Although the Israel Police arrested nearly 60 Palestinians ahead of last Friday's prayers, it refrained from imposing collective restrictions on Muslim worshippers’ access to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, a policy that has been proven to exacerbate hostilities (link here for Ir Amim’s analysis of the correlation between application of collective restrictions and upticks in tension and violence on the Mount/Haram and East Jerusalem).
According to Israeli media, on Sunday morning (February 24) Prime Minister Netanyahu acceded to the Jordanian request to conduct renovations of the Bab al-Rahma building, a decision likely calculated to avert a larger crisis. The move sparked outrage among the Temple Movements – radical Jewish activists committed to overturning the status quo on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif and asserting Jewish sovereignty over the site – and political supporters in the government, who rushed to publicly demand that Netanyahu prohibit Palestinian access to Bab al-Rahma. In response, on the evening of February 24, the prime minister ordered equipment and materials, e.g. carpet to prepare the building for prayer, removed and the site reclosed. Though the order has yet to be executed, Palestinian anxiety about the possibility of forced removal of worshippers from the site remains high.
The conflict over Bab al-Rahma comes after a one and a half year period of limited friction on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif as the result of ongoing cooperation between Israel and Jordan. Despite this relative calm, Israel has continued to take actions that compromise the management role of the Waqf and contribute to the erosion of the status quo. Over the past two years, the Israel Police has repeatedly restricted the Waqf from carrying out maintenance in the compound while intensifying its cooperation with the Temple Movements. And despite the active prohibition on public Jewish prayer, groups of religious Jews have been increasingly observed praying under police escort. [See Ir Amim's analysis of the growing collaboration between the Temple Movements and security authorities].
Last year, the Police erected a new watchtower over Bab al-Rahma in defiance of Waqf authorities, while at the same time Temple Movement activists have been observed praying in the Muslim cemetery just beyond the walls of the compound and adjacent to Bab al-Rahma. Given the deepening ties between the movements and the right wing Israeli political establishment, there are rising suspicions in the Palestinian community that the State intends to establish a synagogue at the site. As a result, there is increasing pressure among some Palestinians to consolidate the Muslim presence at Bab al-Rahma in order to curtail any potential plans.
The coming days will be critical to maintaining calm on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. Temple movement activists and right-wing politicians have called for tough Israeli measures, demanding full restrictions on Palestinian access to the compound this coming Friday (March 1) from the prime minister. If Netanyahu capitulates to the pressure and orders the forcible removal of Muslim worshipers from the site and/or imposes entry restrictions to the entire compound, the likelihood of eruptions increases significantly.
It is especially important to track the government's response and police activity on the ground in lead-up to Friday. If tensions on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif begin to escalate, there is growing fear that Israel will impose collective restrictions, further inflaming tensions at the site and triggering unrest throughout the city.
All efforts must be made to avert a return to this policy.