Waqf official decries ‘dangerous’ Jewish prayers held discreetly on Temple Mount

Media and Jewish activists say police increasingly turn blind eye to practice, which Muslim leaders slam as violation of decades-old status quo at holy site

Religious Jews on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, August 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
Religious Jews on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, August 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

As police stood by, three Jewish men stepped forward, placed their hands out at chest level and began reciting prayers in low tones in the shadow of Jerusalem’s golden Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount.

Jewish prayers at Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary, have long been unthinkable. But they have quietly become the new norm in recent years, flying in the face of longstanding convention, straining a delicate status quo, and raising fears that violent Muslim reactions could trigger a new wave of violence in the Middle East.

The matter has been gaining more and more attention since being reported on last month by Israeli TV.

The hilltop compound is the holiest site for Jews, revered as the location of two ancient temples destroyed in antiquity. Three times a day for 2,000 years, Jews have turned to face it during prayers. It also is home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam.

A Muslim official at the site has denounced the development, saying police officers have been preventing them from taking action against it.

“What is happening is a blatant and dangerous violation of the status quo,” said Sheikh Omar al-Kiswani, a top official with the Waqf, the Jordanian-backed Islamic trust that administers the site. “The Israeli police must stop providing protection to extremists.”

Palestinian media outlets, including those of the Hamas terror group, publish almost daily videos of “Jewish settlers storming the Al-Aqsa Mosque.” Many Arab and Muslim leaders don’t acknowledge that the site is holy to Jews and refer to any Jew who enters it as an “extremist.”

Flanked by a detachment of Israeli paramilitary Border Police troopers, a quorum of 10 men entered the shrine on a recent morning and made their way to a secluded area of the eastern side of the compound. They prayed discreetly in hushed tones while a handful of guards from the Waqf watched from a distance.

Kiswani, who is the Waqf’s director of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, said Muslim authorities have strongly protested the Jewish prayers, both to Israeli police and to the Jordanian government.

Sheikh Omar al-Kiswani, the Islamic Waqf’s director of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, leading a prayer in Birmingham, United Kingdom, January 2020. (Screenshot: YouTube)

But he claimed police forcibly prevent Waqf personnel from approaching Jewish worshipers and in some cases, arrest or expel them. “The mosque is a pure right for Muslims alone, and there is no prayer in the mosque except for Muslims,” he said.

Police said their forces operate “in accordance with the terms of visitation customary at the site” while maintaining public order, and that the regulations for Jews and tourists visiting the site are determined by the government and court decisions.

Israel captured the hilltop, along with the rest of East Jerusalem and the walled Old City, in the 1967 Six Day War from Jordan, which had been in control of the territory since seizing it in 1949. Israel later annexed it, a move that was not recognized by most of the international community. The Palestinians seek East Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state.

The flashpoint site is an emotional epicenter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many rounds of deadly fighting in the decades-long conflict have erupted around it. The most recent was in May, when an Israel Police crackdown on stone-throwing Palestinian rioters inside the compound helped precipitate an 11-day war between Israel and the Hamas terror group which rules the Gaza Strip, as well as violent upheaval in Israeli cities.

Since 1967, a loose set of rules known as the “status quo” have governed day-to-day operations at the site. Any actual or perceived changes to the status quo have the potential to ignite violence.

Under the arrangement, non-Muslims are allowed to visit the Temple Mount but not to pray there. Jews are allowed to enter in small groups during limited hours, but are taken through a predetermined route, are closely watched and are prohibited from praying or displaying any religious or national symbols.

For decades, religious Jews largely avoided visiting the site for religious reasons. Many leading rabbis, including the country’s Chief Rabbinate, ruled after the 1967 war that Jews “should not enter the entire area of the Temple Mount” out of concern for ritual impurity and uncertainty over the exact location of the ancient Temple’s holy of holies.

An Israel Police officer (left) stands guard as religious Jews visit the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, August 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

But attitudes are changing, particularly among Israel’s religious Zionist right wing.

Amnon Ramon, a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Policy Research, said the issue of Jewish prayer has transformed in recent decades “from a matter that was on the fringe to a subject in the mainstream for the religious Zionist public.” Most in that community appear to support some degree of Jewish worship there, as do a growing number of ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who leads the small, right-wing Yamina party, raised eyebrows last month on the Jewish fast day of Tisha B’Av when he said Israel was committed to protecting “freedom of worship” for Jews at the compound. His office quickly issued a clarification stating there was “no change whatsoever” in the status quo.

Rabbi Eliyahu Vebr, head of the Temple Mount Yeshiva, said that for over a year, he has entered the site daily, most of the time with at least 10 Jewish men necessary for group prayer.

“So long as things are not conspicuous, in a way that disturbs, the police allow it,” he said. Some days there is friction with Muslim worshipers and authorities, he said, but mostly there isn’t.

Akiva Ariel, a spokesman for Beyadenu, a Jewish activist group advocating for Jewish prayer at the site, said things began to change under the government of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who led the country for 12 years before he was ousted in June.

“The police turn a blind eye” to the worship, so long as it’s done inconspicuously, Ariel said.

Religious Jews at the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, August 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

During the recent visit, kohanim performed the priestly blessing, making Vs with each lifted hand by separating their ring and middle fingers, and quietly recited a special benediction, while others performed surreptitious bows. But they did not don the prayer shawls or phylacteries — small cases holding slips inscribed with passages of Scripture bound to the head and arm — that are customarily worn during morning prayers.

For many Jewish Temple Mount activists, the main aim is a place for Jewish worship at the site, Ariel said. “This is our holiest place. We aren’t demanding that Muslims be evicted from here, heaven forbid,” he said.

Palestinians have long feared that Israel may change routines at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, such as partitioning the site as was done at the Tomb of the Patriarchs holy site in Hebron revered by Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque.

Ramon said that Palestinians fear that if they give an inch, Israel may take a mile.

“It’s hard to know how and when it will explode,” he said. “But it definitely can happen.”

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