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Unprecedented remark day after TV films Jewish prayer groups

On Tisha B’Av, Bennett speaks of ‘freedom of worship’ for Jews on Temple Mount

Statement appears to be at odds with status quo, under which Jews allowed to visit site but not pray; Police minister: ‘Jews praying on Temple Mount is certainly against the law’

Israeli police stand guard as a group of Jews enter the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, during the Tisha B'Av fast mourning the destruction of the Temples, on July 18, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
Israeli police stand guard as a group of Jews enter the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, during the Tisha B'Av fast mourning the destruction of the Temples, on July 18, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett asserted on Sunday that both Jews and Muslims have “freedom of worship” on the Temple Mount, potentially hinting at a change in policy at the most contentious site in Israel.

While Jews can visit the site in Jerusalem’s Old City that houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the long-maintained status quo there has been that any non-Muslims are forbidden from praying there.

But during Tisha B’Av on Sunday, a day that marks the destruction of the First and Second Jewish Temples that once stood on the Mount, and amid clashes at the site, Bennett issued a statement that appeared to be at odds with that policy.

Bennett “thanked the public security minister and the Israel Police [chief] for managing the events on the Temple Mount with responsibility and consideration, while maintaining freedom of worship for Jews on the Mount,” according to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Bennett also “emphasized that freedom of worship on the Temple Mount will be fully preserved for Muslims as well, who will soon be marking the fast of the Day of Arafah and the Eid al-Adha.”

The statement, issued in English and Hebrew, came a day after Channel 12 news reported that groups of observant Jews have been ascending to the Temple Mount in recent months and quietly prayed without interruption by police. The TV report called the development “a revolution, unfolding gradually, under the radar.”

The Times of Israel asked the Prime Minister’s Office to clarify whether Bennett’s statement marked a change in policy, but no response had been received by Sunday evening. Channel 12 news reported that no previous Israeli prime minister is known to have spoken of “maintaining freedom of worship for Jews on the Mount.”

In 2015, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu specifically assured Jordan that Israel would not allow Jewish prayer on Temple Mount. “Israel will continue to enforce its longstanding policy: Muslims pray on the Temple Mount; non-Muslims visit the Temple Mount,” he said in a statement.

A spokesman for Public Security Minister Omer Barlev told The Times of Israel that there is “no change in policy” atop the Temple Mount.

Barlev later confirmed this to Channel 13 and stressed: “If Jews were praying on Temple Mount, that is certainly against the law.” He added: “I think the wording was off” in the prime minister’s statement, and that the Prime Minister’s Office had meant to highlight the freedom of access for Jews to the Mount despite “all the complexities” at the site on Sunday. “There was freedom of movement” for Jews visiting the Temple Mount on Tisha B’Av, he said.

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, July 18, 2021 (Channel 13 screenshot)

Allowing Jewish prayers to take place atop the Temple Mount would mark a major change to the status quo that has existed at the holy site since the Jewish state captured the Old City of Jerusalem from Jordan during 1967’s Six Day War. Since 1967, Israel has allowed the Jordanian Waqf to maintain religious authority atop the mount; Jews are allowed to visit, but not to pray there.

More than 1,600 Jews reportedly ascended to the Temple Mount during Tisha B’Av. Earlier in the day, dozens of Muslim worshipers barricaded themselves on the Mount and clashed with police ahead of the arrival of the Jewish visitors. Some of them briefly chanted: “With spirit, with blood, we’ll redeem Al-Aqsa.”

Jewish men pray outside the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem, as Israeli security forces stand guard during the annual Tisha B’Av (Ninth of Av) fast day on July 18, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Jordan, Turkey and Egypt all reacted angrily on Sunday to news of clashes at the site and waves of Jewish visitors.

“The Israeli actions against the mosque are rejected and condemned, and represent a violation of the historical and legal status quo, international law, and Israel’s obligations as an occupying power in East Jerusalem,” a Jordanian foreign ministry spokesman was quoted as saying by the official Petra news agency.

The Islamist Ra’am party, a member of Bennett’s governing coalition, also condemned the ascent of hundreds of Jewish “settlers” to the Temple Mount.

“The Al-Aqsa Mosque, in its 144 dunams, is solely the property of Muslims, and no one else has any right to it,” the party said, warning that “the events that may result from it could inflame the situation in Jerusalem and the entire region, leading to a catastrophic religious war.”

Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.

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