The decision, taken by Israeli security forces without the explicit approval of the Islamic Trust, which manages the site, has angered Palestinians. Before stepping down as Palestinian Prime Minister last month, Mahmoud Abbas called the move “a recipe for friction and violence…igniting the most sensitive issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Some left-wingers as well as Israeli religious leaders, including the ultra-Orthodox mayor of Jerusalem Uri Lupolianski, also criticised the move, calling it untimely and provocative.
Others argue that restricting access to the site sets a dangerous precedent and breaches a 1967 accord stipulating that Muslims would continue to administer the Mount while upholding Israeli law guaranteeing freedom of access to all religions.
On 20 August, Israeli security forces reinstated regular public visiting hours for non-Muslims. “It was wrong that non-Muslims could not visit. Jerusalem is holy for all three religions, and they should have access to all the holy sites,” police spokesman Gil Kleiman told The Art Newspaper.
After a period of relative calm, a riot erupted at press time, following Friday prayers when the Temple Mount was closed to non-Muslims. Israeli police fired tear gas on a crowd of young Muslims stoning Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall below, a recurring problem in recent years. The Palestinians are believed to have been protesting about the Israeli government’s announced intention to “remove” Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat from the West Bank in a manner and at a time of their choosing. No serious injuries were reported.
The Temple Mount was closed to non-Muslims after the controversial visit in September 2000 of the then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon.
His visit marked the beginning of the second Palestinian intifadah, or uprising, which continues to this day.
Palestinians say Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount was deliberately inflammatory, while Israelis say it was used as a pretext by the Palestinians to launch the second intifadah. When the violence erupted in 2000, leaders on both sides agreed that, for security reasons, it was in everyone’s best interests to restrict access to the Temple Mount to Muslims only.
This decision worried many Jews, who fear a permanent exclusion of non-Muslims from the site. Jews were banned from visiting holy sites in east Jerusalem for almost 20 years when Jerusalem was under Jordanian control from 1948 to 1967.
After Israel captured east Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 war, the Temple Mount returned to Jewish hands for the first time in nearly two millennia. Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Dayan then asked the Muslims to continue managing the site. The agreement they negotiated upholds freedom of access for all to the Temple Mount, but allows only Muslims to pray there.
To Muslims, the Temple Mount is known as the Noble Sanctuary and it is the third holiest site in Islam, incorporating as it does two seventh-century Islamic buildings: the Dome of the Rock shrine and the al-Aqsa mosque, which marks the site from where the prophet Mohammed is believed to have ascended to Heaven. The mosque and shrine remain off-limits to non-Muslims.
But the Temple Mount is also the holiest site in Judaism. It is the spot where the biblical First and Second Temples stood. The Wailing or Western Wall, all that remains of the Second Temple’s retaining wall built by King Herod, has remained open to Jews as it lies in the Jewish quarter below the Temple Mount and is not administered by the Islamic Trust.
To Christians, the Mount is where Jesus taught and excoriated the money-changers in the Second Temple. It is also where the first Jerusalem Christian community attended services.
Muslims fear a Jewish presence on the site partly because of Israel’s practice in times of high alert to restrict the movements of young Muslims they fear will riot and partly because of a small, but vociferous, group of Jewish militants who are calling for the building of a third Jewish temple. Their leader, who was jailed in 1985 for a foiled bomb attack on the mount, visited the site after it was reopened to Jews and was expelled for praying there, infuriating Palestinians.
Around 30 Israeli armed police officers now monitor visitors who make their way through the Mugrabi gate, the only entrance open to non-Muslims. It is closed Fridays and Saturdays, the Muslim and Jewish sabbaths. Islamic Trust officials monitor Jewish visitors to prevent them from worshipping on the site.
After the Mount was closed to non-Muslims in 2000, the Islamic Trust stopped earning income from the high admission fees it charged for Jews, Christians and other tourists.
It may now be torn between earning tourist revenues to aid Islamic interests and fighting a backlash from Muslims who see the Temple Mount as the symbol of Palestinian independence.