How to Live Together with the Clashing Narratives over the Holy Places

In this article I argue that despite the clashing narratives regarding the Temple Mount/Al-Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem, there is a way for Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims to relate to this sacred site peacefully. I will begin by describing the significance of this holy site for Jews and for Muslims, then address the current denial and belittling of the narrative of the other, and will conclude with recommended measures for how to live together at this holy place.

The Temple Mount for the Jews

The Temple Mount (Har Habayit) is the principal holy site of Judaism. It is identified with Mount Moriah in Jerusalem, where Abraham sacrificed his son Isaac. For roughly three thousand years, it has been sacred to Jews — at the least since the days of the First and Second Temples, which stood for a combined total of about 850 years. From this arose the longing for Jerusalem throughout the nearly two thousand years of exile, as articulated in prayers, ceremonies, beliefs and the formation of Judaism itself.

The Temple Mount also holds great meaning for Christians, for three reasons: According to the New Testament, Jesus visited the Temple, to preach that the place be purified, and predicted its destruction. Since the early Church understood itself as an antithesis to Judaism, the site of the Temple was not encompassed in the Roman and Byzantine city’s boundaries, and it was not until the Crusader period that Christian worship returned to the Temple Mount. After the destruction of the Second Temple, the site was used literally as a dumping ground outside of the city perimeters. As far as we know, Jews no longer visited the area after the demolition of the Temple.

Al-Haram al-Sharif for Muslims

The first Muslims prayed facing toward Jerusalem, and it was there, according to the traditions of Islam, where the Prophet traveled on the back of the winged steed Al-Buraq, and where, at the sacred stone, he ascended to heaven to meet the prophets who were his predecessors. According to Muslim tradition, Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab commanded, immediately after the city’s capture in 636 CE, that the sacred stone be cleaned and a mosque be built to its south. Caliph Muawiyah ibn Abu-Sufyan had his coronation there in 660 CE. Later on, Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, who built the dome and his son Al-Walid built a new Al-Aqsa Mosque, which had been a temporary structure until then. Over the centuries, Muslim authorities added religious structures and various monuments to the area of Al-Haram al-Sharif and its surroundings.

Denial and Belittling

Since 1967, many Muslim thinkers and politicians have denied the Jewish connection to the disputed holy site. This process of denial was inspired by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in spite of the fact that early Islam identified the site of what Jews call the “Foundation Stone” with the Temple of Solomon. Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan built the memorial structure called the “Dome of the Rock” in recognition of how Islam was seen as a continuation of Judaism and Christianity. Therefore, the Muslim builders ascribed honor to a place which had continuously been considered sacred for a long time. For instance, Mujir al-Din, the 15th-century historian and Arab resident of Jerusalem, relates the story of an Islamic preacher named Abu Bakr al-Vasiti and the book he wrote in praise of Jerusalem. Al-Vasiti tells, “After David built many cities and the Children of Israel’s circumstances improved, he wished to build Bayt al-Maqdis, and over the stone he would raise a dome in the place God sanctified in Aelia [Latin name for Jerusalem].” Elsewhere, Mujir al-Din wrote, “Solomon built the masjid Bayt al-Maqdis according to his father David’s command.” In his writings, Al-Vasiti quotes the 10th-century Jerusalem historian Al-Muqaddasi, who recounts:

When Umar [Ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph] arrived at Bayt al-Maqdis mosque he said, “I swear in Allah that this is the mosque of Sulayman son of Da'ud, peace be upon him. Our prophet wrote how he was transported to it [the Night Journey in the Quran, 17:1].”

In 1951, historian and Palestinian official Aref al-Aref wrote how Al-Haram al-Sharif was located on the same Mount Moriah described in the Book of Genesis. On that site stood the threshing-house of Araunah the Jebusite, which David purchased so he could build the Temple there, which Solomon built in 1007 BCE, and that structure was lying underneath the Al-Aqsa Mosque, remaining there since Solomon’s time. In 1961, Al-Aref added that the quarry outside of Damascus Gate was called “Solomon’s Quarry,” and that was the source of the stones used by David and Solomon for building the Temple. Only in the twentieth century, with the outbreak of conflict between the Zionist and Arab/Palestinian movements, did the gradual tendency among Arab Muslims to deny a Jewish connection to Jerusalem's Temple Mount develop.

From the Jewish side as well, certain academics and some religious Zionists undervalued the site’s importance to Muslims. To this end, they pointed out how Jerusalem is not mentioned even once in the Quran, nor had it ever been an Arab political capital. Some Jews made these assertions despite the fact that there is some information indicating that Jews and Christians served in Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Temple Mount compound during the Middle Ages, and even that some distinguished Jews visited the Mount on rare occasions — usually in exchange for bribes. However, these were the exceptions. In general, Jews were prohibited from ascending to the Temple Mount area during the period of Muslim rule over Jerusalem. During a period of Mamluk rule (1250–1516) and under the Ottomans (1516–1917), it was forbidden for Jews to even come close enough to look upon the Temple Mount.

20th-Century Developments

During the first decade of British rule in Palestine, visitors of all faiths were permitted to enter the Temple Mount/Al-Haram al-Sharif during set hours by paying an entrance fee. However, despite the arrangement organized by the Mandate government, disputes broke out at the entrance between Jews and Muslims which sometimes escalated into violence. Following the riots of 1929, the Supreme Muslim Council and the Islamic Waqf of Jerusalem prohibited Jews from entering the site’s gates. The ban exacerbated tensions between the two communities on the access roads to the site as well. Accounts from the 1930s indicate that the Supreme Muslim Council and Waqf administration permitted Jews and visitors from abroad to visit the site for a fee; thus economic considerations prevailed over nationalist and ethnic considerations. During the mandate period, Jewish leaders renewed ancient religious practices connected to the Temple Mount, though they were practiced at the Western Wall. With the exception of VIPs, the ban on visitors continued until 1948 and persisted under Jordanian rule until June 1967.

The New Status Quo of June 1967

After Israel's victory in the 1967 War, few expected that the State of Israel would continue to discriminate against Jews and ban them from the Temple Mount. At the same time, the Israeli government was concerned that granting Jews the right to pray on the Temple Mount would lead to an increase in tensions, generating international pressure for Israel’s withdrawal from East Jerusalem and the West Bank. For this reason, the Israeli government did not permit non-Muslim visitors to pray at the site, allowing them to visit only as tourists. Israel even ensured that Muslim prayers resumed in Al-Aqsa Mosque — within three weeks of its capture — and left the management of the Haram al-Sharif in the hands of the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, making it perfectly clear to the world that it had no intention of taking over this holy site. In addition, the government transformed the Western Wall, which in the Jewish national consciousness represents the Temple Mount, into the central site for Jewish religious practice. Consequently, the government demolished the residential area owned by the Mughrabi Waqf, and built a wide plaza west of the Western Wall. The houses of the Abu-Sa'ud family, south of the plaza, were also demolished.

In 1967, the government of Israel began imposing Israeli law in East Jerusalem — including the Temple Mount/Al-Haram al-Sharif. Yet Israel did not assume exclusive management of the site. Its sacredness to hundreds of millions of Muslims throughout the world, not to mention international policy considerations, brought Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to announce a continuation of the policy, in which, according to him, the site’s administration would belong to Muslim clergy, to the Islam Religious Endowments organization of Jordan, or the Waqf.

The new status quo of 1967 also included another Israeli government decision, which stated that “[w]hen Jewish visitors enter through the gates of the Temple Mount for the sake of prayer, they shall be redirected by the defense forces to the Western Wall.” However, they did not institute an overall ban on Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount/Al-Haram al-Sharif. The Israeli Chief Rabbinate supported the government’s decision to redirect Jews wishing to pray on the Temple Mount toward the Western Wall. Their official halachic ruling and the sign they posted at the Mughrabi Gate stating that Jews were prohibited by Jewish law from entering the Temple Mount eased acceptance of what was, practically speaking, a set of compromises and understandings.

From June of 1967, a Jewish-Islamic modus vivendi developed between Israeli authorities and Jordanian-subordinated Palestinian Waqf administrators, generally referred to as the “status quo”, which included a series of mutually agreed-upon understandings on the one hand, and a set of unresolved matters on the other. A continuous mechanism of communication and supervision took shape that oversaw the extent to which agreements were being kept, minimized confrontation, and dealt with crisis situations and emergency scenarios.

The modus vivendi was reached due to two factors. First, there was a new balance of power, whose framework allowed each side to delineate its most crucial issues, while recognizing the “red lines” of the other side. Second, the understanding between the two sides was agreed upon informally, orally and, at times, with tacit consent — in other words, sometimes one side pursued a course unilaterally, while the other simply refrained from responding.

Nevertheless, the annexation of East Jerusalem as the start of Israeli rule was never accepted internationally, and certainly not by the Jordanians, Palestinians and the rest of the Muslim world. These entities saw the circumstances of Israeli rule over East Jerusalem as one of occupation according to international law, and “Al-Aqsa's territory” as temporarily “subjected to captivity.”

For the Muslim authorities, their perception of the “temporary” nature of Al-Aqsa’s “captivity” allowed for Israel, the Palestinians and Jordanians to establish post-1967 understandings regarding the management of the site. From Israel’s perspective, the passive acceptance on the part of the Jordanians and Palestinians of arrangements imposed by Israel made it possible for the government to claim that its sovereignty was realized — only, this sovereignty was later revealed to be limited in scope.

The post-1967 status-quo collapsed in three stages: First, in the wake of the September 1996 confrontation over the opening of the northern exit to the Western Wall Tunnel; second, following then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon’s protest-visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000, the Temple Mount/Al-Haram al-Sharif was closed to non-Muslim visitors for nearly three years; third, when the sacred site was reopened unilaterally by Israel in August 2003, non-Muslims were still barred from entering the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock, the underground prayer halls and the Islamic Museum. The controversy accelerated with the growing numbers of religious Jews visiting the site in organized groups, Israel’s limited coordination with the Waqf regarding visitation arrangements of such groups, and the Muslims’ reaction of placing Murabitin (men defenders) and Murabitat (women defenders) to confront Jewish religious visitors.

This trajectory reached its apex during the violent events of October 2014, September 2015 and July 2017, with the crisis over metal detectors following the murder of three Israeli policemen by Arab Israeli terrorists from Umm al-Fahem.

How to Resolve the Contradictions

Given the conflicting narratives and interests of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims regarding the Temple Mount/Al-Haram al-Sharif, one wonders how the two peoples could possibly live together with such clashing and conflicting perceptions while the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains unresolved. Moreover, how could the parties to the dispute find a solution in future negotiations?

My first argument is that living together with today’s clashing approaches is a pre-condition for a successful final negotiation. I base my argument on an assumption that violent clashes and crises regarding the current situation are increasing mistrust between the parties regarding their intentions and raising suspicions among each of them. Consequently, unless we learn to live together, even if an agreement were to be signed, the other party would not respect it and would continue to undermine it by creating facts on the ground.

My second argument is that both parties must respect the historical narrative of the other side. Removing denial of the Jewish connection and attachment to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount/Al-Haram al-Sharif site should be endorsed by dissemination of early Islamic sources that mention this connection. On the other side, Jewish suspicion and the belittling of the importance of Jerusalem to Muslims should be removed through greater exposure to the Islamic traditions and long history of Islamic devotion to Al-Aqsa.

My third assertion is that for the time being, until a final-status agreement can be signed between the parties to the conflict, we all should preserve the status quo that prevailed at the Temple Mount/Al-Haram al- Sharif compound between 1967 and1996 before it began to erode. The period of tacit understandings is the most significant, given the simple fact that it lasted for 30 years and was accepted by both sides. It was this period that forged the binding of the “status quo”, at least according to Jordan and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Israel’s recognition of the responsibility of the Waqf to manage the site, while maintaining the Israeli monopoly on security and policing, forced the sides to maintain dialogue and coordination. This series of agreements generally prevented outbreaks of violence and made it possible to calm tensions that arose after crises took place in and around the sacred shrine.

Over time, a routine of regular meetings took place between Waqf personnel and representatives of the Israeli police and Jerusalem Municipality, in which the two sides clandestinely discussed both ongoing concerns and matters raised on their own initiative. It was in these meetings that tacit understandings were reached regarding current affairs, as well as specific episodes, which were communicated to and coordinated by governmental authorities in Israel and Jordan. During that period a dialogue between police officers and directors of the Waqf was (and to some extent still is) based on the principle of “live and let live.”

Israel has the utmost interest in maintaining order and preventing violence. Likewise, both the Waqf and the Kingdom of Jordan are interested in keeping order, but they are also concerned with conducting their affairs efficiently, particularly in matters of conservation, maintenance, construction and development. Both sides have the means to hurt the other. The police, for instance, could stop construction and maintenance, and the Waqf could let the reins slip and permit violence to be perpetrated by Muslim youth, as was the case in July 2017 during the metal detector crisis. One should remember that the Temple Mount/Al-Haram al-Sharif is not a static site of antiquities, but rather an enormous, highly active and multi-functioning venue, which demands continual maintenance and development. On one hand, the police enforced the law on the site, while on the other, they assisted the Waqf in carrying out its maintenance, conservation and development projects. The authorities of both sides must maintain a coordination mechanism and prevent unilateral measures. Constant dialogue should replace unilateral actions at this most sensitive site of our region.

Needed: A Clear Understanding of the Status Quo

My final argument is that the overall principle of the post-1967 status quo is the basis for any final resolution, namely that the holy esplanade is a Muslim mosque for worship, while non-Muslims including Israeli Jews are visitors who are not entitled to conduct rituals or acts of worship. Therefore, the current pre-negotiation situation requires a clear understanding of the status quo beyond the John Kerry understandings of October 24, 2015. This includes:

    * A statement establishing that the status-quo being referred to is the one created in 1967, which remained in place until it began to erode in September 1996, rather than the post-August 2003 situation.
    * Restricting the number of Jewish religious-ideological visitors to a small group that could efficiently be monitored, as well as the visits of politicians who provoke unrest.
    * Preventing Muslim groups such as Murabitun and Murabitat from hindering visits by Jews.
    * Removing age restrictions on Muslim entry.
    * Refraining from closing the site to visitors and worshipers.
    * The Israeli police should refrain from storming the complex except for in emergency cases, with prior notification of the Waqf.
    * The parties should agree on enhanced security measures to prevent all kinds of violence at the compound and its gates.
    * The parties should agree on physical improvements of the compound, including improvement and conservation works without undermining antiquities and the re-opening of the Muslim facilities for touristic visits.