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Tags: ML | Holy Site | Disputed Rules | Q&A

US Seeking Clarity on Ground Rules at Key Jerusalem Shrine

US Seeking Clarity on Ground Rules at Key Jerusalem Shrine

Friday, 23 October 2015 05:48 PM EDT

JERUSALEM (AP) — Disputes over the ground rules at a major Jerusalem shrine played an important role in triggering the current Israeli-Palestinian violence. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting in Amman this weekend with Jordan's King Abdullah II, custodian of the site, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after holding talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to clarify those rules. Each side has a different interpretation of what is known in dry legalese as the "status quo," or unwritten understandings that evolved after Israel captured the hilltop platform in 1967. Here is a look at the positions.


The 37-acre walled compound rises above the Old City in east Jerusalem, the sector of the city Israel captured from Jordan in 1967 and later annexed to its capital. It's the most sensitive spot in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a lightning rod for religious fervor and rival national narratives.

Jews revere it as the home of their biblical Temples and the holiest site of their religion. They believe their religious practice can only be complete once the Temple — destroyed by the Romans two millennia ago — has been rebuilt. For now, Jews worship at the Western Wall, a retaining wall of the compound.

Muslims believe the hilltop marks the spot from which Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. It's the third holiest site of Islam. It is home to the centuries-old Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosques, but Muslims consider the entire walled area to be sacred, not only the two structures of worship.


The first rules were established, seemingly ad hoc, shortly after the war.

In a June 1967 meeting, then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan told the Jordanian-run Islamic Trust, or Waqf, that it could continue to administer the compound, but that Israeli police would be in charge of the perimeter and that Jews would be allowed to visit, said Amnon Ramon, an Israeli expert on the site.

Dayan only won retroactive Cabinet approval for those decisions, said Ramon, a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.

A few weeks later, Israel's chief military rabbi prompted another government decision when he tried to organize a large Jewish prayer service on the mount. Fearing a religious conflagration, the Israeli Cabinet blocked the rabbi and in August 1967 formally banned Jewish prayer on the Muslim-run platform.


Jordan and the Palestinian self-rule government seek a return to what they describe as the status quo before September 2000, when a visit to the site by Israel's then-opposition leader, Ariel Sharon, helped trigger several years of deadly Israeli-Palestinian fighting. The Waqf shut down the site to non-Muslims after the Sharon visit, a decision reversed by Israeli police in April 2003.

Jordanian and Waqf officials say that between 1967 and 2000, the Waqf was in charge of who could enter the compound.

The number of Jewish visitors was low in those days because most leading rabbis, citing religious purity laws, banned Jews from entering the mount.

Mohammed Momani, the Jordanian government spokesman, said Friday that Jordan wants to return to a "historic status quo" in which "the Waqf had full control over and organized who got in."

Jordan will also insist that Israel allow Muslims of all ages to pray at the site, and end the practice of intermittently imposing age restrictions, he said.

Israel has portrayed such restrictions as a security measure, arguing that younger Muslims at the site had been involved in clashes with Israeli police. On Friday, the main day of Muslim prayer, Israeli police lifted age restrictions for the first time since the current round of violence began in mid-September.

Jordan hopes Kerry's meetings with Jordan's king and the Palestinian president will help calm the situation, Momani told The Associated Press.

"I think Israel must go back to the historic status quo as we described it and was the case since 1967," he said. "We have very persuasive and strong arguments backed by international law and humanitarian law and Security Council resolutions that we have communicated effectively to the international community."


Israel denies it has altered the status quo, saying the ban on Jewish prayer remains intact and that the rules on visits by non-Muslims have not changed.

Mickey Levy, a former Jerusalem police commander, said Israeli security was always in charge of the gates to the compound, denying that the Waqf had final control before 2000 on who entered.

"This is not their job," he said. "When Dayan transferred the administration of the Temple Mount to the Waqf, he determined a clear status quo in which the Waqf deals with religious issues and we deal with security issues."

Levy said that what has changed is an increase in the number of non-Muslim visitors, and that "this is very difficult to control."

The number of Jewish visitors doubled from just below 5,800 in 2010 to about 11,000 last year. The rise came as part of a changing climate in which more rabbis from the branch of Judaism most closely identified with the Jewish settlement movement have encouraged followers to visit the site.

At the same time, senior members of Netanyahu's governing coalition, including Cabinet ministers, have called for Jewish prayer rights at the shrine.

These changes, along with intermittent police restrictions on Muslim worship, sparked Muslim fears that Israel is changing the status quo.

Netanyahu dismissed those concerns as unfounded, instead accusing Palestinian leaders of whipping up religious fervor and inciting to violence.


Unilateral actions over the years have deepened suspicions.

In 1996, Israel opened to tourists a tunnel that had been excavated alongside the western retaining wall, prompting several days of deadly Israeli-Palestinian clashes.

Later that year, Muslims turned an underground vault in the compound into a large mosque in what Israel termed a gross violation of the status quo. Huge quantities of debris were dumped outside the shrine without consideration for possible artifacts it might contain.


Kerry wants clarity about the status quo, but officials say he doesn't believe that needs to be done in writing, a view backed by the Jordanians.

U.S. officials have come to the conclusion that merely restating that Israel doesn't plan to change the status quo won't be enough to lower tensions.

A year ago, Jordan's king, a key ally of the West and Israel in the battle against Islamic militants in the region, hosted Kerry and Netanyahu in Amman in a similar effort to lower tensions over the shrine. The effort initially appeared successful, but eventually violence flared again.

The latest flare-up started in mid-September, a period of Jewish holidays that saw a sharp increase in the number of Jews entering the shrine.

Possible confidence-building steps by Israel could include barring ultra-nationalist politicians from entering the compound.

Netanyahu imposed such a ban earlier this month, but might not be able to enforce it for an extended period since some of those affected by it are key members of his coalition.

Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Vienna contributed to this report.

© Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Disputes over the ground rules at a major Jerusalem shrine played an important role in triggering the current Israeli-Palestinian violence. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting in Amman this weekend with Jordan's King Abdullah II, custodian of the site, and...
ML,Holy Site,Disputed Rules,Q&A
Friday, 23 October 2015 05:48 PM
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