Targeting Haram Al-Sharif
- Targeting Haram Al-Sharif
Provocative visits by non-Muslims aid Sharon in quietly destroying
the roadmap, writes Jonathan Cook in Jerusalem
Click to view caption
The Temple Mount
Israeli police sealed off areas around the Old City in East Jerusalem
last Friday in an attempt to severely limit the number of Muslim
worshippers reaching the mosque compound of the Haram Al- Sharif to
pray. Of those who got past the cordons, only Muslims over the age of
40 were allowed to enter the area, which contains Al-Aqsa and the
Dome of the Rock mosques.
Officials said they had imposed the measures to prevent rioting at
Friday prayers, the occasion for past violent confrontations between
Palestinians and the Israeli security forces.
Such restrictions are regularly in force on Fridays but the Israeli
authorities were said to be particularly nervous on this occasion
after Palestinian President Yasser Arafat repeatedly denounced
Israel's recent decision to allow non- Muslims to enter the compound,
in violation of a 34-month ban on such visits by the Islamic
authorities, the Waqf.
Visits by "non-Muslims" -- apparently Christian tourists and secular
Jews -- were secretly begun by the police two months ago. Acting with
the approval of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Public
Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, the police were said to have
recruited tourists in the streets of the Old City.
When the visits were revealed, both Israeli President Moshe Katsav
and the newly elected mayor of Jerusalem, Uri Lupolianski, denounced
Lupolianski, the city's first ultra-Orthodox mayor, called the new
Last week, however, it was widely reported by the Hebrew media that
the police had introduced a new policy: taking small groups
of "skullcap- wearing" Israelis up to the Haram Al-Sharif, or the
Temple Mount as it is known to Jews who revere it as the site of the
Second Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in AD70.
Muslim officials said they had seen Jews holding prayer books and
reading from the Torah inside the compound. Before the Intifada
Jewish prayer at the site was banned by agreement of the rabbinical
authorities, the Israeli police and the Waqf. Historically, Judaism
has opposed all prayer on the Mount. In response Arafat called Arab
ambassadors and diplomats to his office last Tuesday and urged them
to put pressure on their governments to lobby Israel and the US to
stop the visits. He told them: "Jewish settlers and extremists are
desecrating the Al-Aqsa mosque by storming it under the protection of
the Israeli police."
Visiting restrictions were imposed by the Waqf nearly three years
ago, in the immediate aftermath of Sharon's incendiary visit to the
compound on 28 September 2000, when he was opposition leader. Israeli
snipers responded to Palestinian riots at the compound the next day
by shooting dead several protesters, lighting the touchpaper of the
Sharon used his visit, backed by 1,000 security men, to assert
Israeli claims to sovereignty over the mosque compound. On the way
down from the Haram, after a 45-minute stroll around the esplanade,
he told waiting reporters: "The Temple Mount is in our hands and will
remain in our hands. It is the holiest site in Judaism and it is the
right of every Jew to visit the Temple Mount."
In saying this, Sharon was only reiterating the view of every Israeli
leader since 1967, when Arab East Jerusalem, including the Old City,
was captured by the army. Afterwards Israel illegally annexed the
Arab neighbourhoods and declared the city the Jewish state's "eternal
and undivided capital".
But whatever the rhetoric, in practice Israel had always balked at
interfering too overtly with what the Israeli military commander,
Moshe Dayan, termed in 1967 "the status quo" on the Haram. Although
Israeli police govern access to its nine entry gates, and can enter
the compound at will, the Muslim authorities have been allowed,
nominally at least, to maintain their unbroken 750- year control of
Instead Israel focussed its attention on the Western Wall, below the
Haram's raised esplanade. This too was once Waqf property but in 1967
Israel took charge of the area, demolishing more than 100
neighbouring Muslim homes to create a prayer plaza in front of the
wall. In 1984 the wall was registered as property of the Jewish
Sharon's visit, however, was a more direct kind of provocation than
his words. An army general -- one assigned a degree of responsibility
by the Israeli judiciary for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians
in Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982 -- effectively stormed the
Haram with a triumphant escort of police and media.
It was not the first time Sharon had tried to upset Muslim
sensitivities in Jerusalem. In December 1987 he bought and moved into
an apartment in the Muslim quarter of the Old City, followed by
several dozen right-wing students. In 1991 as housing minister he
helped Jewish extremists take over a house in Silwan, an Arab village
within the Jerusalem municipality. And in May 1992 Sharon
announced: "We have set a goal for ourselves of not leaving one
neighbourhood in East Jerusalem without Jews, not one." Even the
city's mayor, Teddy Kollek, was forced to denounce what he called
But Sharon remained uncharacteristically quiet about the Haram-Temple
Mount dispute after his victory in the Knesset elections of early
2001. Maybe his hand was stayed by the subsequent ferment in the
occupied territories or by the international outrage at the later
excesses of the Israeli army in invading Palestinian cities.
Only in the last few months -- buoyed by his re-election in January --
did Sharon begin his campaign to reassert Jewish claims to
sovereignty over the Haram.
Sharon has several reasons for being obsessed about the Old City, and
the Temple Mount in particular. First, it is the tourist magnet that
will reap its sovereign owner a large financial reward in times of
peace. Without it, Israel will be quite literally a poorer country.
Second, it is a potent historic symbol of identity and nationhood for
both peoples: Sharon, however, would rather it cemented Jews'
bondedness to their state than stoked Arab longing for a Palestinian
nation he never wants to see. Third, territorial separation between
Jews and Arabs is nigh impossible as long as the heart of Jerusalem
is in Israeli hands. Sharon's much beloved West Bank settlement
project may stand or fall with Israel's sovereignty over the Temple
Mount and the precedent created by the settlers of East Jerusalem.
With a freer hand to start mischief-making on the Haram-Temple Mount,
Sharon launched his latest provocation last week: visits by religious
Jews. Arafat condemned the move as "a big crime which cannot be
Sharon had been planning the move for some time: the daily Ha'aretz
newspaper reported back in January that he had been holding secret
meetings with rabbis to tell them he was working "quietly" towards
The timing of the visits now has offered Sharon two clear advantages.
First, he is facing growing pressure from the US to submit to a peace
process -- the roadmap -- whose stated goal is the creation of a
Palestinian state, one which will be asserting a rival claim to the
holy sites of Jerusalem. Better, in Sharon's thinking, to start
fashioning the reality of Jewish sovereignty now than wait for a last-
minute scramble against a new Palestinian government-in-waiting.
But, more importantly, Sharon is looking for an escape route to avoid
ever reaching the point where he might have to attend an
international "final status" conference and negotiate over dividing
Jerusalem and the holy sites. He needs a way, when the time is right,
to ensure the roadmap is torn up -- and that the Palestinians are
He has several options: he can assassinate a Palestinian leader to
break the resistance factions' commitment to a cease-fire; he can
continue suffocating the Palestinian population with checkpoints
while disingenously, claiming to be dismantling settler outposts; he
can carry on building a "separation fence" that in practice only
serves to confiscate thousands of acres of Palestinian farming land;
or he can refuse to make meaningful concessions on prisoner releases.
But all carry the risk of heaping condemnation on his head rather
than that of Arafat and the Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.
Inflaming Muslim sensitivities over the running sore of who controls
the Haram-Temple Mount complex is a more artful strategy for
undermining any Palestinian good will engendered by the roadmap.
Arafat appears to understand this, even as Abbas is getting drunk on
his recent acclaim in Washington.
Sharon believes the slow-burn outrage of Palestinians at provocations
over the Haram is less likely to be traced back to the small steps he
has been taking to assert Jewish claims at the site.
The first of those steps went almost unreported by the Western and
Arab media. Sharon arrested the leader of the Islamic Movement in
Israel, Sheikh Raed Salah. Salah had long been antagonising Sharon
and the security establishment with his "Al-Aqsa is in danger"
Salah recognised that Israel had succeeded in progressively
intimidating the Waqf into silence. After Sharon's rampages through
the West Bank and Gaza, most members wanted only to keep their heads
down. Any doubters had the point underlined to them last month when
the police pulled in the chief Muslim cleric of Jerusalem, Sheikh
Ikrima Sabri, for questioning in matters apparently related to
With the Palestinian Waqf and the Islamic Movement asserting rival
claims to authority over the Haram, Palestinian officials have been
loath either to come to Salah's defence or criticise the Waqf. But
Arafat appears finally to have acknowledged the Waqf's impotence: he
berated its members at a meeting last Wednesday for not preventing
the visits by religious Jews or voicing protests.
One of the clearest weaknesses in Israel's arguments in the Haram-
Temple Mount dispute has been its claim that the status quo was
ruptured three years ago with the Waqf's ban on non- Muslim visits.
Until then, Israel claimed, all three religions had equal access.
In fact, this is a gross simplification. Israel effectively changed
the rules during the 1990s through its ever-tighter restrictions on
the freedom of movement of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza.
In the last few years it has been almost impossible for Palestinians
to reach the Haram to pray.
While the Waqf was reluctant to criticise this policy, Salah openly
acted to redress the imbalance by transporting thousands of Israeli
Arabs to pray there. He also used his status as an Israeli citizen to
reassert Muslim rights, organising mass rallies and raising millions
of dollars from Arab states to help with restoration work on the
If anybody was in position to challenge Sharon's claims to the Haram-
Temple Mount it was Salah. But he is now behind bars, on charges of
helping Hamas that even the Israeli police seem unconvinced by.
Whatever the truth of the allegations, the point is that he and his
popular movement have been neutralised for the foreseeable future.
Next, Sharon gave the green light to Hanegbi, his security minister,
to start inciting over the access issue. As Salah was being
interrogated by the Shin Bet, Hanegbi was warning that Jews must be
allowed to return to the site to pray whether the Waqf agreed or not.
"It is impossible to reconcile ourselves for a prolonged period to a
situation where it is not permitted for all adherents of all
religions to visit and pray at Temple Mount," he said.
The significance of this comment went unremarked by the Hebrew media,
which has grown used to hearing such opinions from government
figures. In fact, however, it constitutes a further change in the
Religious Jews have been banned from both entering and praying on the
Temple Mount by rabbinical authorities since the Middle Ages. This
view held in 1967 when Israel captured East Jerusalem. A notice
signed by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and immediately posted at the
gate to the compound nearest the Western Wall stated: "Entrance to
the area of the Temple Mount is forbidden to everyone by Jewish law
owing to the sacredness of the place."
The rabbinical reasoning was that no one knew where the Second Temple
was precisely located on the Mount and so any Jews entering would
risk violating the "strict prohibition against desecrating the purity
of the temple site". More than 300 rabbis supported this ruling in
However, the rabbinical consensus has been slowly eroding, mainly in
Israel. Two chief rabbis, Shlomo Goren in the 1970s and Moredchai
Eliahu in the 1980s, argued in favour of Jews being allowed to enter
the site. The reasons why are complex. With the birth of Israel in
1948, Judaism was as good as nationalised for the first time in more
than 2,000 years. The state chose to invest religious authority in
one stream, Orthodoxy, a classical view of Judaism whose roots
remained firmly entrenched in the Middle Ages. The two other, more
modern streams, Reform and Conservatism, which dominate in the
Diaspora, have been shunned to this day.
But while Israel's rabbis were drawn from the most traditionalist
among world Jewry, they were also subject to nationalist influences
and pressures that rabbis in the Diaspora could avoid. Judaism and
Zionism jostled uncomfortably for primacy in their hearts.
Rabbi Goren, for example, was with the first soldiers to enter the
newly conquered Haram- Temple Mount in 1967. Goren is recorded as
having suggested to the military commander that they put explosives
under the Mosque of Omar and "get rid of it once and for all".
The sort of personal religious-nationalist fervour many of the rabbis
and their followers experienced with the seemingly miraculous
conquest of Jerusalem and Jewish holy sites in the West Bank had a
profound effect. Some began to believe that Israel was paving the way
for the arrival of the Messiah.
There were consequences for the wider society too. Through a system
of double-funding for religious schools, more and more parents were
encouraged to send their children to non-secular institutions. Today,
some 40 per cent of Jewish Israeli children attend either ultra-
Orthodox or national-religious schools. There is little doubt this is
likely to colour their perception of the significance of the holy
places in Jewish life.
The messianism of the "hilltop youth" -- young settlers who have
recently been resisting the army's feeble efforts at dismantling
settlements -- is an outcome. But ignorance of Jewish tradition,
particularly relating to the Temple Mount, is now evident in much of
the Jewish public.
Right-wing nationalist politicians like Sharon, former Likud Prime
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the former Mayor of Jerusalem Ehud
Olmert have been keen to exploit this ignorance for their own
political ends. And not to be outdone, so too have left-wing leaders.
All have worked tirelessly to place Temple Mount at the centre of
Israel's claims to exclusive sovereignty over the whole of Jerusalem,
and have thereby made any chance of peace with the Palestinians
Sharon's predecessor, Ehud Barak, took exactly this position in his
negotiations with Yasser Arafat at Camp David in July 2000, making
Jersualem and control of Temple Mount -- what he termed "the holy of
holies" -- the biggest stumbling blocks in the talks.
He demanded sovereignty over the Old City, including the Haram-Temple
Mount, with the Palestinians only "administering" the Muslim and
Christian quarters. Jews for the first time would be allowed to pray
at the Haram in a special section.
When this failed to win Arafat's consent, the Americans were reported
to have proposed giving the Palestinians custody of the Haram, while
Israel was to hold "residual sovereignty". In the Old City the
Palestinians would get sovereignty over the Muslim and Christian
quarters and Israel the Jewish and Armenian quarters. Arafat rejected
this offer too, warning that relinquishing the Muslim holy places
would be his "funeral".
In fact, although it may sound strange to those used to hearing the
speeches of modern Israeli politicians, Judaism has traditionally
avoided sanctifying specific religious sites.
As Shemaryahu Talmon, professor of Bible studies at Hebrew
University, has observed: "In Jewish tradition it is the whole
circumference of the city [meaning the walled Old City] which is held
and will be held holy. In distinction from other religions that have
pinned their pious reverence for Jerusalem on select localities in
her Judaism has sanctified the city as such."
But the battle by politicians and some rabbis to sanctify -- at least
in the minds of the Jewish public -- Israel's territorial claims to
Jerusalem has unleashed the seeds of a dangerous Jewish extremism.
Since the 1970s several militant groups have been spawned, some not
only claiming prayer rights on the Haram-Temple Mount but also
willing the destruction of the mosques and their replacement by the
Third Temple. They include the Temple Mount Faithful, the Jerusalem
Temple Foundation and the Ateret Kohanim (Crown of Priests). The
latter has been supported by Netanyahu, Sharon and Olmert.
Recently an Israeli architect, Gideon Harlap, was commissioned to
design a $3 million synagogue to be built next to the Dome of the
It was precisely such fanatical plans -- given succour by the last
three successive prime ministers -- that Salah was warning about in
his "Al- Aqsa is in danger" campaign.
More subtle threats exist too. In May it was revealed that a
ministerial committee on Jerusalem, led by Natan Sharansky, was
devising ways to increase Israelis' attachment to Jerusalem. This
included bringing one million Israeli tourists -- 20 per cent of the
Jewish population -- to the city each year.
Making a regular "pilgrimage" to the holy city will become all but
compulsory for most Jews: children will be brought on school trips;
soldiers will be required to undergo Jerusalem courses as part of
their "Zionist training"; trade unions will arrange workers visits;
and local authorities will be expected to subsidise organised tours.
One dissident voice was raised this month amid all this public
clamour: that of Labour Party leader Shimon Peres. His spokesman
suggested that the holy sites in the Old City be placed under United
Nations stewardship and the city be declared a "world capital". No
one else in Israel seems to be listening.
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