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Violating Status Quo at Al-Aqsa Mosque Complex Could Lead to Bloodshed
Aerial SE exposure of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, November 15, 2013. (Andrew Shiva/Creative Commons)

Violating Status Quo at Al-Aqsa Mosque Complex Could Lead to Bloodshed

Israel’s District Court in Jerusalem did well by accepting the appeal of the Israel Police regarding a strange ruling that, if implemented, could have resulted in a lot of bloodshed.

The current tensions began when Bilhah Yahalom, a Jerusalem magistrate judge known for her right-wing positions, ruled that silent Jewish prayer at Al-Aqsa Mosque complex cannot be considered a “criminal act.”

This came in an appeal by Rabbi Aryeh Lippo against a police ban on his visit to the UNESCO-protected World Heritage site, which is also the third holiest site in Islam. The extremist rabbi had repeated prayers in violation of the agreed position for visits to the Muslim site.

The decision caused ripple effects in Jerusalem and throughout the region. Jordan’s Foreign Ministry issued a strong statement as did the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

A 2014 Jordanian and Israeli understanding witnessed by the United States says that Al-Aqsa is for “Muslims to pray and for all others to visit.”

While the position of the Israel Police and the appeals court should be lauded, the situation needs to be seen from a wider perspective in which the Israeli authorities had appeared to be tolerating the quite gradual changes at the compound.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, himself a leader of a right-wing party, had contributed to this atmosphere even though he quickly reversed himself. Bennett backed down in July from statements that appeared to support the rights of Jews and Muslims to pray on the Muslim site, statements that would have marked a stark shift from Israel’s policy of maintaining the status quo at Jerusalem’s holy site.

The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office claimed on July 19 that Bennett had “misspoken” when he said both Jews and Muslims have “freedom of worship” on the Temple Mount, which would be a potentially explosive change after decades of Jews being permitted only to visit there, but not to pray.

Palestinians and Muslims don’t believe that he misspoke nor do they think that the police appealed the case out of principle but because they realized that the slippery slope that some of the radicals were moving toward would open up a Pandora’s box that could potentially lead to some kind of religious war with Jerusalemites, with the Palestinian people, as well as with the 19 billion Muslims around the world.

One of the main lessons to be learned from this troubling story is that all parties to the conflict must find common ground and make such an agreement clear to all parties. Jordan, whose waqf department administers the Islamic complex through the Jerusalem Waqf Council and its director Sheikh Azzam Khatib, is the key party that should be strongly involved in all decisions. The continued entry without any coordination and using a side gate not under the control of the waqf must stop. When the Israelis talk about respecting the status quo they don’t really mean the status quo as it was in 1967 or even prior to 2000. They consider the term a moving target with the status quo representing whatever latest changes have occurred.

The failure to fully respect the status quo on the premises of Al-Aqsa Mosque complex as it existed prior to the second intifada is the best way to restore the situation on the ground as well as bilaterally between Israel and Jordan. Visitors to Al-Aqsa need to use the official entry point or at a minimum must obtain tickets issued by the Waqf Council if they wish to visit the site. Like at all religious locations, visitors need to respect the sanctity of the location in the way they dress and in the way they handle themselves.

The king and government of Jordan have yet to have any official public meetings with the Bennett administration because of this issue as well as the lack of progress on the investigations of the death of a Jordanian judge at the Israeli side of the King Hussein Bridge, as well as the death of two Jordanian citizens in the Israeli embassy in Amman.

The decision of the Israeli court has provided a rare opportunity to lay down the rules for all visitors to Al-Aqsa Mosque and to end the violations of Jewish extremists. Will Israel pay attention?

 

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