Challenges to the Status Quo on Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif amid COVID-19 Crisis

March 24, 2020
On March 22, Israel and Jordan reached an agreement to close the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif (TM/HAS) as a public health measure in light of the COVID-19 outbreak. As of yesterday, neither Muslim worshippers nor non-Muslim visitors are allowed to enter the compound, however, Waqf employees are continuing to carry out their work inside the Holy Esplanade.   
With the outbreak of the Coronavirus and the government's corresponding public health regulations, tensions have been mounting surrounding the TM/HAS over the past week and a half. Prior to the agreement reached yesterday between Jordan and Israel, Israeli authorities had been exploiting the current circumstances to take steps which further erode the status quo. Despite the government's public health restrictions on movement and assembly save for a few exceptions, including essential purposes and attendance in religious ceremonies, the Israel police continued to permit Jews to enter the Mount up until Sunday when the agreement was reached.

Given the current restrictions, the Israeli authorities' granting of entry to Jews constitutes a direct contradiction of the status quo which affirms only Muslims hold worship rights and Jews are visitors, and therefore their visits would not fall within the parameters of a religious act. Assigning religious significance to Jewish visits connotes a tacit recognition of Jewish worship rights on the mount, which is not only a breach of the status quo, but also a longstanding goal of the Temple Movements and unequivocally reflected in the Trump Plan. The Temple Movements seized this opportunity and over the past week have issued explicit invitations for Jews to pray on the Mount and disseminated video footage on social media showing groups of Jews under police escort praying quietly in the compound while the police turn a blind eye to this flagrant violation of the status quo.

In tandem, police had been imposing growing restrictions on Muslim worshippers' access to the TM/HAS as a public health measure, which only exacerbated the already existing concern stemming from Israel's continued authorization of Jewish visits to the Mount. The police temporarily closed some of the gates leading to the compound, while also demanded Muslim worshippers leave their IDs at the entrance as a precondition for entering the Holy Esplanade. On Friday, the police likewise prohibited non-Old City residents from entering the Old City in order to prevent them from praying at Al Aqsa. While limiting the number of worshippers to control the spread of the virus is justified, the way in which the measures were implemented can be seen as Israel taking advantage of the circumstances to assert its sovereignty on the TM/HAS.  Rather than engaging in dialogue and coordination with the Waqf and the East Jerusalem population to protect the public's health while respecting Muslim religious rights, the police chose to unilaterally impose its decisions which generated even more friction.

The agreement reached between Jordan and Israel to entirely close the TM/HAS to Muslim worshippers and Jewish visitors, helped to avert a much larger crisis. This successful diffusing of the evolving crisis underscores the necessity for dialogue and coordination between the sides to not only preserve the status quo, but also maintain the health and safety of the public.

Nevertheless, there have already been calls to protest this decision by the Temple Movements, demanding that the Mount be reopened for Jews. Yesterday, Temple Movement activists demonstrated outside the Mughrabi Gate. While the Israeli media is preoccupied with the Coronavirus  crisis and the ongoing political deadlock, the Temple Movements have close supporters within the Israeli government and in the past have utilized their political leverage to influence decisions by the Israeli authorities concerning the TM/HAS. These demands and corresponding pressures are likely to increase in lead up to Passover (beginning on the eve of April 7), one of the Jewish holidays in which a larger number of Jews visit the Holy Esplanade.

Heightened attention and close monitoring of these potential developments are crucial.