The Palestinian Authority response to a proposed Knesset bill that would allow Jewish prayer on Temple Mount may exacerbate the already fraught issue by apparently misrepresenting the bill as a bid to allow Jewish worship inside the Al Aqsa Mosque.
Since its capture in 1967, Jews are allowed to visit the Temple Mount as tourists but not to pray on the site, revered by Jews as the location of the first and second temples and the most hallowed area in Jewish tradition.
A new bill drafted by MKs Miri Regev (Likud) and Hilik Bar (Labor) would allow Jews to pray on the Mount using religious holy objects such as a tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries) which are currently banned.
The Ynet news site, which reported on the draft law Sunday, said it was unclear when it will be put forth for a vote.
But Palestinian officials attacked the bill as an attempt to change the status quo inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque — a structure dating back to the seventh century and considered the third-holiest site in Islam — and warned of grave repercussions if such a law were to pass.
Mohammad al-Madani, chairman of the Palestinian Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society and a member of Fatah’s Central Committee, said in a message sent to journalists on Sunday that any permission Israel granted Jews “to pray in the Al-Aqsa mosque would direly escalate the situation in the region and may lead to fierce confrontation not only between Israel and the Palestinian people, but also between Israel and the Arab and Islamic worlds.”
“The Palestinian people as well as the Arab and Islamic worlds strenuously reject all Israeli violations of the sanctity of Islamic and Christian holy places,” the message read.
Regev, who has been pushing for Jewish prayer on Temple Mount through the Knesset’s Internal Affairs Committee, which she chairs, stressed that the bill will in no way change the status quo inside the mosque, located on the southern perimeter of the plaza.
“Why should Jews not be allowed to enter Temple Mount?” Regev asked in an interview with Israel’s Walla news on Sunday. “Because Arab-Muslim MKs claim that we want to enter Al-Aqsa? We don’t want to enter Al-Aqsa. We want to enter the Temple Mount plaza. We want a Jew to be allowed to bring in tefillin without being arrested.”
But that assertion did not prevent senior Palestinian political analyst Abdel Raouf Arnaout from reporting that Regev and Bar were scheming to divide prayer times inside Al-Aqsa between Jews and Muslims, as is the case in Hebron’s Tomb of Patriarchs. The law, he wrote in Saudi daily Al-Watan Sunday, “claims that the mosque is holy to Jews as it is to Muslims and that Jews should be allowed to pray in it, as is the case with the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in the West Bank.”
Reports of Israeli plans to change the status quo of Al-Aqsa Mosque, or even destroy it, have long been used as a rallying cry by Palestinian and Arab leaders against Israel. During a meeting with Israeli students in February, Abbas said that the Palestinians reject shared sovereignty over Al-Aqsa. In an interview with Al-Watan in 2013, he warned of an Israeli plot to destroy Al-Aqsa and build “the alleged Temple” in its stead.
Fayez Abbas, a spokesman for the Palestinian president, denied that the bill was being misrepresented by Palestinian commentators as referring to Jewish prayer inside the mosque rather than in Temple Mount as a whole. He said that the term Al-Aqsa is simply used by Palestinians as shorthand for the entire plaza, known in Arabic as Al-Haram A-Sharif.
“They mean the entire plaza,” he asserted.
Indeed, the terms “Al-Aqsa Mosque” and “Al-Haram A-Sharif” are often used interchangeably by Arabs to refer to the same place, said Lior Lehrs, a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies who penned a report in 2011 on the issue of Jerusalem in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
The preamble to the Jordanian-Palestinian Agreement to Jointly Defend Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa of March 2013, Lehrs noted, refers to “al-Masjid al-Aqsa with its 144 Dunums, which include the Qibli Mosque of al-Aqsa, the Mosque of the Dome of the Rock and all its mosques, buildings, walls, courtyards, attached areas over and beneath the ground and the Waqf properties tied-up to al-Masjid al-Aqsa, to its environs or to its pilgrims.”
“They see it as one compound and have a very hard time making the separation,” Lehrs said.
But Hillel Frisch, an expert on Palestinian politics at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, said the Palestinian terminology was far less innocuous.
“They do everything to mobilize Palestinians against any Jewish presence on Temple Mount,” he told The Times of Israel. “Using Al-Aqsa is probably the most inflammatory way of igniting Palestinian passions.”