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Jordan Fumes amid Increased Tensions at Jerusalem Holy Site

Amman is furious over Israeli minister’s call for changing the status quo on Haram al-Sharif

The Jordanian government is furious over remarks made by Israel’s Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan calling for a change to the status quo in Jerusalem, so that Jews can pray at the Haram al-Sharif, known to Jews as the Temple Mount.

The Jordanian Foreign Ministry stressed “the kingdom’s absolute rejection” of Erdan’s comments, and denounced “any attempt to prejudice the historical and legal status quo and the serious consequences thereof.”

Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab told The Media Line that Jordan, the official custodian of Jerusalem’s Muslim and Christian holy sites, takes that responsibility extremely seriously.

“Jordan has been responsible for managing the Al-Aqsa Mosque for decades, and this is carried out by the Islamic Waqf Endowment, which is a Jordanian department of the government that employs more than 1,000 individuals,” he said. “[These people] work for Jordan in helping manage the third holiest mosque in Islam. Any attempts to change the status quo is something rejected by the Palestinians, Jordanians, and Muslims.”

The compound was the site of clashes between Muslim worshipers and Israeli police on Sunday over the entry of Jews during the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha, which this year coincided with the Jewish fast day of Tisha B’Av, which marks the destruction of the First and Second Jewish temples.

Kuttab criticized the way Israeli police dealt with the situation.

“I think the bad handling by the Israeli government of what happened, and the defense of the Al-Aqsa mosque by 100,000 Palestinians showed… that the people of Jerusalem defended their mosque from attempts by extremists to change the status quo. Now the politicians are trying to do what the extremists weren’t able to do,” Kuttab said.

As part of an arrangement established after the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel captured the Old City and East Jerusalem from Jordan, non-Muslims are barred from praying at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.

“I don’t think the Jordanian position is new,” Kuttab said, adding that “[Amman] is also armed with the Jordanian-Palestinian agreement of 2014 in which the Palestinian leadership ceded the responsibility of protecting holy places, both Christian and Muslim, to the Jordanian Kingdom. Jordan is protecting the properties legally, religiously, and politically.”

Dr. Abdullah Swalha, the founder and director of Center for Israel Atudies in Amman told The Media Line that despite the “rising number of extremist Jews who are calling for a change to the status quo,” it is unlikely Israel will take any steps to force a change in that direction for two reasons.

“First, its legal commitment to Jordan, and the second reason is that Israel cannot change the status quo by force or unilateral action,” he said.

Swalha believes that Jordan’s main concern is whether Israel will officially seek a change in the kingdom’s role over holy sites.

“I think the danger to Jordan is that Israel demands that things change in Jerusalem diplomatically and be adopted by the US administration,” as part of the Trump Administration’s broader regional aspirations. “Is this part of the US peace plan? Will this be through pressure on Jordan? I think this is the dangerous thing that Jordan should prepare for in the future,” Swalha asserted.

But Swalha downplayed the recent tension and accused Erdan’s of using the violence to his own political advantage.

“Erdan’s statements are just wishes and part of the election season and an attempt to win some votes and popularity,” he said in reference to Israel’s upcoming September 17 national vote. “Also, I don’t expect Israel to change the situation unilaterally because this will transform the conflict [with the Palestinians] from a national one [into a religious one].

“This is what Israel does not want… especially in light of the wave of normalization with some Gulf countries and at a time when Israel is experiencing a rapprochement with the Arab world,” concluded Swalha.

Under the 1994 peace treaty between the countries, Israel recognized Jordan as the custodian of Christian and Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. In November 2014, a meeting in Amman confirmed the understanding.

“Jordan is upset that the Israelis have broken the understanding of 2014 between [Jordanian] King Abdullah, [then-US Secretary of State] John Kerry and [Israeli Prime Minister] Binyamin Netanyahu,” according to Swalha. “That agreement stated clearly that the Al-Aqsa Mosque is for Muslims to pray at and for all others to visit. Any attempt to change this agreement so that Jews can carry out religious or political activity in the mosque area is a violation.”

Kuttab said tension over the issue has strained relations between Israel and Jordan, and that the Trump Administration isn’t helping to defuse the situation.

“The relationship between Jordan and Israel isn’t good, the leaders haven’t spoken to each other for years and unfortunately the Americans, who are usually the mediators, are totally not involved in trying to bring both sides together and bring order to the relationship,” Kuttab said.