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Prime Minister Bennett clarifies support for Jewish visitors, not prayer on Temple Mount

What happened: In an unusual statement yesterday afternoon Prime Minister Naftali Bennett thanked Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev and Israel Police Chief Koby Shabtai for “managing the events on the Temple Mount with responsibility and consideration, while maintaining freedom of worship for Jews on the Mount”.

  • This morning the Prime Minister’s Bureau issued a clarification noting that Jews only enjoy the freedom to visit and not prayer at the holy site.
  • Yesterday was the 9th of Tisha B’Av, the national day of mourning for the Jewish people, marking the destruction of both first and second temples.
  • Over 1,600 Jews visited the Temple Mount to commemorate and mourn the destruction. Among the visitors were two MKs from the Prime Minister’s Yamina party.
  • Prior to the Jews visiting, yesterday morning, dozens of Muslims hid inside the al-Aqsa Mosque to try and prevent Jews from visiting the Temple Mount. They clashed with police, who dispersed them using non-lethal crowd-control measures. There were no reports of injuries.
  • The United Arab List (UAL), part of the coalition, issued a joint statement with the Islamic Movement yesterday, saying: “Al-Aqsa Mosque belongs to the Muslims and no others have rights to it. The Islamic Movement and the UAL warned against permitting visits by large numbers of settlers who have violated the sanctity of the holy mosque since the morning. This is liable to set Jerusalem and the region on fire and to cause a destructive religious war, particularly when MKs enter al-Aqsa, hold prayers and religious ceremonies and sing the national anthem.”
  • The opposition party, the Joint List also condemned the visits. MK Ahmad Tibi said: “Recently there has been a gradual and quiet change in the status quo and Jews are praying in the al-Aqsa Mosque compound. This is a dangerous plan that must be stopped, because it will cause the situation to escalate and an explosion.”

Context: The Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism and the third holiest site for Islam.

  • For close to 2,000 years Jews were only allowed access to the Western Wall that represents the outer supporting wall of King Herod’s Temple that remains intact.
  • Following the 1967 Six-Day War Israel established the ‘Status Quo’ agreement that handed over the practical maintenance of the site to the Islamic Waqf. Under the agreement, only Muslims can pray on the mount, with non-Muslims allowed to visit at certain times of day, to avoid any clash with Muslim prayer.
  • Over the last few years there has been a growing movement within Religious Zionism that is unsatisfied with the restrictions imposed on Jews.
  • There has been a growing number of Rabbis that have given approval for Jews to visit the Mount and so Jewish visitors have increased, but nowhere near the scale of Muslim worshipers. Last year on the 9th of Tisha B’Av around 1,000 Jews visited the site.
  • More recently, small Jewish groups have surreptitiously held minimalist prayers. They do so quietly without wearing prayer shawls and phylacteries and without prayer books, which according to the Status Quo are not allowed on the Temple Mount.
  • The new worshipers have police protection, and the services are held with the knowledge of the Waqf.
  • The allegations from the UAL of Jews ‘storming the al-Aqsa’, is inaccurate. The Jewish visitors circumnavigate the site carefully not to get too close to the centre (where the Dome of the Rock now stands), which is considered once the site of the Jewish Temple’s Holy of Holies. Muslims have come to view the whole 35-acre site as a sacred place, not just the al-Aqsa mosque on the southern side of the plateau.
  • However, Bennett’s comments of “maintaining freedom of worship for Jews on the Mount” was the first time a sitting Israeli Prime Minister had endorsed that approach. In contrast, Prime Minister Netanyahu was always careful to support Jewish visitors, but not prayer. With Bennett’s clarification, he now appears to have returned to the Status Quo arrangement.

Looking ahead: In his statement Prime Minister Bennett also emphasised that full freedom of worship will be maintained for Muslims, who are marking the Day of Arafa and Eid al-Adha this week.

  • Tens of thousands of Muslim worshippers are expected to visit the Temple Mount tonight.
  • Later today King Abdullah II of Jordan will become the first Middle East leader to meet President Biden.  Jordan traditionally holds the status of Custodian of the holy site for Muslims and Christians in Jerusalem, and the King will likely raise the issue of the Temple Mount in the meeting.
  • Prime Minister Bennett is expected to travel to Washington and meet the president next month.
  • The entrance for non- Muslims is through the Mughrabi gate, via a wooden bridge in the Western Wall Plaza. The bridge has recently been declared unsafe, posing a danger of collapse and to the Women’s prayer area underneath. However, previous Israeli plans to upgrade and secure the bridge have faced opposition from the Muslim world, fearful for a change to the Status Quo.

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