In a near-unprecedented decision, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court ruled Monday in favor of three Jewish teenagers who were temporarily barred from the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem after they bowed down and recited the “Shema Yisrael” prayer at the flashpoint site.
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.
In his Sunday ruling, Judge Zion Saharay said that 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.
Saharay also cited Police Chief Kobi Shabtai in comments from last May that officers would ensure freedom of religion for “all residents of the country and the territories” at the flashpoint holy site.
But police sources said later Sunday that the judge had distorted Shabtai’s comments in an attempt to support his ruling. And the state prosecution said it would appeal his decision.
Responding to the ruling, and its potentially inflammatory consequence given the sensitivity of the contested holy site, the Prime Minister’s Office issued an unusual statement clarifying that no changes were planned in the status quo on the Temple Mount, which houses the Al Aqsa Mosque.
“There is no change, nor is any change planned, on the status quo of the Temple Mount,” the statement said. “The Magistrate Court’s decision is focused exclusively on the issue of the conduct of the minors brought before it, and does not constitute a broader determination regarding the freedom of worship on the Temple Mount. With regard to the specific criminal case in question, the government was informed that the state will file an appeal to the District Court.”
The status quo arrangement 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 that it turns a blind eye to Jews seeking to pray at the site.
Previous court rulings or statements by politicians that threatened to violate the status quo at the site have often led to clashes with Palestinians and international condemnation, including from regional actors Jordan and Turkey. A visit to the flashpoint site by then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon in 2000 was among the catalysts to the Second Intifada. Last year, perceived changes to the status quo were among the main causes of an 11-day war in Gaza.
Next week, a nationalist “flag march,” approved to pass through Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter, is threatening to rekindle tensions in and around the Temple Mount, following a tense month that saw near-daily clashes at the site.
Quoting police chief Shabtai in his ruling, judge Saharay wrote: “A public statement made by the head of police that clearly suggests that all residents of the country are allowed to enter the Temple Mount and pray there is an invitation for anyone interested in doing so to come.”
The judge noted that “under these circumstances… When the appellants conduct themselves in accordance with the public call of the police commissioner and according to the Law on the Protection of Holy Places, they cannot be suspected of committing a criminal offense.”
Saharay went further, criticizing the police for limiting the teenagers’ access to the site. “This constitutes a disproportionate infringement on their freedom of movement, which is a fundamental constitutional right,” the judge said.
The judge emphasized, however, that the decision solely relates to whether the suspects can be given a restraining order barring them from returning to the Temple Mount. It does not establish anything regarding the permissibility of Jewish prayer in general at the Temple Mount.
“This [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 wrote.
The ruling was reached after the teenagers involved appealed a previous decision by the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court.
Attorney Nati Rom, who filed the petition on their behalf, thanked Saharay and said it was time for the police to stop targeting law-abiding citizens.
“It’s about time that the Israel Police began enforcing the law… and defending the residents of Jerusalem, rather than dealing with esoteric issues, while violating the freedom of religion of Jews at the Temple Mount,” he said.
According to a report by Channel 12, police officials were shocked to learn of Saharay’s ruling, claiming it may have dangerous repercussions and accusing the judge of distorting Shabtai’s comments.
“The court ruling is based on statements made by the police commissioner, when in practice, he wasn’t talking about the Temple Mount,” an unnamed police official was quoted as saying.
“When the commissioner speaks about freedom of worship, he does not refer to the Temple Mount, where the status quo determined by government policy and High Court rulings over the years is maintained,” the police official added. “This is a case of a distorted interpretation of his remarks.”
The report said the prosecution would appeal Saharay’s ruling.
A court decision from October last year in favor of a Jewish man who prayed quietly at the Temple Mount threatened to violate the fragile status quo governing the site by drawing sharp criticism from Muslim authorities in the country.
The ruling concerned Aryeh Lippo, a Jewish man who had been barred from the site for 15 days, after police caught him quietly praying there.
The decision was quickly overturned by the Jerusalem District Court, however, with Public Security Minister Omer Barlev warning that such a ruling could rekindle violence.
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.
A report by Channel 12 from last July suggested that despite the repeated tensions at the site and the status quo, Israel has been allowing limited cases of Jewish prayers at the site, with police turning a blind eye, an accusation that the police officially denied.
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, 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.
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.
Meanwhile, far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir announced Sunday that he intends to visit the Temple Mount during next week’s Jerusalem Day, following threats made by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, who has threatened Israel over the planned nationalist march.
“The enemy’s threats won’t deter us from reaching the holiest place for the Jewish people. On the contrary, we’ll only become stronger and come to realize Israel’s sovereignty in Jerusalem,” Ben Gvir said in a statement.
While touring the site in March, the extremist politician called the Waqf Muslim authorities who administer the religious sites on the mount “terrorists,” and said that “whoever controls the Temple Mount controls the Land of Israel. The enemy understands this too.”
“The message of my visit is simple: I don’t surrender and I don’t fold,” he said during his walkabout. “The State of Israel must not give in to those terrorists who want to murder us all.”
Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.