NOTICE AND WARNING: ENTERING THE TEMPLE MOUNT AREA IS STRICTLY FORBIDDEN BY JEWISH LAW DUE TO THE SACRED NATURE OF THE SITE- ISRAEL CHIEF RABBINATE
There’s no missing these signs that have been in place since Israeli’s occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967; and there has been no change whatsoever in the position of the country’s religious authority which interprets the Torah and advises the government of the day.
Why, then, are numerous groups within Israel clamouring for full access to the al-Aqsa Mosque compound, and why are they claiming this access on the basis of a religious right?
The answer to this question makes one thing very clear: What has changed is not religious law, but the interpretation of the law by a government that appears intent on undermining the authority of the rabbis.
I have seen the changes first hand.
I was in the Old City that September day in 2000 when Ariel Sharon insisted on access to the area above the Western Wall. The government of the day headed by Ehud Barak pleaded with him not to do it, and then instructed him not to do it.
The only thing that prevented Barak from forcibly preventing Sharon was the tenuous nature of his domestic political status. At the time, he was engaging in accelerated talks on a final status peace deal. Sharon went ahead and the rest is history. Within days, the second Intifada was underway, and within months, Sharon’s approval rating had risen from three percent at the time of the walk to more than 70 percent going into new elections.
Sharon was not a religious man, though he wore his kippa, or skull cap, on that occasion. Cynics may argue that the decision was taken with an eye to reviving a failed political career; but as always, with Sharon, there was also a strong nationalistic drive.
Moving 15 years forward, I am once again outside the walls of the Old City, watching Palestinian after Palestinian being turned away by heavily armed police officers at every point of access. The total lockdown of the entire Old City to all but Palestinians who live or own businesses within the walls is unprecedented, it was never done even at the height of both Intifadas.
Jewish Israeli citizens along with tourists, though, maintain their full access, and some choose to ignore the religious injunction and retrace Sharon’s footsteps and visit the al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
I watch group after group take the tour, escorted by police and guides from the supervising authority, the Waqf, who are on hand to ensure that no one stops and prays. It’s significant that the vast majority of those I observe on the walk are also wearing the kippa skull cap that, while denoting faith, has also become the signature headwear of those in the hardline settler movement.
Israeli police produced figures noting that more than 500 people were escorted through the al-Aqsa Mosque compound on that day; the bulk were classified as “tourists”, but some 120 were confirmed to be Jewish Israeli citizens.
The al-Aqsa Mosque compound is in full view from the Mount of Olives opposite, and throughout the morning, I watched small Palestinian parties gathering away from the tourists, looking down as group after group was escorted through the compound and shaking their heads.
The question once again crosses my mind: Why is this being allowed when it is such clear provocation?
Government support for settlers
The answer to that may be found in looking at some strange recipients of official government funding that have an interest in the Old City. These range from a women’s group in the settlement of Ofra that makes imitation artefacts from the Third Temple to the increasingly influential Temple Mount Institute.
The institute receives over one hundred and ten thousand dollars a year from the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Education. It argues strongly that the rabbis are wrong, and that not all of the al-Aqsa Mosque compound ground is sacred – only one tiny area in which it says the “Holy of Holies”.
This is the inner sanctuary of the tabernacle where God dwelt and where, in the First Temple, the Ark of the Covenant was kept. In fact, the institute advocates and has drawn up plans for the rebuilding of the Third Temple. By continuing to fund the institute, the Netanyahu government is not only condoning but perhaps advocating building on the land occupied by the al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
Then one looks closely at the nature of the current government: The most influential force within it are representatives of the settler movement. If the Jewish Home party of hardline and proud settler leader Naftali Bennet no longer supports Netanyahu for example, the government falls.
Then one looks closely at the nature of the current government, the most influential force within it are representatives of the settler movement.
I am not alone in believing that the Old City has once again become a political tool as well as a place sacred to Muslim, Christian and Jew. Ariel Sharon saw clearly the potential for gaining wider political support by making a nationalist claim to the whole of the Old City.
The settler movement may well be seeking its own Sharon moment; after all, what was once a fringe movement is now mainstream. And it is likely to gain even more support and legitimacy in the eyes of the wider Israeli public arguing for a right to the Old City than it would for some remote hilltop in the West Bank.
In this thesis, the al-Aqsa Mosque compound has become the focal point of a settler movement seeking full control of all Occupied Territory.
In 2000 the then prime minister did everything in his power to prevent Israeli access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, citing security concerns as well as backing the religious law as outlined by the country’s Chief Rabbinate.
In 2015, the prime minister stays silent as members of his government press for complete access – defying the country’s supreme religious authority and ignoring – or perhaps encouraging – devastating consequences throughout the region.