In recent weeks, the area around Al-Aqsa Mosque, known to Muslims as the Al-Aqsa compound and to Jews as the Temple Mount, has remained calm. Calm is deceptive.
This 35-acre complex on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem’s Old City, one of the most politically flammable places in the Middle East, has seen an increase in violations of an international agreement banning Jews from praying in the plaza in outside the mosque.
The third holiest site in Islam, the mosque marks the spot where the Prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven. The Jews, on the other hand, revere the mount as the site of the first and second temples.
Although police refused to provide Religion News Service with exact figures, a spokesperson admitted in an email that “in recent years there has been a steady increase in the number of Jews climbing the mountain. of the Temple ”.
In late November, United for Israel, a self-proclaimed “pro-Israel” group that advocates for Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, reported that more than 10,000 Jewish worshipers had visited the Temple Mount between September and November, an increase by 80%. compared to recent years.
Israel and Jordan share control of the complex under an agreement that began after the IDF captured Jerusalem from Jordan in the Six Day War of 1967. At the end of hostilities, Israel handed religious and administrative responsibility for the complex to the Jordanian Islamic Waqf, a religious trust, while Israel retained overall control, including the police.
Popularly known as the status quo, the agreement gives Muslims the exclusive right to pray within the compound; Jews and the like are allowed to climb the Temple Mount as individuals, but not in groups and not to pray. Jews, on the other hand, have the exclusive right to pray at the Western Wall (the “Wailing Wall”), part of the ancient retaining wall of the Temple Mount below Al-Aqsa Square.
In Islamic tradition, the Western Wall is the site where Muhammad tied his winged horse, al-Buraq.
More and more Jews are seen in the square performing their morning and evening prayers, requiring a quorum of at least 10 men. Morning prayers are followed by religious study sessions. At least a dozen organizations have been created to advance their cause.
Whenever the status quo has been broken, violence has erupted. In 1990, deadly riots broke out after a group of Jews attempted to lay the foundation stone for a new temple. In 2000, a visit led by Israeli politician Ariel Sharon sparked the Palestinian uprising known as the Second Intifada, which left some 1,000 Israeli dead and between 3,000 and 5,000 Palestinian victims.
In May 2021, Israeli police clashed with Palestinian rioters, entering the mosque to fire tear gas; Hamas retaliated by firing rockets at Israel, including Jerusalem, triggering the latest round of conflict between Israel and Gaza.
For years, those calling for Jewish prayer on the mountain were viewed as marginal, if not insane, extremists, and leading Orthodox rabbis discouraged visitation for reasons of religious purity. Over the past decade, however, nationalist religious activists have insisted that prayer on the Temple Mount is a matter of religious freedom and human rights.
Lately, a few rabbis have offered their support. In September, Rabbi Meir Y. Soloveichik, a leader of traditional American orthodoxy, issued a call for “freedom of worship.”
In the summer of 2021, the new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett issued a statement calling to “allow freedom of worship for Jews on the mountain”. Although he later said he had “no intention of changing the status quo,” he did not back down on the issue of Jewish worship. His office did not respond to requests for clarification.
Prayer sessions are held in full view of the Israeli police, who in the past did not even allow Jews to keep a prayer book on the mountain. Rabbi Eliyahu Weber, head of the Temple Mount Yeshiva, whose students visit the site daily, recently told The Times of Israel that Jewish groups are coordinating their activities with the police.
A police spokesperson, responding to requests from RNS, wrote in an email: “The police act in accordance with the conditions for visits (by non-Muslims) which are intended to allow the maintenance of public order and of security. We will continue to allow tours to the Temple Mount, subject to tour conditions. “
Women were particularly active, with nearly a dozen women’s organizations promoting prayer and study on the mountain. Rina Ariel, a leader of Women for the Holy Temple, organizes bat mitzvah programs for mothers and daughters in memory of her daughter, Hallel, who was 13 when she was murdered in her bed by a Palestinian terrorist in 2016.
“Women’s lives (are) deeply tied to issues of purity and impurity, and it is right that we women have a special presence here. Women’s lives have an extra layer of holiness and spirituality; we represent the meaning of life, ”Ariel said in a 2021 film that is part of a series called“ Conversations on the Mountain ”.
Ofira Levy, director of the film series and reporter for the daily Maariv, said she hoped Muslims “will realize” that their “true holy place is in Mecca”. Otherwise, she said, “there is room for everyone to build their own holy place, and Muslims too will be welcome.”
Some Jewish activists hope to do more than pray. A group known as the Temple Institute is hoping to build a third temple where one of the three mosques in the Al-Aqsa complex is now located and restore animal sacrifices. The group’s website reports that it worked with an architect on a design.
Jordan has repeatedly complained to Israel about Jewish activities at the complex over the past two years. In early December, the United Nations General Assembly approved the Jerusalem resolution, which refers to Al-Aqsa only by its Muslim name. For this reason, the United States opposed the resolution, saying “the omission of inclusive terminology for the site sacred to three religions was a real and serious concern.”
But Ali Awar, a researcher at the Hebrew University who has advised the Palestinian Authority on issues related to Jerusalem, said the resolution’s reference to Muslims only is correct. “The Palestinian people will never accept a foreign presence on the Al-Aqsa compound,” Awar said. “It’s not just a religious site, it’s the sum of all of our national and religious aspirations. We have already compromised. The Jews pray to al-Buraq, which is also sacred to us.
Palestinian women also take the initiative to pray and study within the compound. According to Awar, thousands of women in East Jerusalem have formed an organization known as Mourabitat, a reference to a phrase in the Quran that obliges every Muslim to defend the holy places of Israel.
Suheir, a member of Mourabitat who refuses to give his full name, told RNS: “Praying to Al-Aqsa is who I am. This is my heart, my me. We see police here and they have guns. But I hold my Quran to remind them that true power comes from Allah.
Awar noted that, like the Jews, Palestinian women organized prayer and study sessions as well as social and charitable activities. “The public admires them for their modest dedication, they are gaining political power and they could run in future Palestinian elections,” he said.
He concluded: “Israel must understand that no Palestinian will ever abandon Al-Aqsa. Today, the Israeli-Palestinian struggle is largely a national conflict. But if it becomes a religious conflict, only Allah can help us.