Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 July - 6 August 2003
Issue No. 649
Region
Current issue
Previous issue
Site map
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875
Text menu
Comment Recommend Printer-friendly

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 them.

Lupolianski, the city's first ultra-Orthodox mayor, called the new arrangement provocative.

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 current Intifada.

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 the site.

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 state.

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 Sharon's "messianism".

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 ignored".

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 this goal.

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 blamed.

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" campaign.

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 Salah's arrest.

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 site.

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 status quo.

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 1967.

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 unattainable.

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 Rock.

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.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Comment Recommend Printer-friendly

Issue 649 Front Page
Egypt | Region | International | Economy | Opinion | Press review | Letters | Culture | Features | Heritage | Sports | Profile | Time Out | Chronicles | Cartoons | People
Batch View | Current issue | Previous issue | Site map