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The Temple Mount of Conflict

reposted from Israel Hayom
October 24, 2014

Funds from Qatar and Islamic foundations go to Muslim "study" groups that harass Jewish visitors Fatah, Hamas and the Islamic Movement are all fanning the flames With more rabbis permitting Jews to visit the site, police are stuck in the middle.

by Nadav Shragai

This is how a highly combustible situation is created on the Temple Mount: Funds from Qatar and Islamic foundations from across the globe are transferred as donations to the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel. This movement, headed by "Al-Aqsa Sheikh" Raed Salah, pays thousands of shekels per month to hundreds of men and women, members of the "Murbitat" (the male and female holders of the holy places on Earth), who have been on the mount for many months now. Allegedly, this is an innocent study group dedicated to learning Islamic scripture. In actuality, it is something entirely different.

Any Jew who has visited the mount has encountered them. They are bands of agitators who bombard Jewish groups that ascend the mount with chants of "Allahu Akhbar" (God is great), yelling and cursing at them. Occasionally, these shouting attacks go on for hours. Those with weak nerves struggle to withstand them; even the police on the Temple Mount are not always successful. They hurry the Jewish visitors along the short route allowed to them as quickly as possible. The main thing is to get out of there in one piece. This has been the routine for over a year, as Jewish visits to the mount have grown exceedingly restricted.

The past few months have seen tensions escalate, and there is no change visible on the horizon. This is no longer a matter of mere screams and curses. Al-Aqsa mosque has become a haven for rioters and a warehouse for light weapons -- rocks, wooden beams, Molotov cocktails and metal rods. The hottest item these days -- here, and other places, as well -- is fireworks. The Muslims shoot fireworks directly at policemen and Jewish visitors. Against this backdrop there has been a recent rise in Jews visiting the mount. These visits, it must be stressed, are conducted with prior approval from legal authorities. In contrast to Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, which generations of Israeli governments have prohibited -- access to the site is supposed to be guaranteed.

During the seven days of the Sukkot festival, and this past week as well, the violence reached new heights. Being struck in the neck with a firework can cause severe if not lethal wounds. Fortunately this has not happened yet, but policemen have already been hospitalized after being hit with fireworks. The fireworks, which contain black gunpowder, are purchased with subsidies provided by Hamas and Fatah. They are smuggled into the Temple Mount compound by Muslim women, who conceal them under their clothes. Due to attempts to be respectful, they are not inspected. The rioters arrive at the mount a day or two before the police restrict entrance to worshippers over a certain age. When this "dilution," as it is called by the police, is in place, the rioters are already entrenched inside the mosque, having slept there for a night or two.

Creative accusations

The flames are currently being fanned by both Fatah and Hamas, whose people jointly make up the Murbitat groups. The Temple Mount, in their view, is the heart of Palestinian consensus. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who created incitement this week by calling to ban Jews from defiling the holy Al-Aqsa mosque (the Muslims refer to the entire compound as the "mosque"), is regurgitating mantras we have been hearing for years from Muslim clerics around the world.

Ever since the beginning of the previous century and the days of the grand mufti, and particularly following the Six-Day War in 1967, the Muslims have repeatedly said the Jews, who are allegedly scheming to build their "fictitious" temple, defile the city's "Muslim character" by their mere presence. The fuel they add to the fire is the slogan: "Al-Aqsa is in danger." What is absurd is that the accusatory finger is pointed directly at the State of Israel and Israeli governments, which in actuality have abandoned the compound to the Muslim Waqf and prohibit Jews from praying at the site.

Facts, however, do not figure prominently in this saga. Lies and falsehoods dominate the discourse. According to the Arab version, Israel is digging underneath the mosque's foundations to cause it to collapse; Israel is preparing to bombard the mosque with a missile attack; Israel is going to start an artificial earthquake to bring the mosque down; and Israel will create lighting storms that will destroy the mosque.

In Muslim eyes, the claims that "Al-Aqsa is in danger" and "the Jews defile Jerusalem's Muslim character" are linked to the thousands of Jews who seek to visit the mount. When tourists or secular Jews tour the compound, the visits usually end without incident. When ultra-Orthodox Jews or Jews who look religious tour the site, even if they are the most respectful and innocent of visitors, the Muslims go crazy. On this issue, as stated, the Arabs are undivided and in total agreement. Central figures on the mount like Najeh Bakirat, who is affiliated with Hamas, or Adnan Jatt (Fatah secretary-general in Jerusalem), speak in one language, just like Raed Salah or Israeli Arab members of the Balad political party, and now Abbas, as well. Jordan, too, Israel's preferred authority on the Temple Mount, which has special ties with Israel on all Al-Aqsa-related matters, cannot permit itself to remain on the sidelines and has joined the fray.

The ongoing coordination with representatives of the Hashemite Kingdom and the frequent visits by Israeli police commanders to the king's palace have not softened Jordan's harsh and agitating comments against Israel for allowing Jews to visit the mount.

A threat that will not materialize

The Israeli police force is on the front lines of the struggle to cope with this complex situation and the powder keg burning almost daily on the Temple Mount. Police have made numerous arrests and has taken considerable pains to allow Jews to visit the site, despite occasionally barring them entry.

The police also maintain a dialogue with the Israeli legal system in an almost desperate effort to receive additional tools with which to deal with the situation. The police would be happy to prevent the Murbitat groups from entering the compound entirely and block Arab Israeli activists who arrive from the triangle area and the Galilee.

However, because they are Israeli citizens and not residents of the West Bank, there is no legal recourse to do so. Israeli police officials are also perplexed as to how Israeli citizens listed as unemployed and who receive social security stipends are allowed to receive thousands of shekels per month (as stated in a Shin Bet security agency report) under the table from the Islamic Movement in exchange for the riots they arrange on the Temple Mount.

The primary tool the police are currently using is weeding out those allowed into the compound by setting the minimum age from 40 to 50. This is not really helpful because for the police to maintain such a level of restriction for several days in a row it must deploy its forces across a large area and invest extraordinary manpower, capable of coping with riots that spill into the Old City from the Temple Mount compound. Such spillover tends to occur because all those banned entry just riot outside the compound instead of inside it.

During the numerous conversations these past few months between senior police commanders and Waqf leaders, the "judgment day" option has been brought forth. It is presented as an insinuation, not a threat, rather as a situation assessment, but the cards are put on the table: "You," the police commanders tell the Muslim clerics, "will bring a situation upon yourselves that will force Israel to divide the hours for entrance to the mount -- like at the Cave of the Patriarchs -- between Jews and Muslims. Your incessant violence plays into the hands of Jewish extremists and could drag us into a reality like that."

This threat -- the dream of the Temple Mount Faithful Movement and more than a few Knesset members -- is problematic for several reasons. First, given the current international political climate, no Israeli government will make this happen. Secondly, the threat gives the Muslims proof of what they have been claiming for years -- that this is the state of Israel's true plan. Furthermore, not only does the threat completely fail to deter Hamas and the Northern Branch, it accomplishes the opposite by fanning the flames even further. Not to mention that the threat is not aimed at the right address. The Waqf leaders do not exactly adore the Temple Mount rioters -- members of Hamas, Fatah and the Islamic Movement.

Perhaps this is why Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich chose a different sword to wave this week, announcing he would consider temporarily closing the mount to Muslims as well as Jews if Jews could not visit the site safely. Another possibility under consideration behind closed doors is rescinding the police's self-imposed restriction of not breaching Al-Aqsa mosque, which as stated has become a stronghold and haven for rioters.

'The commander does not determine policy'

We spoke to three people this week: Two retired majors-general -- former Jerusalem District commander Aryeh Amit and former Border Police and Yamam anti-terror unit commander David Tzur, now an MK with the Hatnuah party and chairman of the Knesset subcommittee on Jewish Rights on the Temple Mount -- and former Shin Bet chief and Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter. Amit believes Al-Aqsa mosque should be breached while Tzur is in favor of closing the mount to Muslims for a time. Dichter opposes both ideas.

Amit's position is fascinating, not in the least because it has undergone a transformation since his stint as Jerusalem District commander. He is almost angry at politicians who "delude the public."

"Saying over and over that the Temple Mount is in our hands is an illusion, fraud and a lie. It is an empty and superficial declaration with nothing to back it up. The State of Israel is not the sovereign on the Temple Mount. Yes, there is a police presence there, but it is limited," Amit said.

Amit reminds us that during the most recent Ramadan holy month of fasting, the police station on the mount was torched again "after the police commander there decided to withdraw his people, even after taking into account what would happen. What country in the world that claims sovereignty in a place like the Temple Mount allows a symbol of that sovereignty, or its flag, to be burned, and let the Hamas flag be raised in its place?" he said. "Ancient artifacts are being stolen and destroyed on the mount, along with illegal construction and anything else you can and can't think of, and the Israel Antiquities Authority and Jerusalem Municipality aren't lifting a finger.

"Now the Jerusalem youths are using Al-Aqsa cynically and have turned it into a base from which to attack police officers, visitors and tourists, and store an immense amount of light ammunition. There is no reason in the world for the police not to go in after them, forcefully make arrests and deal with them with heavy a hand as possible."

Amit recalls one Friday when he was commander of the Jerusalem District.

"We sustained a barrage of stones, and then I fired tear gas canisters into the mosque. After a few minutes they came out on all fours and we arrested them. This method [would be] correct today, it's just that they are afraid of doing it. If we are the sovereign -- then let's please stop being afraid," he said.

Amit, who defines himself as secular, is also furious over the restrictions on Jews visiting the mount and believes the time has come to fix the historic decision to prevent them from praying there.

"We are hanging onto this pitiful excuse, to a decision that was originally intended to prevent Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the IDF's chief rabbi during the Six-Day War, from causing a commotion on the Temple Mount," he says. "The time has come -- if the Temple Mount is indeed in our hands -- to tell the world that the site is holy not only for Muslims but for us as well, and set prayer hours for Jews on the mount, without, of course, disturbing the Muslims."

Regarding the current reality, Amit says: "The Jerusalem District police commander does not determine policy, he executes it. I know this because I was there. All the commander wants, and all I wanted at the time I was commander in Jerusalem, was to come back home safe and sound and not step on any of the many landmines in Jerusalem. But if the commander of the Jerusalem District receives a phone call from the prime minister with an unequivocal directive: Make sure 1,000 Jews safely visit the mount every day and do everything you need to make it happen -- he will do it well. It's a decision for the political echelon."

'Make changes, but responsibly'

David Tzur asks to remind us that the Temple Mount has known worse times than these and worse riots, which included multiple deaths in 1991. He points out with satisfaction that the police breach the mount with far greater frequency today than in the past, and also shatters the myth that "the mosque is not to be breached."

"It's true it is a sensitive issue, but in the past we were not deterred from going in when we had to, and if it needs to be done today -- then by all means, go in," he says.

If the disturbances persist, Tzur supports temporarily closing the mount to Muslims. In a report submitted by his Knesset subcommittee he spells it out in black and white. "This is a decision for the political echelon," he emphasizes, while pointing out, in contrast to Amit, that he does not support altering the status quo molded by Moshe Dayan on the Temple Mount whereby Jews cannot pray there. With that, Tzur suggests the mount be reopened to non-Muslim visitors on Saturdays as well, "as it used to be."

Meanwhile, Avi Dichter, Aharonovitch's predecessor in the Internal Security Ministry, believes that breaching the mosque will play into the hands of the protesters.

"When you walk into Al-Aqsa, you know how it starts, you don't know how it ends," he says. "Waging a battle against protesters inside Al-Aqsa -- this is the most comfortable arena for them. Wait outside patiently. You always have more oxygen than those inside. In the end they will come out. It is not a training ground, it is a super-sensitive place from a political and religious perspective and that needs to be considered."

Dichter also opposes the idea of closing the mount to Muslims: "Perhaps we will interpret this as a tactical move, but in the Muslim world it will be interpreted as a strategic decision. It's as if the Kaaba in Mecca were to be closed to the public. I'm happy Aharonovitch is only thinking about it and, if he heeds my advice, won't do it."

Dichter's formula for quiet includes the ongoing restriction (not the complete prohibition) of Muslim visitors and for longer periods of time than is the norm today -- a month or longer.

"Diluting the flammable substances on the mount," he calls it, "not diluting physical substances, but the people responsible for the riots."

Until the debate is resolved over how to snuff out the fire on the Temple Mount, the Jews continue to knock on its gates in increasing numbers and are either being disappointed they are shut out, or settling for truncated and hurried tours due to threats from Muslims and in accordance with police restrictions.

We must remember that for years, only a small number of Jews sought to visit the mount. The reason: an almost sweeping rabbinical decree, based on Jewish law, forbidding Jews in our time from entering it. This reality no longer exists. The taboo has been broken. Many rabbis, mainly from the religious Zionist camp, reversed the ruling. The trailblazer in this regard was the Committee of Rabbis of Judea and Samaria -- hundreds of rabbis. Another watershed development occurred recently when the far more pluralistic and moderate Beit Hillel rabbinical organization openly stated that "it is inconceivable that Jews going to the mount while observing halacha (Jewish law)... will be made to feel humiliated and will have the option of praying there barred from them."

Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth of the Ohel Ari congregation in Raanana and chairman of Beit Hillel, has called on the rabbinical world to lead an initiative carefully, responsibly and wisely to change the status quo on the Temple Mount, not through violence but through good will. Neuwirth and 15 of his colleagues have already visited the mount. Rabbi Dr. Jeffrey Woolf, a member of Beit Hillel, sees the development as "part of a Jewish revival" and conveys how his spirit was uplifted on one hand and how he felt humiliated on the other.

"As a person born abroad, it is abhorrent and reminiscent of all the unpleasant memories of anti-Semitism and hatred toward Jews," he said. "What I saw on the mount was unadulterated hatred in their eyes and the fear gripping the policemen. From my perspective, as a historian, it only illustrated the reality: We are in a head-on clash with another religious civilization, for which our presence on the mount is no less than an affront to God."

'Appalling cooperation'

The greatest change in the profile of those visiting the mount -- "no longer people considered weird" -- as Woolf puts it, is expressed by secular groups and students from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who have begun going to the mount on a regular basis. Students For the Temple Mount is a Facebook-based movement with over 450 members. Some of its activists are members of Im Tirtzu, a non-political Zionist movement. Ofir Levine (26) describes this community as "completely diverse, mostly secular -- not the same old religious folks with the long beards and kippah who also want -- rightfully so -- to enter the mount."

Levine has been to the Temple Mount 17 times, and every time he feels, in his words, humiliated by the strict security inspections the police officers conduct.

"I was an officer in the IDF, and every time it offends me all over again," he says. "When you are up there, you are escorted by police and Waqf officials, and then everything depends on their mood that day. You have to stay close to the outer walls of the compound. You aren't allowed to go to the Dome of the Rock plaza. You aren't allowed to stop. You aren't allowed to slow down. You are constantly being rushed: 'Move forward, keep going.' The whole ordeal is pretty humiliating."

What is a secular student looking for on the Temple Mount?

Levine: "It's not a religious thing. It's going there for the purpose of realizing sovereignty; it's a nationalist expression and implementation of basic human rights in a place that is the heart of the Jewish nation."

Rachel Touitou, an immigrant from France, is also a member of Students For the Temple Mount. Her visits there, she says, give her a "sense of belonging," but she adds they have recently become "scary."

"In France, there was anti-Semitism, but to see the cooperation between the police and Waqf, which watches over you to make sure no one mumbles a prayer -- is appalling. The Temple Mount is super-important in my view. Zion is the Temple Mount. That's how I was raised. The [Western] Wall is just a step toward the mount. People call us extremists. We are not. We are Jews who want to realize what should be our most obvious right -- visiting the Temple Mount."

The changing profile of Temple Mount visitors has also permeated the ultra-Orthodox public. There, too, the circles are growing wider. A few months ago renowned Rabbi Haim Cohen announced his support for Jews visiting the Temple Mount, under halachic restrictions. Similar calls were made by Rabbi Meir Mazuz, a member of the Council of Torah Sages, and Rabbi Haim Pessah Horowitz of Ashdod's Belz hassidic community. Students of Rabbi David Hai Hacohen from Bat Yam have also begun visiting the mount with his permission, even though he has thus far abstained from doing so himself. Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu also took a similar stance when he expressed his support for the Temple Mount Faithful Movement's initiative to build a synagogue on the mount.

Hundreds of rabbis from the religious Zionist camp, city rabbis, local community rabbis, yeshiva heads and others are listed by the Temple Mount Faithful in an organized database. In one way or another, they all support visiting the mount, and have actually backed down from the sweeping ban against visiting the site. This stance, it needs to be emphasized, runs counter to the positions of the Chief Rabbinate, the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem, and the students of Har Hamor Yeshiva head Zvi Yisrael Tau.

This drastic change, as it pertains to the rabbinical ruling and the public's response, only exacerbates the challenge for the police and political echelon. On the one hand they must find a way to calm emotions on the Muslim side, and on the other -- provide Jews the opportunity to realize the one small thing allegedly facilitated by the law and government decisions -- visiting rights and free access.



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