans two thousand years ago.
In 1967, when Israel captured the West Bank, an Israeli flag was planted atop the Temple Mount, but, to prevent religious tensions between Jews and Muslim, Moshe Dayan, then Minister of Defence, immediately ordered the flag taken down, and he transferred authority over the site to a Jordan waqf (charitable Islamic foundation).
The Temple Mount is routinely portrayed as the “third holiest site in Islam,” but this is disingenuous, says Hamid Dabashi, the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, in an opinion piece for al-Jazeera. According to Dabashi, the portrayal of the site as having no more than religious relevance to the Palestinians serves the Israeli interest of reducing the conflict to a religious war in which Muslims tend to erupt in blind rage when somebody touches their holy site. Palestinians, Dabashi says, “revolt not because they are Muslims, Christians, agnostics, or atheists. They revolt because they are Palestinians and their land is being robbed from under their feet.”
It’s not the first time the Mount played a part in the eruption of violence. In 2000, Ariel Sharon visited the Mount when he was a candidate for prime minister. This visit is widely seen as the event that led eventually to the outbreak of the Second Intifada, in which thousands of Palestinians and Israelis were killed. Any visit of an Israeli politician to the mount is regarded by the Palestinians as highly provocative.
According to Ben White, a journalist and and human-rights activist specializing in Palestine and Israel, the efforts by Netanyahu to reiterate the Israeli commitment to the status quo are just words. White argues that Israel increasingly imposes age restrictions for Muslim worshippers. This measure was imposed only three times in 2012 but 41 times in 2014. In the meantime, the number of Jews visiting the Mount has “risen markedly over recent years,” from 5,658 in 2009 to 10,906 in 2014.
Netanyahu, White concludes, can claim “incitement” all he wants, but the numbers are clear. “When it comes to Al-Aqsa, as across the rest of Occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank, Israel has already changed the facts on the ground, and shows no signs of stopping.”
Historically, the chief rabbis forbid Jewish worshippers to set foot on the Temple Mount, because by doing so they would risk accidentally stepping on the Holy of Holies. A small but growing number of religious Jews, however, argue that Jews should have the inalienable right not only to visit their holiest site but also to pray there. The most extreme elements within this group even advocate the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple, for which at least one of the two Muslims shrines would have to disappear. One of these groups, the Temple Institute, is subsidized by the Israeli government.
The longing for a Third Jewish Temple isn’t restricted to religious extremists. Last week, Haaretz reported about a religious school in Jerusalem where the children are being taught to pray for the rebuilding of the temple.
All this contributes to Palestinian fears. The question is whether the installation of cameras on the site would reduce the tensions. The Palestinians have already opposed the measure, presumably out of fear that the Israelis would use any video evidence against them. Israeli right-wingers, such as Knesset Speaker Yuli Yoel Edelstein, argue that the Palestinians would alter the videos to make Israel look bad.
For now, it seems that the cameras will be placed only outside the shrines, not inside al-Aqsa mosque. There is little reason to assume that the tensions about the site will die down—nor will the violence in Israel and Palestine, for the foreseeable future.