Analysis: Terror at the Temple Mount

The terrorist attack at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem last week, and ongoing disturbances surrounding new security measures introduced around the holy site by Israel, has thrown a renewed focus on what has been described as “the most incendiary spot in the Middle East”.

Two Israeli police officers standing guard at the Lion’s Gate entrance to the Temple Mount were murdered when terrorists open fired on them last Friday. The three attackers were shot dead by police, two in the ensuing fire fight and one after, having been initially subdued, he broke free and attempted to stab another police officer. The Temple Mount complex contains the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque, as well as being the holiest site in Judaism.

While Jerusalem’s Old City has experienced a wave of terror attacks since September 2015, the attack was unusual: the perpetrators were Arab Israelis from the northern city of Umm al-Fahm and the victims were not Jews, but Druze, Arab-speaking Israelis whose religion incorporates many Islamic teachings.

In response to the attack, Israel closed the Temple Mount on Friday and Saturday, reopening it to Muslims on Sunday and non-Muslims on Monday. It was the first total closure of the site in nearly 50 years. The closure followed reports that an official of the Waqf, the Islamic religious body which administers the Temple Mount, may have helped store the Carlo-style submachine guns used by the terrorists. During the brief closure, Israeli police carried out a security sweep of the site. In response to previous disturbances, Israel has temporarily restricted entrance to the Temple Mount to women and elderly men.

However, Israel’s decision to introduce metal detectors at all entrances to the Temple Mount has sparked anger from senior members of the Waqf and rioting in some parts of the Old City. This, despite the fact that metal detectors were widely in use until 2000 – when Jordan asked for them to be removed – and have remained so at the Mughrabi Gate, the only entrance to the complex which can be used by non-Muslims. As the Israeli government has noted, metal detectors are routinely used at religious sites throughout the world, including at Mecca and Medina. The Temple Mount – or Noble Sanctuary to Muslims – is the third holiest site, after Mecca and Medina, for Muslims.

The attacks on the new security measures echo oft-repeated, and frequently incendiary, accusations that Israel is planning to change the status quo at the Temple Mount. That status quo was introduced by Israel when it took control of the Old City following the 1967 war. The Temple Mount was previously controlled by Jordan. Israel decided Jews, who believe the site to be that of the biblical temples, would be allowed to visit but not pray at the Temple Mount. Jewish prayer was only to be allowed at the adjacent Western Wall, which constitutes the last remaining remnants of the Second Jewish Temple. While retaining overall responsibility for the security of the entire complex, Israel ceded authority over the Temple Mount to the Waqf, an Islamic foundation which comes under the auspicious of Jordan.

Israel’s decision to allow Muslim administration to continue, bar Jewish prayer and to police tight constraints on the rights of non-Muslim to visit the site (access is normally restricted to four hours a day and Israeli police enforce the Waqf’s bar on the wearing or carrying of Christian and Jewish jewellery and texts) has proved controversial and is not without its critics. The journalist David Horowitz, for instance, suggested this week that the concessions made by Israel 50 years ago had “empowered a Palestinian and wider Muslim false narrative that asserts the Jews actually have no connection to the Mount, no history there, no legitimacy there — and by extension no sovereign legitimacy in Israel either”.

Some Israeli politicians have campaigned to allow Jewish prayer at the Temple Mount. Two years ago, Benjamin Netanyahu ordered Israeli parliamentarians not to visit the complex. That ban was due to be temporarily lifted next week, following advice by the police last autumn that – subject to strict conditions, such as the absence of media and a bar on giving speeches – MKs should be allowed to visit the Temple Mount. Last week’s attack means the ban on MKs is likely to remain in place.

The Waqf’s furious reaction to the introduction of metal detectors for all visitors to the site – officials belonging to the religious body are exempted – appeared to catch Israel by surprise. Indeed, the head of Jerusalem’s police was at the site on Sunday to welcome Waqf officials; they responded by accusing Israel of an “attack on Al-Aqsa mosque” and urging Muslims not to pass through the metal detectors. Their protest was widely broadcast in the Arab world. Demonstrators swiftly broke into anti-Israel chants, while Muslims who tried to enter the site were urged not to do so. However, other Waqf officials did return and Israeli police estimated some 600 Muslim worshippers visited the complex after it reopened on Sunday afternoon. The Waqf has since urged Muslims to “reject and boycott all the Israeli aggression measures, including changing the historical status quo including imposing the metal detectors”. It continued: “If the metal detectors continue to be imposed, we call upon the people to pray in front of the gates of the mosque and in the streets of Jerusalem.”

Some have speculated that the Waqf’s hardline stance has been encouraged by Jordan. While condemning the attack on Friday, King Abdullah also urged that the Temple Mount be immediately reopened. On Saturday, an anti-Israel march took place in Amman. The following day, the speaker of the Jordanian parliament read out a eulogy to the terrorists, calling them martyrs and praising their “heroic act”.

The Palestinian Authority has also sent distinctly mixed messages which appear unlikely to help diffuse the situation, which has seen Israeli police attacked with stones and petrol bombs in rioting. President Mahmoud Abbas spoke with Netanyahu by ‘phone and expressed “his strong opposition and condemnation” of the terrorist attacks. His Fatah party, however, has declared today “a day of rage” to protest at the new security measures, which it denounced as “terrorist procedures” and part of “a fierce and organised attack” by Israel on worshippers.

Abbas has previously been accused of inciting violence by suggesting Israel plans to alter the Temple Mount status quo. In October 2014, for instance, the president declared in a speech: “They have no right to enter it. They have no right to defile it. We must prevent them. Let us stand before them with chests bared to protect our holy places.” The speech was broadcast by official PA TV 19 times in three days. Eleven Israelis – including a three-month old baby and six worshippers in a synagogue – were murdered in terrorist attacks in the following month. A year later, Abbas stepped up his rhetoric once again, declaring: “The Al-Aqsa [Mosque] is ours… and they [the Jews] have no right to defile it with their filthy feet. We will not allow them to, and we will do everything in our power to protect Jerusalem.” The so-called “knife intifada”, which has seen 50 Israelis killed in a wave of stabbings and car-rammings and shootings, followed swiftly afterwards. Fatah rebroadcast Abbas’ 2014 speech on its website last Saturday.

Amid the heightened tensions, however, there was one glimmer of hope. The first medic to respond to the terrorist attack on Friday was Nedal Sader, a Muslim volunteer with United Hatzalah, the Orthodox Jewish-run ambulance service. Of his desperate, but unsuccessful, attempts to save the life of one of the dying police officers, he said this week: “It doesn’t matter who the person is. Whoever needs help most gets help first.”