Last Friday, three Palestinian citizens of Israel shot and killed two Israeli police officers stationed outside the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary, a site holy to Muslims, Christians and Jews. Though not an exceptionally spectacular attack, it’s threatening to send shock waves throughout the region. The three assailants were pursued back into the compound and killed in the ensuing gun battle. Israel’s response was swift: a full closure of the Temple Mount to Muslim worshipers, barricades throughout the Old City and heavily armed security on every corner.
It was only the third time in 50 years that Israel had closed the Temple Mount during Friday prayers, upsetting a status quo in place since Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967. Israeli authorities gradually reopened the compound to Muslim worshipers Sunday and non-worshipers Monday.
But the return to normal had a hitch: Worshipers were now required to walk through Israeli-manned metal detectors before entering the compound. Worshipers refused and have led a week-long civil-disobedience campaign that will come to a head during Friday’s prayers.
Why would metal detectors cause such an uproar?
Like most headline-grabbing events in Israel and Palestine, the significance may get lost in the details. At its core, this is not about whether Palestinians should go through tougher security to pray at al-Aqsa Mosque but whether the metal detectors represent a threat to the precarious status quo governing worshiping arrangements on and around the Temple Mount. Many Palestinians believe that they do.
The metal detectors are seen by many as one more step in the broader context of decades of discriminatory policies in East Jerusalem, including housing and residency laws that favor Jewish communities, settler takeovers of Palestinian homes and collective punishment in the form of curfews and street closures.
Yael Marom, editor at the Israeli news site Local Call, says that fears over the Temple Mount should be viewed in the context of the ongoing Judaization of Jerusalem, as Israeli authorities gradually work to shift the demographics and landscape of occupied East Jerusalem in favor of a Jewish presence. One important manifestation of that trend is the rise of Temple Movements, right-wing religious organizations that aim to increase the Jewish presence on — and sovereignty over — the Temple Mount. They represent an increasingly mainstream challenge to sovereignty over Islam’s third-holiest site and are proving to be a major threat to the delicate state of affairs in Jerusalem.
Since 1967, Jordan and Israel have agreed that the Islamic trust, or Waqf, appointed by Jordan, would oversee internal matters at the Temple Mount, while Israel would maintain control over external security. That arrangement was codified in the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty and went mostly unchallenged until Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount with a large security detail in 2000, ultimately sparking the Second Intifada.
Sharon’s visit wasn’t an accident. It coincided with the intensification of right-wing religious extremism related to the Jewish right to pray on the Temple Mount.
Israel’s radical right has been expanding its influence on the Temple Mount
The Israeli rabbinate forbids Jews to pray on the Temple Mount until the third temple is built, but Temple Movements are challenging that edict. Once on the fringes of society and power, right-wing Temple Movements are enjoying a surge in influence, in part because of aggressive messaging that frames their crusade to pray on the Temple Mount as a simple human and civil rights issue. Since 2000, they have gained favor from mainstream political and religious leaders on the right, including Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan and Members of Knesset (MK) Miri Regev, Moshe Feiglin and Moti Yogev. In 2015, then-acting foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely said in a televised interview that she dreamed of seeing the Israeli flag fly over the Temple Mount, calling the site the center of Israeli sovereignty.
While Temple Movements and their political supporters employ the language of freedom of religious expression, there is good reason to question their supposed multiculturalism. MKs Feiglin, Regev and Yogev are known for strong anti-Arab views. One of the more infamous Temple Movement NGOs, Temple Mount Faithful, states that it is its duty in constructing the Third Temple to first remove “these pagan shrines” — referring to the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque. A popular photograph sold in Jerusalem markets depicts the iconic Temple Mount — but with al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock conspicuously photoshopped out.
All these perceptions and signals matter
Whether Israeli leaders actually have blueprints for the Third Temple or not is immaterial. What matters is that Palestinians perceive an immediate threat to their access to and control of the Temple Mount, fueled by statements from MKs and ministers and framed by decades of discriminatory policies in East Jerusalem. In a 2016 poll, more than half of Palestinians expressed fear that Israel intends to destroy Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Another 2016 poll shows that Jerusalemite Palestinians are deeply concerned with Jewish ascension to the Noble Sanctuary and archaeological excavations in the area.
On Friday, Israel will make a seemingly banal security decision — to keep or remove the metal detectors at the gates of the Temple Mount. The significance of that decision cannot be overstated. In the immediate term, it will determine whether the week of civil disobedience erupts into something much larger across the region. But it might also signal whether the Temple Mount’s delicate status quo has finally unraveled.
Daniel Nerenberg received his PhD in political science from George Washington University and is the communications manager for the nonprofit organization Just Vision.