Tel Aviv Diary: You Say al-Haram al-Sharif. I Say Temple Mount

RTX3BEPO
A Muslim walks out of the compound known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City July 14, 2017. Ammar Awad/reuters

As Tel Avivans swelter under what has been the hottest July ever (so far, temperatures have averaged 5 degrees above the norm), they were comforted — until now — by the fact that the two main news stories of the summer have been the widening scandals surrounding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and ongoing saga of President Donald Trump, which Israelis happily gaze at from a distance.

That complacency has been shattered in the last few days by two very different events.

First, the shooting of Israeli policemen by men who emerged from the Temple Mount.

And second, the sudden public spat Israel has gotten into with the U.S. over the ceasefire in Syria.

Thursday's attack from the Temple Mount, or as it is known in Arabic, al-Haram al-Sharif, is feared by many to be a game changer.

The Temple Mount, the site where the Jewish First and Second Temples once stood, has been the site of the al-Aqsa Mosque since 705 CE.

When Israel captured the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six Day war (50 years ago), a decision was made to allow the administration of the Temple Mount compound to remain in the hands of the Muslim Waqf. Jewish prayer would take place in the plaza below — at what was known as “the Wailing Wall”, now renamed the “Western Wall” (whose stones were part of the retaining wall for the Temple Mount created in King Herod’s time (1st century BCE)).

Israel's decision to defer control over the Temple Mount compound was eased by the fact most leading rabbis at the time believed Jews should not ascend to that area, due to the fact that one could not be sure where the ancient Temple's “Holy of Holies” had been located (i.e. a place Jews were not permitted to visit.)

In the years that followed  the 1967 war, an unwritten agreement, known as the “status quo,” maintains the delicate division of authority established over the Temple Mount compound.

Under this agreement, the Waqf, which was controlled by Jordan, would administer the site and maintain order. Jews would be allowed to visit, but not pray, at the site.

The status quo remained in place without serious difficulties until 1996, when construction on the site by the Waqf, and the opening of the adjacent Western Wall tunnel by the Israelis, created serious tensions and resulted in the abrogation of the long-standing agreement.

At the same time, a campaign instigated by Sheik Raed Salah, head of the Northern Islamic Movement, who served at the time as mayor of Umm al-Fahm (an Arab Israeli town) that asserted “Al-Aqsa is in danger,” gained steam.

During the Second Intifada (beginning in Sept. 2000) the status quo fell apart completely. For three years, Jews were not allowed to visit the Temple Mount site. In 2003, Israel unilaterally established a new status quo that permitted Jews to visit the compound.

It should be noted that, concurrently, there was a growing sub-group of religious Israelis who demanded the right to pray on the Temple Mount and refused to accept the restrictions set in place by the status quo. Two years ago, a mini “Intifada of Knives” broke out that spurred attacks in response to the cry “Al-Aqsa is in danger.”

The tension over al-Aqsa two years ago was partially resolved by intensive diplomatic efforts achieved by then US Secretary of State John Kerry. The cry “Al-Aqsa is in danger” has been extremely effective for over nearly a century in creating resistance to the Jewish presence in Palestine.

The slogan “Al-Aqsa is in danger” was first used in 1928, as a catalyst to the riots that year; uprisings that ended centuries of Jewish presence in Hebron. Attempts to reach a new agreement — especially as related to security— have failed, despite the positive input of the Jordanians.

Which brings us to Thursday’s attack and subsequent problems. This latest attack was carried out by three Arab Israelis from Sheik Raid Salah's town of Umm al-Fahm — a rare instance of any Arab Israelis partaking in a terror attack.

It was also the first time the Temple Mount was used as a base to carry out an act of terror (something that has clearly been out of bounds until now).

As a result of the attack, Israeli police closed the Temple Mount for two days, only reopening it on Sunday — and only after instituting new security measures that included introducing metal detectors at the entrances of the compound. Most, but not all representatives of the Waqf have objected to that act.

Many have refused to enter the compound. Last night, violence broke out between the police and Muslim worshippers praying outside the compound. There is palpable fear that after months of quiet, the current situation at the heart of the holy city could spin out of control.  

Looking out toward our northern border, news that Israel is a very unhappy with the agreement reached between the United States and Russia, regarding the Syrian ceasefire, has come as a surprise to most Israelis. A majority of Israelis remain under the illusion that the Trump Administration has Israel’s back. Furthermore, Prime Minister Netanyahu's apparent close relationship with the Russians was assumed to be strong enough to ensure that the Russians would keep Israeli interests in mind in formulating any agreement.

Israel has two main concerns in Syria — i.e., To make sure that Iran does not dominate the country and that it does not establish permanent bases there. It would seem the agreement that has been signed accomplishes neither of these goals. The result of the Syrian Civil War — beyond the 500,000 innocents that have been killed — is that Assad who has murdered most of the dead in the war, (including through use of chemical weapons), remains in power.

Moreover, Iran, Israel's most deadly enemy (and in reality, Israel's only real enemy that is a nation-state) may now maintain bases close to Israel. It would seem that the Trump Administration was so keen on reaching an agreement with the Russians, that they were not willing to sweat the details to ensure Israel’s interests.

This morning, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov issued a statement, saying that Israeli concerns will be kept in mind in the future.

During the Obama Administration, many Israelis were not happy with how much interest Secretary Kerry expended on trying to move the peace process forward. Former Defense Minister Moshe "Bougie" Ya’alon once complained that Kerry was nearly "messianic" in his desire to achieve an agreement, at almost any price.

No one then, however, contended that Kerry was unwilling to sweat the details.

There is a growing fear that the understaffed and inexperienced Trump Administration is incapable, or unwilling, to sweat the details that while they may not have achieved peace in our region, may have kept the situation from spinning out of control.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.