Jordan has moved to give Palestinians in Jerusalem a greater role in administering the Muslim institutions on the Temple Mount, expanding the Waqf religious trust council and appointing to its ranks East Jerusalem political and religious leaders.
According to a report Monday in the Haaretz daily, the Jordanian government, which controls the Waqf, enlarged its council from 11 to 18 members last week. For the first time, Palestinian Authority officials and religious leaders were installed in the body, which has historically been made up of individuals close to the Jordanian monarchy.
The change is a bid by Amman to begin to share responsibility for the holy site, the location of the biblical Jewish temples, and now of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock shrine, which in recent years has become an epicenter of tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as between competing regional alliances.
The move has also triggered a new round of violence and tension at the holy site. On Thursday, the expanded Waqf council met for the first time on the Temple Mount, near the Gate of Mercy, or Golden Gate, an area sealed by Israeli authorities in 2003 because the group managing the area had ties to Hamas, and kept closed to stop illegal construction work there by the Waqf that Israeli officials believe has led to the destruction of antiquities from periods of Jewish presence in the area.
After the Thursday meeting, the council members entered the restricted building to pray there.
Israeli police responded by summoning the head of the Waqf, Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib al-Tamimi, for questioning, but the summons were later canceled, apparently following pressure from Jordan, according to Haaretz.
Four days later, on Monday, the Waqf, possibly in response to the earlier summons, mobilized worshipers to the building next to the Gate of Mercy and initiated protest prayers in front of the locked gates to the site. Several Palestinian men then kicked the gates down and went in.
Police officers rushed the structure, sparking clashes and arresting five Palestinian activists.
During the clashes, police sealed off the entire Temple Mount compound for roughly three hours on Monday afternoon.
The closure drew an angry rebuke from Amman, with a letter from the Jordanian foreign ministry to its Israeli counterpart calling the closure a violation of the status quo and demanding the reopening of the gates and the removal of all Israeli security forces.
In an English-language statement on Tuesday, the office of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of attempting to impose a “division” of the mosque compound.
The PA presidency, the statement said, “strongly condemned the Israeli closure of the Golden Gate (Bab al-Rahmeh) with locks and chains, warning against Israeli plans aimed at imposing the temporal and spatial division of the mosque.”
It held “the Israeli occupation authorities fully responsible for the complete deterioration and tension, warning it against its continued repressive and arbitrary policies which will only lead to repercussions and fuel the feelings of the Palestinian people.”
The ongoing tensions at the site are part of the reason for the expansion of the Waqf council by Jordan, according to Haaretz. Amman first considered the move in the wake of violent protests that followed a terror attack in which Palestinian gunmen killed Israeli police officers guarding the Temple Mount in mid-2017.
Israel installed metal detectors at the compound’s entrances following that attack, triggering weeks of protests by Palestinians. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally ordered the detectors removed after regional allies warned that the fight over the holy site was strengthening the hands of Islamist factions throughout the region.
Jordan believes its influence at the Temple Mount was eroded by those events, while Palestinian leaders who led the protests saw their influence grow.
The Waqf council’s new membership reflects that shift. The new members include PA officials Hatem Abdel Kader and the PA’s governor in Jerusalem, Adnan al-Husayn; religious leaders Akrama Sabri, considered close to Turkey’s ruling AKP party, and the Mufti of Jerusalem Muhammad Hussein; and the president of Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, Imad Abu Kishk.
Palestinian fears about purported Israeli plans to change the 52-year arrangement on the Temple Mount — where the Waqf maintains administrative control and the Israel Police security control — have become a daily staple in Palestinian political rhetoric and media reports in recent years. Multiple car-rammings, stabbings and shootings have been attributed by Palestinian attackers to the alleged efforts by Israel to alter the status quo at the site, according to which Jews may visit but not pray there.
Right-wing Israeli activists in recent years have challenged the prayer prohibition, but the Israeli government has firmly and repeatedly said it intends to uphold the old arrangement.