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Police appeal ruling, saying judge erred

Authorities seek to tamp down tensions amid backlash over Temple Mount prayer ruling

After Hamas threats and international criticism, Judicial Authority says Sunday’s controversial decision in favor of Jews who prayed at holy site will not change status quo

Tobias (Toby) Siegal is a breaking news editor and contributor to The Times of Israel.

Thousands of Muslim worshipers attend the first Friday prayers during the month of Ramadan at the Temple Mount complex in Jerusalem's Old City, Friday, April 8, 2022. (Sliman Khader/Flash90)
Thousands of Muslim worshipers attend the first Friday prayers during the month of Ramadan at the Temple Mount complex in Jerusalem's Old City, Friday, April 8, 2022. (Sliman Khader/Flash90)

In an unusual message to the media, Israel’s Judicial Authority stressed on Monday that a controversial ruling the day before by a Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court juvenile judge did not indicate a change in policy at the flashpoint Temple Mount holy site.

The authority said Sunday’s contentious ruling in favor of Jews who prayed at the holy site “does not intervene” in police enforcement of the delicate status quo.

Judge Zion Saharay had ruled Sunday in favor of three Jewish teenagers who appealed a decision by the Israel Police to bar them from visiting the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for a period of time after they were detained for reciting a prayer on the compound.

By praying at the site, the teenagers violated a longstanding but informal arrangement known as the status quo, which dictates that Jews are allowed to visit the site but not pray there. The Temple Mount is the holiest site for Jews and the compound’s Al-Aqsa Mosque is the third-holiest for Muslims.

In his Sunday ruling, Saharay said he did not consider bowing down and reciting a prayer sufficient cause to curtail freedom of religion for fear it would cause a disturbance at the site. The ruling was nearly unprecedented and sparked condemnation from the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and the Hamas terror group.

Monday’s clarification, saying that Saharay’s ruling did not affect the status quo, came following that backlash. The Judicial Authority published the full text of Saharay’s ruling, alongside a message emphasizing certain quotes from the text, including the judge’s own statement that his decision “does not intervene with the police’s job in enforcing public order at the Temple Mount, nor does it determine anything regarding freedom of worship at the Temple Mount. These matters are not discussed in the decision at all.”

Saharay on Monday repeated his previous statement, noting that his ruling was only relevant to the case he was presiding over.

“The decision was focused on one question only: Did the behavior exhibited by the appealers before me, under the concrete circumstances of the case, justify reasonable suspicion for disturbing a police officer on duty or any other form of behavior that may disrupt the peace and justify a ban on them for 15 days,” the judge said.

He cited remarks made by Supreme Court President Esther Hayut earlier Monday who said during an opening ceremony of Israel’s Bar Association that “despite various claims raised against the judicial system or its judges, which classify their decisions on opposing ends of the political map — depending on the speaker — Israeli judges are committed to the law. They rule according to the law and nothing else.”

Later Monday, the police filed an appeal against Saharay’s ruling to the Jerusalem District Court.

In the appeal, the police requested to reverse the decision, stating that Saharay erred “in drawing conclusions about government policy regarding the rules of conduct on the Temple Mount,” which police said was based on an “online report.”

Police also argued that the youths’ were guilty of “disturbing an on-duty police officer” by not adhering to instructions given to them before arriving at the holy site. Police also argued that their actions endangered the public peace given that they took place during the “very sensitive date” of May 15, which was Nakba Day, and ongoing tensions surrounding the holy site.

In the wake of Saharay’s ruling, the Prime Minister’s Office was quick to issue a statement stressing there would be no change to the status quo at the site.

And in the latest example of police maintaining the status quo at the site, videos circulating on social media on Monday showed several Jews who were detained by police while attempting to pray at the Temple Mount.

But despite the repeated clarifications and assurances that the ruling would not affect the status quo at the flashpoint site in any way, it was met with criticism both from Israeli lawmakers and regional actors.

Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej said, “His decision reminds me how one fool is able to burn down an entire forest.”

“This is not a legal decision, but a political one,” the Arab Israeli lawmaker said during an interview with Reshet Bet Radio Monday morning. “Everyone has their own areas designated for praying. The Al-Aqsa compound is where Muslims pray and the Western Wall is where Jews pray. Most people want this situation to remain as it is. We mustn’t play with fire. We’re heading toward an escalation.”

Coming to Saharay’s defense, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar said direct attacks against judges were unacceptable.

“There’s no place for personal attacks on judges,” the minister said. “One may argue with court decisions, but lashing out at judges themselves is unacceptable in public discourse.”

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar leads a New Hope faction meeting at the Knesset on November 8, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

On Sunday, the Hamas terror group said the ruling “plays with fire while crossing all red lines, and is a dangerous escalation for which the leaders of the occupation shall bear the consequences.”

Jordan declared that the ruling was “null and void,” and reiterated the importance of maintaining the status quo in Jerusalem.

The office of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called the decision “a serious violation of the historical status quo” and urged Washington “to intervene urgently to stop the Israeli attacks on our people and their sanctities.”

In comments that also referenced Israelis’ upcoming Jerusalem Day Flag March through the Old City, Abbas’s office called “on our people to challenge and confront these attacks.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks as he meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, March 27, 2022, in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

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.

Jordan has long maintained that its treaties with Israel grant it custodianship over Jerusalem’s Christian and Muslim holy sites; while Israel has never accepted this claim, it grants day-to-day administration of the Temple Mount to the Jordan-funded Waqf.

The agreement by which Jews can visit the Mount but not pray there has frayed in recent years, as groups of Jews, including hardline religious nationalists, have regularly visited and prayed at the site. The Israeli government, nonetheless, says it is committed to maintaining the status quo, despite reports indicating it has turned a blind eye to some Jews seeking to pray at the site.

During last month’s convergence of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish holiday of Passover, the site saw nearly daily clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinian rioters.

The heightened tensions in the capital drew a harsh response from Jordan at the time, whose prime minister used unusually hostile language to condemn “Zionist sympathizers,” and what he called Israel’s “occupation government.” Jordanian King Abdullah slammed the Jewish state for allowing Jewish pilgrims to enter the site and called on the Israeli government to respect “the historical and legal status quo” there.

Times of Israel Staff contributed to this report.

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