When Israel was established in 1948, its founding members went out of their way to lessen the religious Jewish connection and focus on the national needs of the post-Holocaust Jews in need of a safe haven.
The same position was pushed after the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, as the two chief rabbis forbade Jews from entering the esplanade known to the world as Haram al-Sharif/Al-Aqsa Mosque and to Jews as the Temple Mount.
All this appears to have disappeared today as the religious element appears to trump the national needs of a people who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, thus turning a political conflict into a full-blow religious one.
The new Binyamin Netanyahu-Itamar Ben-Gvir government appears to be set on declaring war against 1.5 billion Muslims around the world, as they seek to change centuries-old understandings on this UNESCO World Heritage Site that was built in 705 AD and has been managed by Muslims ever since (aside from a brief 90-year period during the Crusader invasion of Jerusalem).
Any attempt to change the status quo is a violation of UNESCO guarantees, United Nations resolutions, and the publicly stated positions of the Jordanian keepers of the site, Muslims, Arabs, as well as most of the world.
King Abdullah II of Jordan did not mince his words when interviewed by CNN last week. He called any attempt at changing the status quo “a red line” that Jordan “will deal with.”
“If people want to get into a conflict with us, we’re quite prepared,” Abdullah said, concluding that “if people want to push those red lines, then we will deal with that.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu, not known for keeping his promises, has sought to assure Israel’s allies that he will not allow any changes in the current situation, and even had a clause included in all his coalition deals stipulating that the status quo “with regard to the holy places” will be preserved.
The media reported over the past few days that Netanyahu had convinced his minister for police to stay away from the holy shrine, only to have Ben-Gvir show up on Tuesday morning, leading many to believe that the press reports were aimed at misleading the public.
The status quo regarding the mosque was the subject of an understanding reached in 2014 between Abdullah and Netanyahu in Amman, under the supervision of then-US Secretary of State John Kerry. That understanding can be summed up as: “Al-Aqsa is for Muslims to pray and for all others to visit.”
But Israel’s newly sworn-in Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party has said he plans to visit the Islamic site and has made it clear publicly that he hopes to change the status quo.
The 19th century Ottoman-era written agreement on the status quo (which succeeded an unwritten understanding) is complicated. It is an understanding that is meant to regulate the timing of visitations to holy places. It does NOT, however, question who has the right to access holy places.
Muslims have had direct control and have been managing the 144-dunum area known as al-Haram al-Sharif/Al-Aqsa Mosque. The gated area includes mosques, a museum, offices, and large open areas that can accommodate hundreds of thousands of worshipers. The Al-Aqsa Mosque — the silver-domed part of the site — is considered the third holiest mosque in Islam. The golden-roofed Dome of the Rock (which accommodates women worshipers) includes the location from which Muslims believe that the Prophet (SAW) ascended to heaven and returned.
Al-Isra’ wal-Mi’raj (the Night Journey and Ascension) is a miracle second only to the revelation of the Qur’an. The basic story of Al-Isra’ wal-Mi’raj – that the Prophet (SAW) was transported from al-Masjid al-Haram to al-Masjid al-Aqsa, from where he (SAW) ascended to heaven.
In 1924, the Supreme Muslim Council, the highest body in charge of Muslim community affairs in Mandatory Palestine, chose Hussein bin Ali, the sharif of Mecca and father of the first king of an independent Jordan, as custodian of Al-Aqsa. The custodianship became a Hashemite legacy administered by consecutive Jordanian kings.
Currently, the Jordanian-appointed Jerusalem Islamic Waqf sets the general policy for the site, in direct coordination with the Jordanian government-appointed director of the Jerusalem Waqf Department, Azzam al-Khatib.
Now that Israel’s façade of an enlightened, democratic, secular and pro-LGBTQ country has been finally shed, it seems only appropriate that the global community and especially Western countries say what they mean and mean what they say regarding the continued Israeli violations of international law.
When the new Israeli government boasts about its calls to boost what amounts to apartheid policies — which have been well documented by various Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights organizations — it is no longer appropriate to muzzle voices that call a spade a spade.
The United States has tremendous power to make sure that Israel begins the process of ending its decades-long occupation and its illegal settlement activities. A rogue state that does not adhere to international law – be it Iran, Russia or Israel – should not get a pass, no matter what its people suffered in previous years in a different setting.
Some will argue that Israel should not be singled out and they are right. But Israel has received extraordinary support for decades by claiming to be a democracy. It only makes sense that as Israel turns from a democracy for Jews to an Orthodox theocracy, the concept of shared values be finally removed from bilateral talking points.
It is always possible to negotiate and debate with people so long as you agree on a frame of reference. If that reference is a divine one, then there is no room for debate. Turning the Palestinian-Israel conflict into a religious dispute rather than a political one will have far-reaching effects.
The visit of an Israeli government minister to Al-Aqsa Mosque/Temple Mount adds fuel to an already raging fire. Any sane person can see that, and all people must ensure that this holy Muslim shrine remains an Islamic holy site that anyone can visit so long as they respect the rights of its owners.