Public Security Minister Omer Barlev insisted on Sunday that the status quo on the Temple Mount “was in place and will remain in place,” after months of media reports showing Jewish worshipers openly praying at the site while police turned a blind eye.
“Israel Police scrupulously maintains the status quo at the Temple Mount, which is holy to both Jews and Muslims,” said Barlev, whose ministry is responsible for overseeing law enforcement.
Barlev made his remarks following a meeting with senior Israeli law enforcement officials, including Israeli police chief Kobi Shabtai and Jerusalem police chief Doron Turgeman. Foreign Ministry and Shin Bet officials were also present, according to Barlev’s office.
“The police have worked to protect the status quo — save for exceptional circumstances — which they have quickly identified and acted against,” Barlev said.
The Temple Mount, known to Muslims for its Al-Aqsa Mosque, is the holiest site for Jews and site of the third holiest shrine in Islam. It is one of the most emotionally contested places in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and clashes there were part of the backdrop to the 11-day conflict launched by Hamas from Gaza in May.
Since Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 war, a fragile arrangement has prevailed at the sacred hill: only Muslims are permitted to worship on the Temple Mount itself, while Jews pray at the Western Wall, revered as a remnant of the Second Temple.
Over the past few months, Israeli and international media have repeatedly shown police seemingly easing the restrictions on Jewish prayer, in an apparent shift from the status quo. Jewish visitors have been filmed apparently being allowed to worship freely, while officers looked on.
In mid-July, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett published a statement appearing to affirm the right of Jews to “freedom of worship” at the holy site. The premier’s office later walked back the remarks, but not before they had elicited a minor firestorm of condemnations by Arab and Muslim leaders.
In another surprising move that sparked Muslim ire, a Jerusalem magistrate earlier this month overturned a police order barring a Jewish man from the site for 15 days after he was seen praying quietly there. The Magistrate’s Court judge ruled that because the prayer was made quietly and not openly, it could not pose a security risk, which police use to justify enforcement of the ban.
An Israeli appellate judge struck down the lower court’s ruling, but not before the story had spread across the Arab and Islamic world. Jordan, Egypt, the Arab League, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation all condemned the decision.
Minor changes in the status quo — or even rumors of such changes — at the tense site have sparked violent clashes between Palestinians and Israelis in the past. In 2017, Israel installed metal detectors at the Temple Mount after Palestinian terrorists killed two Israeli policemen. The move ignited a series of protests, clashes, and Palestinian terror attacks that left several Palestinians and Israelis dead.
According to to the Walla news site, officials in the Shin Bet agency expressed concern to Barlev during the meeting that a group of Jews would try to hold an open prayer service at the Temple Mount, sparking similar violence.
Shin Bet agents also reportedly said that “elements in the Arab world and Turkey” were trying to exploit cases of individual Jews praying at the Temple Mount to stir up such tensions.
Barlev in July denied that there had been a change in policy at the Temple Mount. In an interview with Israel’s Channel 13, the minister said: “If Jews were praying on the Temple Mount, that is certainly against the law.”
Al-Aqsa Mosque director Omar al-Kiswani on Sunday scoffed at Barlev’s assurances that nothing has changed: “These are statements intended to achieve a political effect; they have nothing to do with reality.”
“Perhaps he is saying this to comfort Jordan, or the Arab world, or Muslims, but it does not reflect the bitter reality at the site,” al-Kiswani told The Times of Israel.
Right-wing former Likud parliamentarian Yehuda Glick, a prominent advocate for the right of Jews to worship on the Temple Mount, said Sunday that Jews had been praying openly at the site on and off since 2016, when former Jerusalem District police commander Yoram Halevi took charge of the site.
“There was a silent agreement on several matters — including that Muslims would be able to pray once again at the [Temple Mount’s] Golden Gate, and Jews were quietly allowed to pray,” Glick said in a phone call.
The activist criticized Barlev for what he said were unreasonable restrictions on Jewish visiting hours to the holy site. “They’re limiting the size of groups we’re allowed to take, they’re preventing prayer, there are more arrests and orders banning Jews [from visiting] — we haven’t seen this for a while.”