New developments in the Bab a-Rahma crisis have aggravated increasingly flammable conditions on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.
Following a request from the Israel Police to issue an order for the reclosure of the Bab al-Rahma site, a Magistrate Court judge has given the Jordanian Waqf until March 10 to respond. As the Waqf does not formally recognize the Israeli court system, it is unlikely to issue a formal response, in which case the court is expected to approve closure of the building. It is anticipated that a forced closure by the police will trigger significant numbers of Palestinians rallying or breaking the closure, leading to a harsh police reaction at the holy site at the epicenter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Alongside this development, banning of Waqf personal has increased while widening to include a growing number of highly placed officials, including the head and deputy head of the Waqf. East Jerusalemite Palestinians have issued a call for massive Friday protests outside the gates to the Haram al-Sharif, signifying a ramp-up in activities from the smaller non-violent protests Palestinians have held over the last two weeks. These moves recall actions taken by East Jerusalemites in the summer of 2017 during the large scale “metal detector protests,” when tensions peaked during Friday prayers and rapidly deteriorated.
Seizing on the current unrest, Temple Movement activists are ratcheting up pressure on the government, raising highly contentious demands that have not been publicly aired for years. Framing the reopening of Bab al-Rahma as a breach of the status quo, they have demanded a lifting of the ban on Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif as well as the opening of a synagogue at the holy site. In fact, Bab al-Rahma was an active site within the Holy Esplanade that was closed by the Israeli government sixteen years ago for reasons that are no longer germane, not because its use constitutes a violation of the status quo. The prime minister himself, following violence at the holy site in 2015, averred that “Israel will continue to enforce its longstanding policy: Muslims pray on the Temple Mount; non-Muslims visit the Temple Mount.”
Despite Temple Movements’ misrepresentation of events as a breach of the status quo, the framing has proven effective in garnering support within the right wing media and political establishment. Various members of Knesset are now demanding a tough stance from the government, including re-closure of the Bab al-Rahma site. In a television interview this morning, Likud member Avi Dichter declared that Israel will not allow another mosque on the Temple Mount (in reference to Muslim prayers being conducted inside Bab al-Rahma).
The current timing and rapid acceleration of events – in lead-up to Israeli elections, a period in which a political controversy can readily serve as an opportune lightning rod – only increase the urgency of a resolution. In light of the continued deterioration of relations between responsible parties, the imminence of Friday prayers, anticipated large scale protests, and the March 10 court deadline, Ir Amim issues the following recommendations:
- The Israeli government must immediately resume active coordination with the Jordanian Waqf – with respect to their established roles – to reach an agreed solution to the current crisis.
- The Israeli government must avoid an escalation of the crisis by not taking actions to renew the closure of Bab al-Rahma.
- The Israeli government must take all steps to ensure maintenance of the status quo, including – as maintained by the prime minister himself – recognition of the principle that Jews are visitors to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif who do not have worship rights there.
- Prime Minister Netanyahu must curb the actions of his coalition members, prohibiting statements or actions that encourage provocations by the Temple movements and further aggravate the crisis.
- The Israel Police must adhere to the status quo, particularly in light of increasingly bold violations by Temple Movement activists and their supporters.
- As urged below, we strongly encourage maintenance of the moratorium on collective restrictions, which have decisively proven to elevate tensions in the past, particularly during violent clashes in 2014 and 2015.
[Reprinted from February 28 alert]
Over the past several days, frictions have continued to escalate on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif around the renewed use of the Bab al-Rahma (Golden Gate/Gate of Mercy) site, recalling events leading up to the metal detector protests during the summer of 2017.
Bab al-Rahma has been shut down since 2003, when Israel blocked access based on claims of collaboration between the organization responsible for building management and Hamas and the Islamic movement. In response to the Waqf's re-opening and entry into Bab al-Rahma on February 13, at the beginning of last week Israeli forces chain-locked the gate leading to the building and clashed with Muslim worshippers who had breached the barricade, triggering an escalation of tensions.
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. 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 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.
All efforts must be made to avert a return to this policy.