Reporter's notebook

At a deceptively serene Temple Mount, in the eye of the storm

Amid escalating violence all around, it only takes the briefest tour of the site at the epicenter of the Arab-Israel conflict to sense the unbending clash of wills over its status

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

A Jewish visitor to the Temple Mount looks at the Dome of the Rock, 2013. (Sliman Khader/Flash90, File)
A Jewish visitor to the Temple Mount looks at the Dome of the Rock, 2013. (Sliman Khader/Flash90, File)

A group of boys, led by a rabbi from a seminary in Otniel, backed out of the Temple Mount compound through the Gate of the Chain; one of them, careful not to turn his back on the site most holy to Judaism, narrowed his eyes several times, visibly close to prayer, but restrained himself until the golden dome, built above the alleged foundation stone of the Second Temple, retreated from view. Only once he had left the sun-drenched plaza and returned to the covered labyrinth of the Old City market did the Israel Police officers and the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf officials avert their gaze.

The boys then paraded up the path, chanting a traditional song about the temple, which “shall be [re-]built.”

One of them, a straggler, a resident of an illegal hilltop settlement in the northeast Binyamin Region of the West Bank, said he had refrained from visiting the Temple Mount for years because of the clash between the sanctity of the place and the prohibition on Jewish prayer.

“It disturbed me,” he said.

In this, he is not alone. A Sunday tour of the Temple Mount, the most sensitive spot in the Israeli-Arab conflict, offered a glimpse of the tensions pushing against the status quo from both sides of the divide.

Yaakov Heyman, originally from California and an activist for Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, told a group of journalists that he came of age during the battles to end segregation in the US; the images of African-American schoolgirls being accompanied by the National Guard, he indicated, were akin to what he felt when Israeli riot police escort him each morning to the Temple Mount.

Temple Mount activist Yaakov  Heyman (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)
Temple Mount activist Yaakov Heyman, November 9, 2014 (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/Times of Israel)

Calling the ban on Jewish prayer on the mount “the real apartheid,” Heyman, a friend and colleague of the almost-assassinated Yehudah Glick, said that he seeks a reality in line with Isaiah’s “house of prayer for all people.”

The status quo, which allows Jews and Christians to visit the mount but not to pray, is “not holy,” he claimed. Instead, he called for violating it and erecting a Jewish place of prayer on the 150,000-square-meter expanse, even while acknowledging that it would be paid for in blood. “If you believe in freedom, and if you believe in democracy, you have to say that’s it, even if we’re going to have some loss of life; we have to stop the insanity.”

Standing opposite the Mount of Olives and above the Silwan neighborhood of Jerusalem, Israel Police Spokesman, Chief Inspector Micky Rosenfeld, said some 30,000 Muslims pray at the al-Aqsa Mosque every day. Most do so peacefully.

Those who have clashed with police have operated from within the sanctuary of the al-Aqsa Mosque, Rosenfeld said, adding that the rioters, often older and more religious than the teens who have been arrested in East Jerusalem, wear bags on their shoes and gloves on their hands to stymie police forensic work. Rosenfeld said they have thrown acid and Molotov cocktails at police officers and set off fireworks from within the mosque, and that the police, in response, have locked the green doors of the mosque with chains, barring their exit.

The Dome of the Rock, opposite the al-Aqsa Mosque, during a recent visit (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)
The Dome of the Rock, opposite the al-Aqsa Mosque, during a recent visit, November 9, 2014 (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/Times of Israel)

The police chains had in fact scarred the wooden doors of the mosque, as Rosenfeld had indicated, and the police were present in large numbers and outfitted with riot gear, but other than that all seemed normal.

Two groups of religious Muslim women sat in different patches of shade listening to a sermon from a woman. Men lounged and chatted and occasionally prayed in the direction of Mecca. Boys played soccer along the eastern wall. Some of the people in our group — allowed to enter, but prevented from conducting interviews — said that the tension was thick enough to be cut with a knife. Not for the first time, I felt, despite the knowledge that the slightest provocation could spark a holy war with hundreds of millions of Muslims, a fragile but palpable serenity on the mount.

The entrance to the Temple Mount, through the Mughrabi Gate, the only one open to non-Muslims and not nearly the most attractive, is nonetheless stunning: air, sky, trees, space; all that is lacking in the rest of the Old City.

Thousands of Palestinians pray outside Al-Aqsa Mosque, atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, on the Muslim holiday of Eid Al Adha last October. (Photo credit: Sliman Khader/FLASH90)
Thousands of Palestinians pray outside the al-Aqsa Mosque, atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, on the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha last October. (photo credit: Sliman Khader/Flash90)

As a tour guide explained that the Dome of the Rock was built by Abd el-Malik 55 years after the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem — that it was likely inspired by the shape of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; and that it may have been formed in that way in order to entice the city’s majority Christian population, back in 691 — a group of Orthodox Jews entered the courtyard.

Surrounded by police, both for their protection and to ensure that they did not pray, the small group was immediately noticed by the women in the study group closest to the Mughrabi Gate. The women began calling “Allahu Akbar!” in a four-beat chant. Quickly, as the Israelis made their way around the compound, steering well clear of the Dome of the Rock, the chant was taken up by nearly all of the Muslims in the area. Children in bright sneakers, one of them holding a yellow balloon, chanted along with their mothers.

‘If we were scared of bloodshed, we would have stayed at Auschwitz’

This ritual repeated itself each time an outwardly Orthodox Jew entered the compound.

A Waqf official, unauthorized to speak with the press, said it had nothing to do with anti-Semitism but rather with a desire to protect the sanctity of a Muslim holy place, which many feel is under attack.

He did not mention the rise in interest among Jewish Israelis, including several MKs, who have made access to the Temple Mount the cornerstone of their public service. Nor any of the other incidents, including the August 1929 riots that began at the behest of the mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, at that very spot and for very similar reasons.

But Simcha, the young man from the illegal outpost, who said he had been arrested in the past for praying at the Mount, was well aware of the potential for conflict at the site. “If we were scared of bloodshed,” he said, “we would have stayed at Auschwitz.”

Instead, he explained he felt that God had “opened an opening” toward full Jewish control of the site and that he would continue to visit, if not yet pray, “in order to change the situation.”

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