Public Security Minister Omer Barlev on Friday warned that any change to longstanding religious arrangements on the Temple Mount could be met with violence, after a Jerusalem court this week ruled in favor of a Jewish man who prayed quietly on the holy site, fracturing a de facto ban on Jewish prayer there.
Barlev noted that police have appealed the ruling, arguing that “a change in the existing status quo will endanger public peace and could cause a flare-up.” Currently, only Muslims may pray on the site.
The Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, is the holiest site for Jews and site of the third holiest shrine in Islam. It is the emotional epicenter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and tensions there helped ignite the 11-day Gaza war in May.
Under understandings reached after Israel captured the Old City and East Jerusalem in the 1967 war, Jews are allowed to visit but not to pray there. Israel maintains overall security at the site, but the Muslim Waqf administers religious activities there. Police have for decades enforced the Jewish prayer ban as a public security measure.
“The State of Israel advocates freedom of worship and prayer for all, however, in view of the security implications, the status quo must be observed,” Barlev added in a statement.
Palestinians at the Temple Mount peacefully protested the ruling on Friday, denouncing it as a violation of the fragile status quo governing the flashpoint compound.
Tuesday’s ruling by the magistrate’s court — which was denounced Thursday by Muslim authorities — concerned a Jewish man, who had been barred from the site for 15 days after Israel Police caught him praying under his breath there.
The court lifted the ban several days early, ruling that the man, “like many others, prays on a daily basis on the Temple Mount.”
Judge Bilhah Yahalom’s legal ruling was narrowly focused on overturning the man’s ban from the plaza.
But commenting on his conduct, she wrote: “The appellant stood in the corner with a friend or two, there was no crowd around him, his prayer was quiet, whispered.”
“I have not found that the religious acts carried out by the appellant were externalized and visible,” she ruled, determining that such prayer did “not violate police instructions,” and canceling his ban from the site.
Police appealed the ruling, arguing that he engaged in “improper conduct in public.”
Magistrate courts make up the lowest level of the Israeli judiciary and hear cases concerning relatively minor crimes.
The Jordanian-run Islamic Waqf that overseas the site called the court’s ruling a “flagrant violation” of the compound’s sanctity and a “clear provocation” for Muslims worldwide.
“This decision also has no legitimacy because we do not recognize Israeli law on Al-Aqsa,” mosque director Sheikh Omar al-Kiswani told AFP.
Minor changes to the status quo at the holy site or even rumors of such changes have sparked violent protests in the past. In 2017, a decision to place metal detectors and cameras at the compound following an attack there sparked several days of angry protests and condemnation from Israel’s Muslim neighbors.
Egypt denounced the court’s decision Thursday as a “violation” and said it held “deep concern about the consequences.”
Abdullah Kanaan of Jordan’s Royal Committee for Jerusalem Affairs rejected the ruling as an attack on the mosque and pledged to “firmly” counter Israeli rulings against the Palestinian people and Jerusalem sanctities, according to the state-run Petra news agency.
The Saudi Arabia-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation strongly condemned “the decision of the so-called Israeli ‘Jerusalem Court.'”
At the same time, Jewish proponents of prayer on the Temple Mount have downplayed the impact of the court’s ruling.
Arnon Segal, a long-time activist for Jewish Temple Mount prayer, stressed that despite the ruling’s sentiment, “the simple truth is that (Jewish) prayer is prohibited on the Temple Mount.”
Mainstream rabbinical authorities oppose Jewish prayer and even visits to the Temple Mount, out of concern that visitors might tread on the area where the ancient Jewish Temples’ Holy of Holies stood, defiling it. Instead, Jewish worship is centered at the Western Wall plaza below.
In a ruling earlier this year on a petition demanding Temple Mount prayer rights for Jews, Israel’s Supreme Court found that “every Jew has the right to pray on the Temple Mount, as part of the freedom of religion and expression.”
“At the same time, these rights are not absolute, and can be limited to take into account the public interest.”
Israel captured East Jerusalem — including the Old City and its holy sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims — in the 1967 war and annexed it. The move was not recognized by most of the international community, although the US, under the Trump administration, recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved its embassy to the city. The Palestinians seek East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. The city’s status has been among the most divisive issues in decades of failed peace efforts.