The Temple Mount: Whose Is It?

Arlene

In early May 2021 Israeli authorities had to cope with a high level of unrest and accompanying violence on the part of Arabs in Israel in several locales; nowhere was the situation more intense than at the Temple Mount.  

Those riots were incited by Hamas. During that time of unrest, as in several similar periods in the past, accusations were made by Palestinian Arab terror groups – whether the Palestinian Authority or Hamas – charging that the Jewish presence on the Mount was improper, infringed upon Arab Muslim rights, and had to cease.   

Mahmoud Abbas of the PA, drawing on this theme back in September 2015, had charged:

The Al-Aksa [which refers to the mosque and also the entire compound of the Temple Mount] is ours…and they [Jews] have no right to defile it with their filthy feet.  We will not allow them to, and we will do everything in our power to protect Jerusalem.”

The notion that Jerusalem (the Mount) has to be “protected” from Jews is part of a larger them of incitement: In December 2020, an analyst on PA TV declared:  

“The Al-Aqsa Mosque is in danger of being bombed and destroyed. This is a true and serious Zionist threat.”

In May 2021, the theme was similar, when Khaled Mashal, a leader of Hamas, declared:

The most important conditions are the exit of occupying Israel from Al-Aksa Mosque, the recognition of freedom of worship to our people and Muslims in Al-Aksa Mosque…” 

Mashal drew upon the motif of Muslim rights to freedom of worship, which is a flashpoint for Muslim Arab anger.  But there was more: the charge that Jews are “occupiers” on the Mount and must leave because they have no place there.

What is being said here should not be missed: it goes to the heart of what is happening with regard to the Temple Mount.

There was a time in decades past when Muslim Arabs recognized the Jewish connection to the Temple Mount.  Consider these two examples among many:

[] A nine-page English-language tourist guide entitled “A Brief Guide to al-Haram al-Sharif [the Temple Mount] was published by the Supreme Moslem Council in 1925.  It states that the Temple Mount site “is one of the oldest in the world. Its sanctity dates from the earliest times. Its identity with the site of Solomon’s Temple is beyond dispute.” (Emphasis added)

https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/supreme-moslem-council-recognized-jewish-connection-to-temple-mount 

[] Some 25 kilometers southwest of Jerusalem in the village of Nuba is found the Mosque of Umar, which bears an ancient inscription that dates to the 9th or 10th century CE.  It says that the mosque is an endowment for the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aksa Mosque (see below for more on these).  What is noteworthy is that the Dome of the Rock is referred to in the inscription as “the rock of the Bayt al-Maqdis” — literally, “The Holy Temple.”

Credit: Assaf Avraham

https://www.timesofisrael.com/centuries-before-trying-to-deny-it-muslims-carved-jewish-link-to-jerusalem-into-mosque/

What we are seeing then is a startling turn-around: Once Muslim Arabs recognized the Temple Mount as having an incontrovertible connection to the Jewish people. But today any Jewish presence on the Mount is pronounced illegitimate by them; they maintain that Jews have no historical, religious connection to the Mount.  Jews on the Mount are occupiers, usurpers, defilers.

What has happened?

The State of Israel is what happened.

Muslims are offended by the presence of a Jewish state on what they believe to be Muslim land.

It is a mainstream belief – drawn from Sharia (Islamic law) and embraced by many Muslims – that all non-Muslims, including Jews, are forbidden from becoming rulers over Muslim territory.  For many centuries, this was not an issue: The Middle East was controlled, successively, by a number of Muslim empires: Jews, as well as Christians, were assigned second-class status and presented no threat to the ruling order.

In this regard, the founding of the modern State of Israel has created a religious crisis for Muslim Arabs. This simply was not supposed to happen.

We see this belief reflected in the Hamas Charter, which asserts that “the Islamic Resistance Movement [Hamas] regards Palestine as an Islamic Wakf [religious endowment] consecrated for future generations until Judgement Day…neither it, nor any part of it, should be squandered: Neither it, nor any part of it should be given up…Palestine is an Islamic Wakf land consecrated for Muslim generations until Judgement Day (Article 11)

https://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/hamas.asp 

The Palestinian National Charter (PLO) considers political aspects as well as religious, but carries forth the same theme.

In 2018, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, the Palestinian mufti [Islamic legal authority] of Jerusalem, issued a fatwa [an Islamic religious edict] decreeing that the land of “Palestine” is wakf – an inalienable religious endowment in Islamic law – and thus it is prohibited to sell, or facilitate the transfer of any part of it to non-Muslims.

https://www.jpost.com/arab-israeli-conflict/jerusalem-mufti-issues-land-transfer-fatwa-562176

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At its core, then, it is not a political war that is being fought over Israel, but a religious one.

Hamas attacks everywhere in Israel – its rockets certainly aim at a variety of locales. It maintains that Jewish control of any part of the land is illegitimate. But there is a specific focus on the Temple Mount:

It is very difficult to claim that Jews have no rights in the land if there is acknowledgement that two Jewish Temples were on the Mount well before the advent of Islam in the Seventh Century CE. (Mohammed, the founder of Islam, lived from 57- to 632 CE.)

Thus do many Muslim Arabs feel an imperative to claim Jews have no legitimate heritage on the Temple Mount.  It is a major starting point in their campaign to delegitimize Israel.

And thus is it of paramount importance that Jews in Israel remain strong in providing evidence – textual and archeological – of the existence of the ancient Temples, and defend their right to a major presence on the Temple Mount. To do otherwise would be a grave tactical error. Even more, it would be an abandonment of an ancient legacy of profound religious significance.

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The Temple Mount (Hebrew: Har HaBayit) in the Old City of Jerusalem is the mount on which the two Jewish Temples were erected.  The first was built in mid-10th century BCE on Mount Moriah during the time of King Solomon, who ruled over Israel.  It was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, during the reign of King Zedekiah. Many of the Jews were brought into exile in Babylon.

The Second Temple was built on the same location after the return of Jews from exile in Babylon.  It was completed in approximately 516 BCE. Herod, who ruled over Judea in the First Century BCE, enlarged this Temple considerably; to accommodate it, he executed a huge expansion of the mount– which exists to this day.  The Western Wall (Kotel) is a retaining wall of that expansion.

Commons Wikimedia

This is from a Holyland model of the Mount during late Second Temple times:

Commons Wikimedia

This Temple was destroyed in 70 CE by the Romans, and the majority of the Jews were dispersed.

In the Jerusalem Archeological Park today can be seen huge stones that were thrown down from the top of the Temple wall by the Romans.  

Credit: In and around Jerusalem

There are many other archeological ruins and artifacts as well that give evidence of the existence of the Temples.  Among them is a large stone engraved in Greek warning non-Jews not to go any further into the Temple, where only Jews were permitted to enter.

Because of the Temples that had been located there, the Mount remains the holiest place in Judaism.  Jews everywhere, when praying, face in the direction of the Temple Mount, where the Temples had stood.  Tisha B’Av, the day that marks the destruction of the Temples, is a day of fasting and mourning.

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In the early centuries of the Common Era, Jerusalem was part of the Roman Empire, and then by extension the Byzantine Empire. This period saw the ascendancy of Christianity.  

By the mid-Seventh Century, the Muslim period had begun. With the exception of the Crusader period, one Caliphate followed another: Rashidun, Ummayyad, and Abbasid; Fatimid and Seljuk; Ayyubid and Mamluk.

In 691 CE Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik ordered the building of the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount.  It is constructed on the precise location where the Temples had stood; it is a not uncommon practice for Muslim holy sites to be placed where Jewish or Christian places of worship had previously stood.

Credit: iTravelJerusalem

The Dome of the Rock was built as a shrine and not a mosque, although it is sometimes used for prayer today.  Inside sits the Foundation Stone, which is believed to have been inside the Holy of Holies of the Temple – it would have been the high point of Mount Moriah. Muslims identify this stone as the point of departure of Mohammed into Heaven on a winged horse.

The same Ummayad Caliph Abd al-Malik who ordered the construction of the Dome of the Rock then ordered the Al Aksa Mosque to be built on the other side of the Mount in 705 CE.

Credit: ummuaqill

This mosque, in use to this day, is the third holiest site in Islam, after the holy shrine of Ka’bah in Mecca and the mosque in Medina, both in Saudi Arabia. Muslims praying on the Mount face Mecca.

In the 1930s, renovation work was done on the mosque.  Beneath it was found the remains of a Byzantine mosaic floor, which may have been the floor of a church. Beneath that was found a mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath.  Writes biblical archeologist Leen Ritmeyer, “…this…proves the Jewish origin of the Temple Mount.”

https://www.ritmeyer.com/2008/11/17/third-jewish-mikveh-and-a-byzantine-mosaic-floor-discovered-on-the-temple-mount/

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The succession of caliphates noted above was followed by the Ottoman Empire, a vastly powerful Turkish dynasty (Muslim) that ruled for centuries. Jerusalem was held by the Ottomans from the early Sixteenth Century until the end of WWI in 1918. During this period, non-Muslims were not permitted on the Mount.

With the defeat of the Ottomans, Great Britain was given the Mandate for Palestine by the League of Nations. In spite of the fact that the British were charged with establishing a homeland for the Jews, they were not supportive of Jewish desires to go up on the Mount.  After the Arab riots of 1929, they no longer allowed Jews to go up at all.

After the War of Independence in 1948-49, eastern Jerusalem, and with it the Kotel and Temple Mount, were in Jordanian hands.  For 19 years, until the Six Day War, Jews were permitted no access to these sites.

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Then on June 7, 1967, during that war, the IDF took eastern Jerusalem.  Came the cry from Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Motta Gur, “Har Habayit b’yadenu!” “The Temple Mount is in our hands.”

Credit: Torah Musings

There was great rejoicing in the historic moment. (On June 28, 1967, the Israeli government issued an administrative order declaring that the territory of Israel included the Old City of Jerusalem and its eastern neighborhoods.)

But in the fifty plus years since, matters have not gone well; many of the problems can be attributed to decisions made on the Israeli side following the liberation of the Mount.

Within hours after Gen. Gur gave his jubilant cry, Moshe Dayan, Defense Minister, ordered that the Israeli flag that had been raised on the Mount be taken down, and that the paratroopers be removed.

He then declared:

“We have returned to the holiest of our places, never to be parted from them again….We did not come to conquer the sacred sites of others or to restrict their religious rights, but rather to ensure the integrity of the city and to live in it with others in fraternity.”

Establishing a principle that was carried forward, he declared that Jews would have the right to visit the Mount, but not pray there, while Muslims would pray.  Many religious Jews were deeply pained by this, and objected, to no avail.  He accorded the Muslim Wakf (trust) on the Mount authority to manage the site both in terms of religious and civil matters, while Israel maintained national sovereignty over the Mount. Israeli law was to apply and Israeli police were responsible for security – this was approved by Israel’s High Court of Justice.

Nadav Shragai, writing about this situation for JCPA, expressed the conviction that what Dayan was attempting to do was remove the issue of religion from the Arab-Israeli conflict:  

“Dayan felt duty-bound to try and create a barrier between religion and nationalism and prevent the conflict from taking on a religious hue.” 

https://jcpa.org/article/status-quo-on-temple-mount/

Whatever Dayan’s motivation, his judgement was badly skewed here, perhaps because he had insufficient understanding of Islamic precepts and intentions.

Today, when Muslims call for retention of the “status quo,” the reference, presumably, is to what Dayan set in place.  But in actuality the situation has eroded over the years, to the detriment of Jews.  

It was Dayan’s intention to permit Jews free access to the Mount for visitation.  But now hours of visitation for non-Muslims is exceedingly limited with regard to days and hours – with entrance restricted to the Mughrabi Gate, while Muslims come and go at will via several gates.

Similarly, in principle, the laws of the State of Israel apply to the Temple Mount; this was as Dayan envisioned it and as the High Court of Israel determined the matter.  But in fact, laws regarding planning, construction and antiquities on the Mount have not been enforced with vigor.  This is a matter of huge import.  

In 1996, work was begun by the Israeli Islamic Movement (Northern Branch), in cooperation with the Wakf, to make a space for prayer inside of Solomon’s Stables, an underground area that had been used during the Crusader period.  Israel had consented to its use during rainy weather; there was no permission granted for a major renovation.  

However, the entire project was vastly extended.  In 1999, an enormous pit was dug on the Mount for the construction of an entry-way that would lead into the underground Solomon’s Stables, which was now being redesigned as a mosque that would accommodate 10,000 worshippers.   This work was done with heavy machinery, and was carried out without any archeological supervision, as is required by law.  The irreversible archeological damage that was done was criminal.  According to the Committee for the Prevention of the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount, the pit that was dug stretched over an area of about 200 meters, at a depth of 12 meters.  

Credit: Dan Bahat

In the middle of the night, trucks carted away soil replete with archeological artifacts from different time periods, dumping the soil into the Kidron Valley and into a garbage dump.  Artifacts mixed with garbage could not be retrieved. With regard to the soil that had been dumped in the Kidron Valley, a sifting project is on-going (the Temple Mount Sifting Project – a private venture drawing on volunteers that currently operates not far from the Mt. Scopus campus of Hebrew University); material is being salvaged.

There are multiple issues with regard to what happened here.  One is the intention of the Wakf to extend prayer areas of the Mount extensively in order to preclude opportunities for Jewish prayer in the future. While in 1967 there was only one mosque on the Mount, today there are five. Once worship was restricted to the Al Aksa Mosque; today, in addition to the other mosques, the entire Mount is utilized for Muslim prayer.

See this very brief video from iTravelJerusalem showing tens of thousands of Muslims praying on the Mount.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wpBX7LefwKk

Another is the willful destruction by the Wakf of archeological evidence of the ancient Jewish presence on the Mount.

But also relevant here is the need for an Israeli policy that is sufficiently assertive to protect Jewish heritage and Jewish rights on the Mount. The situation seems forever replete with diplomatic sensitivities that generate hesitation on the part of Israeli governments.  Complicating matters in some instances is the tension between various competing elements with regard to control of the Wakf. Jordan is in control.  The 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty declared that, “Israel respects the present special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in Muslim Holy shrines in Jerusalem,” and Israel has stepped with extreme caution in this regard.  But the Palestinian Authority pushes for involvement and unofficially, Hamas does the same. A Muslim Brotherhood supporter and a Turkish loyalist are among those who now sit on the Wakf Council.

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In 1970, the Israeli Supreme Court, with five justices sitting, had ruled that Jews had a right to pray on the Mount but that this right is not absolute – matters of security can be taken into consideration by the police in allowing Jewish prayer.  

Put simply, when mobs of angry Arabs threaten to riot if Jews come to pray on the Mount, it is easier to arrest the “offending” Jews or block Jewish entry onto the Mount than to contend with the threatening mobs.

It cannot be emphasized sufficiently that this is the default Muslim Arab position in Israel: riot or threaten to do so. Regrettably it has proven effective in many circumstances.

Today there is quiet, unofficial, movement towards correcting the injustice of not allowing Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount.

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The matter of the Muslim Arab proclivity to rioting must be examined here in one last context.  It had been tacitly understood for a considerable period of time that the Israeli police did not enter the al Aksa Mosque during periods of tensions.  Matters were resolved outside of the structure, which the Muslims declared to be sacrosanct.

In 2021, however, there were circumstances that the Israeli police felt merited entry into the site.  Their entry caused a furor, with claims that Israel was violating Muslim religious rights.  The fact of the matter, however, is that Muslim Arabs on the Mount were utilizing the Mosque for distinctly non-religious purposes: they stockpiled weaponry – rocks, explosive devices – inside the Mosque and attacked police and Jewish visitors by throwing these weapons from their vantage point inside.

From the Twitter feed of Israel Ambassador Gilad Erdan

Israeli police were then charged with interfering with prayers being said in a sacred place.  

It is important to expose the hypocrisy of the Muslim Arabs involved, and their readiness to utilize what is supposed to be their sacred place for decidedly profane purposes.  

No proper understanding of rights on the Temple Mount is possible without this broader context.