Mounting tension: Israel’s Knesset debates proposal to enforce its sovereignty at Al-Aqsa Mosque - a move seen as ‘an extreme provocation to Muslims worldwide’

The plan to allow Jewish prayer at Islam’s third holiest site is threatening to plunge the entire region into great conflict


The Arab-Israeli conflict took on an increasingly religious hue when the Jordanian parliament voted unanimously to expel Israel’s ambassador in Amman after Israeli legislators held an unprecedented debate on Tuesday evening over a proposal to enforce Israeli sovereignty at one of Jerusalem’s holiest sites, currently administered by Jordan, and to allow Jewish prayer there.

The vote in Jordan’s 150-seat parliament is not binding on the cabinet, which is keen to maintain diplomatic ties with Israel. Still, the step was a measure of the degree to which the perception of an Israeli threat to Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, is ratcheting up tensions in the wider Arab and Muslim worlds, not just among Palestinians.

Al-Aqsa is situated in an area revered as Judaism’s holiest site for housing the temples destroyed in 586BC and AD70 and is in the locale where religious Jews pray a third temple will be built. The Mount, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, has been an exclusively Muslim prayer site for the last 1,300 years, with the exception of the crusader incursions to the Holy Land.

The debate held in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, was on “the loss of Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount” and was initiated by Moshe Feiglin, a Jewish fundamentalist member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, who, along with other far-right members of the Knesset, is dismayed that the government continues to acquiesce in granting a type of autonomy to the Jordanian-backed Palestinian officials who run the shrine and also that police intervene to stop Jews who visit the Mount from praying there and prevent the unfurling of Israeli flags.

Mr Netanyahu received rare praise from some dovish Israelis after he intervened to prevent Mr Feiglin’s motion from coming to a vote. “This is the first time Netanyahu is taking on the pyromaniacs in his own party and he deserves credit,” said Daniel Seidemann, who heads the dovish NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem and is often critical of Mr Netanyahu. According to Israel’s 1994 peace treaty with Jordan, Amman has a “special“ role in Muslim and Christian sites in Jerusalem.

On Tuesday morning, violence erupted at the Mount in advance of the debate. The police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said that about 100 Palestinians, most of them masked, began throwing stones and fireworks at police, lightly wounding two officers. Police then entered the mount to ”disperse the rioters“, he said.

Ziyad Surour, who works at a local clinic, told al-Quds daily newspaper that 22 Palestinians were injured by rubber-coated bullets and sound grenades.

But Mr Rosenfeld denied that rubber-coated bullets had been fired. Three Palestinians were arrested, he said.

Israeli police and border police officers scuffle with a Palestinian who is trying to enter Al-Aqsa (Reuters) Israeli police and border police officers scuffle with a Palestinian who is trying to enter Al-Aqsa (Reuters)
Hanan Ashrawi, the PLO spokeswoman, termed the holding of the Knesset debate an “extreme provocation to Muslims worldwide. Using religion as a pretext to impose sovereignty on historical places of worship threatens to plunge the entire region into great conflict and instability. It is reminiscent of the same regressive ideology that brought the crusades to Palestine in the Middle Ages’.’

Responding to the Jordanian parliament’s move, an Israeli official, who requested anonymity, said: ”There is no change in long-standing Israeli policy. The status quo at the Temple Mount will remain one that ensures free access to people of all faiths to the holy site.“ The official said Israel continues to stand by the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan and its provision of a special Jordanian role in Jerusalem holy sites.

Mr Feiglin told the Knesset during the debate that “every terror organisation can wave its flag on the Temple Mount, but the flag of Israel? Forget about it. [Reciting] a chapter of Psalms is reason for arrest. Even wearing a skullcap on the head is something the policemen recommend taking off. I call on the government of Israel to stop the discrimination and humiliation of Jews at the entrance to the Mount”.

Miri Regev, another far-right Likud legislator, said during the Knesset debate that Israel should establish separate prayer times for Jews and Muslims on the Mount as it did at the Cave of the Patriarchs site in Hebron, revered by Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque. ”We will reach a situation where the Temple Mount will be like the Cave of the Patriarchs, days for Jews and days for Muslims,“ she said.

Zahava Galon, head of the dovish Meretz party, said: ”No one disputes that Jews have the right to go up to the Temple Mount. At this time, there is a discussion of the diplomatic wisdom of this.

“He who stands here and calls for going up to the Temple Mount is making a provocation whose goal is to detonate Israel’s relations with the Muslim world, establish facts on the ground and hamper the diplomatic process.“

Tensions over the holy site have in the past led to sustained violence. In 2000, the then opposition leader Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the site triggered the outbreak of the second intifada uprising.

Mr Seidemann says he fears the strong emotions over the site could be used by those who want to disrupt the current peace diplomacy of US Secretary of State John Kerry. ”I’m very worried because the motivation of crazies – Jewish, Christian and Muslim – is always on the increase when there’s a political process going on,“ he said.

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