Knesset Temple Mount debate raises hackles in Arab world

PA calls for emergency meeting as Jordanian opposition demands a freeze to peace treaty with Israel; Egypt warns of ‘explosion’ in region

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

A Jewish man looks towards the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, 2013. (AP Photo/Simone Camilli)
A Jewish man looks towards the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, 2013. (AP Photo/Simone Camilli)

A Knesset debate Tuesday on Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount set off intense criticism in the Arab world, including in countries with which Israel has signed peace treaties.

Egypt’s foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy, warned Tuesday in a statement that an Israeli declaration of sovereignty over the contested site could lead to an “explosion’” in the region.

The PA asked the Arab League Tuesday to hold an emergency session on Wednesday to discuss Israeli policy toward the Temple Mount, Ma’an news agency reported. “If Israel continues this policy,” said PA ambassador to Egypt Barakat al-Farra, “it proves that it does not want peace but continues to violate international laws and resolutions.”

In Jordan, 47 out of 150 members of the country’s lower house signed a motion late Tuesday that the treaty be annulled, the government-owned al-Rai newspaper reported.

“The motion came in response to Israel’s actions in Jerusalem and to the Knesset debate of a law that seeks to impose Israel’s sovereignty over Al-Aqsa,” Al-Rai quoted MPs as saying in the motion.

“Israel’s actions clearly violate the peace treaty… it is aggression against Jordanian custodianship,” the motion said.

Al-Rai said the lower house will discuss “the repercussions of the debate later Wednesday”.

Most of the signatories came from Jordan’s Islamic Action Front, a Muslim Brotherhood faction that serves as the kingdom’s main opposition party. “We ask the government to accede to the demands of those who have called repeatedly for freezing, and eventually cancelling, the peace treaty,” the group said on its website.

Tuesday’s debate was the first to examine the right of non-Muslims to enter and pray at the holy compound in Jerusalem, with over 30 MKs from both right-wing and left-wing parties seeking to voice their opinion on the divisive topic.

The discussion ended late Tuesday with no vote being taken.

Almost all of the parliament’s Arab members chose not to attend the session in protest over the decision to hold it.

Likud MK Moshe Feiglin addresses the Knesset plenum during a debate of Israeli sovereignty on the Temple Mount, Tuesday, February 25, 2014 (photo credit: Flash90)
Likud MK Moshe Feiglin addresses the Knesset plenum during a debate on Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount, Tuesday, February 25, 2014 (photo credit: Flash90)

The debate, headlined “the loss of Israeli sovereignty on the Temple Mount” and rescheduled from last week, was initiated by right-wing lawmaker MK Moshe Feiglin (Likud), whose visits to the Temple Mount have drawn media and police attention. Feiglin was arrested for praying there in October 2012 and January 2013, before he became an MK, and visited the Mount earlier this week ahead of the debate.

“The Israeli leadership is shirking its duty,” Feiglin said at the opening of the session, during which he called for Jewish freedom of worship at the site where the first and second Jewish temples once stood. “Without the Mount, we have no home in Tel Aviv, or Haifa or anywhere else.”

Police restrictions bar Jews from praying or engaging in other religious activities while on visits to the Mount for fear that they will provoke a violent reaction from Muslims, a policy Feiglin said was absurd.

“Behind the back of our people we gave up on any vestige of Israeli sovereignty at the Mount. Every terrorist organization can wave their flag there, but the flag of Israel? It must not be mentioned. Reciting a psalm is grounds for arrest. Even wearing a skullcap [at the site] is inadvisable by police standards,” he said.

The Temple Mount is jointly administered by the Jordanian government and the Jerusalem-based Islamic Waqf, an arrangement that has been in place since Israel captured the Old City and East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed them. Regarded as a holy site by both Judaism and Islam, proposed changes to the status quo at the Mount are often a source of unrest.

Meretz head Zahava Gal-On slammed the discussion as an attempt to damage peace talks and hurt ties between Israel and the Muslim world.

Before the debate Tuesday, Israeli police clashed with rioters on the mount, who pelted them with stones and firecrackers.

Azzam Khatib, director general of the Waqf, Jordan’s Islamic authority that currently manages religious affairs at site, said the clash followed rumors that Jewish extremists were planning on entering the compound and raising the Israeli flag. He said the entire compound was Muslim and they would not allow anyone to change that situation.

“I hope they have some rational people in the government to stop them from provoking us,” he said.

Palestinian diplomat Abdelhady-Nasser accused Feiglin of “reckless actions” and called on the United Nations Security Council to give urgent attention to the “Israeli acts of incitement, provocation and aggression (which) are intended to deliberately provoke Palestinian, Arab and Muslim sensitivities and could have extremely dangerous and widespread consequences.” She sent similar letters to the General Assembly and to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Last week, the planned session drew condemnation from Jordan’s parliament, whose Palestine Committee said a move to expand Israeli control over the sensitive site would be a violation of “Jordanian national sovereignty and is tantamount to a breach of the peace treaty signed between Jordan and Israel.”

Hamas and Palestinian Authority officials, together with leaders of the Islamic Movement in the Galilee, have long accused Israel of planning to take control of the Muslim sites on the Mount.

Adiv Sterman, Gavriel Fiske, The Associated Press and AFP contributed to this report.

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