National Security

Violence at the Temple Mount

“While non-Muslims may visit the Temple Mount, they at times face harassment from Arabs motivated or paid by the waqf who follow visitors around the Temple Mount and chant “allah akbar.”

On the morning of Friday, July 14, 2017, two Israeli border guards were shot and killed by three Arab gunmen who emerged from the Temple Mount and opened fire at the guards manning their post near the Lion’s Gate. Other officers pursued them as they fled back into the Temple Mount complex, where they were eventually shot.

In response to the shooting, Friday prayers at al-Aqsa Mosque were cancelled and the Temple Mount was temporarily closed.

While this is not the first instance of violence emanating from the Temple Mount, the attack was somewhat unique in that it was conducted with firearms, the possession of which are heavily controlled by the Israeli government. The tight control on firearms has led to an increase in the frequency of stabbings and ramming attacks.

While there has long been a Palestinian underground weapons manufacturing industry, the transfer of the weapons into areas where Israel exercises sovereignty is largely stopped at the source through intelligence collection on the manufacture and transfer of such weapons and security checkpoints. The homemade weapons are not necessarily crude, as they are built using easily accessible parts for mass-produced weapons, but are not as reliable and prone to fail, as seen on video during the June 2015 attack at Sarona Market in Tel Aviv when one of the homemade weapons jammed and was thrown down by the terrorist. Generally, the weapons are submachine guns or pistols produced to accept easily accessible mass-produced pistol magazines.

The shooting came as a shock given the enhanced security measures around Jerusalem in general and the Old City and Temple Mount specifically in the wake of the wave of violence that began in September 2015.

Some Arabs have called the Israeli closure of the Temple Mount in the wake of the shooting a “violation of Muslims’ religious freedoms,” and an Arab member of Israel’s Knesset declared the closure could spark a third intifada. Israeli measures taken against harassment of Jewish and other non-Muslim visitors by the Islamic waqf, the Jordanian-funded charitable trust that administers the Temple Mount, are believed to have spurred the aforementioned wave of violence.

To understand the current events involving the Temple Mount, it is important to understand the history and the context in which the current events take place.

The Temple Mount in the Religious Context

The Temple Mount is held sacred by all Abrahamic religions, and each has ties to it to varying degrees. It is the holiest site in Judaism and is considered the third holiest site in Islam.

In Judaism, the Temple Mount is the site of the foundation stone. It is from this point the world took shape, and it is this place that is where heaven and earth intersect. At what is the Temple Mount, Abraham went up to Mount Moriah to sacrifice Isaac in the ultimate display of faith. On the Temple Mount, the first (Solomon) and second (Herod) temple were built, and Hashem, God, dwelt on earth in the Holy of Holies. On the Temple Mount, the third temple will be built and the Messiah will return.

To Christians, the Temple Mount is where a young Jesus sat with the teachers and amazed them with his wisdom. The Temple Mount is where Jesus flipped the tables of the money changers and admonished them for turning it into a den of thieves.

To Muslims, the Temple Mount, referred to as Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary), is where Muhammed, on his night journey to “the farthest mosque,” al-aqsa, ascended into heaven on al-Buraq, a winged steed with a human head.

Al-Aqsa Mosque, the dark gray domed structure on the southwest corner of the Temple Mount, is believed to have been built in the eighth century on top of where Justinian once built a Christian church. The Dome of the Rock, the gold domed structure in the middle of the Temple Mount, was built in the late seventh century over what Jews believe to be the foundation stone and where the Second Temple stood.

While the Old City contains sites of particular significance to the various Abrahamic religions, at no place do they overlap as they do on the Temple Mount.

The Temple Mount in Political Context

The foundation of the modern state of Israel was undertaken by largely secular Zionist Jews who viewed their Jewishness as cultural more so than religious. Many of the early kibbutzniks were atheist, or at least secular, socialists or outright communists. The tie to the land was more about lineage than religion. It was not until the mid-1970s, with the election of Menachem Begin and the Herut Party (the predecessor of the modern Likud Party), that Israel’s leadership was religious.

The partition of the British Mandate for Palestine adopted in United Nations Resolution 181 divided the land of modern Israel into a Jewish State, an Arab state, and a separated body, corpus separatum. The corpus separatum was Jerusalem, because given its sensitive nature, it was to be an international zone administered by a United Nations trusteeship.

The partition plan did not hold, as almost immediately after its adoption fighting, between the Arab and Jewish populations began and then escalated into a full-scale war upon the British withdrawal and Israel’s declaration of independence. Five Arab armies invaded Israel, and the young state fought back and added land to their small state through military gains.

The corpus separatum did not stand the test of arms, and as part of the 1949 armistice that ended the fighting, Jerusalem was divided by the “Green Line”—Israeli-controlled West Jerusalem on one side and Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem on the other. The Old City, which includes the Temple Mount, was in the Jordanian-controlled eastern side.

In 1967, the fighting in Jerusalem was fierce. A small unit of Israeli paratroopers assaulted the Jordanians at Ammunition Hill and engaged in hand-to-hand combat in the trenches there. The Israelis encircled Jerusalem and tightened the noose around the Old City. Then Defense Minister, Moshe Dayan, “understood that [Jerusalem’s] political complexities could threaten Israel’s very existence” and took a cautious approach and “argued against the conquest, anxious about the responsibilities of governing the Temple Mount”.

As a military man, Dayan could not ignore the momentum the Israeli forces were making and was forced to abandon his plan of taking the Old City by siege. On the morning of the third day of the Six Day War, June 7th, Mordechai Gur, commander of the paratroopers who entered the Old City through the Lions Gate radioed his commander, Uzi Narkiss, “the Temple Mount is in our hands”.

Defense Minister Dayan arrived at the Temple Mount and saw an Israeli flag that had been placed above the Dome of the Rock and ordered it removed immediately. Dayan, who did not want to take the Old City to begin with, made the decision to ensure all faiths would have access to their holy sites—something Jews had been denied when Jordan controlled the Old City.

In a radio address the same day, Dayan told the people of Israel and the larger global audience,

“We have returned to the holiest of our places, never to be separated from it again. Israel extends the hand of friendship to its Arab neighbors, and to all those of other religions, with assurances that their complete freedom and right to observe and practice their religion shall be safeguarded. We have not come to conquer the shrines of others or to restrict their religious rights, but to insure the integrity of the city and to live in it in friendship and fraternity with others.”

Dayan’s radio address was in line with his later stated view of public diplomacy with the Arab world. In his autobiography, he wrote, “I believed that the Moslems should be granted sovereignty over their holy places, and any Moslem from any Moslem land, whether or not it maintained diplomatic relations with Israel, should be allowed free access to those places. I was convinced that the cornerstone of Arab-Jewish coexistence was that each community should ensure the satisfaction of its basic yearnings, while showing toleration for the basic yearnings of the other”.

This approach is also seen in Dayan’s approval of the Open Bridges Policy, which allowed Arabs to cross the Jordan River for commerce and visitation. If the Arab governments were not going to have relations with Israel, then Israel would have relations with those who make pilgrimages to Jerusalem’s holy sites.

Dayan’s approach to maintaining access to and protection of holy sites was codified by the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, when it passed the “Protection of the Holy Places Law” 20 days after Israeli forces took the Temple Mount.

Under Dayan’s arrangement, the Islamic waqf retained its status as the administrator of the Temple Mount. While the chief rabbis in Israel have repeatedly warned Jews against visiting the Temple Mount based on religious law due to purity issues, Israeli civil law allows Jewish visits with waqf oversight. In practice, this means non-Muslims may not pray or bring religious objects on the Temple Mount and are restricted from visiting certain areas, namely the Dome of the Rock.

While non-Muslims may visit the Temple Mount, they at times face harassment from Arabs motivated or paid by the waqf who follow visitors around the Temple Mount and chant “allah akbar.” The waqf has not limited itself to harassing just Jewish visitors. In 2015, a US Congressman was harassed while he was visiting the Temple Mount.

The Fight for the Temple Mount: Nationalism to Islamism

In the post-colonial Middle East, the ideal of nationalism took hold and held the possibility of delivering the Arab world into modernity. Professor George Antonius, an Arab of Lebanese and Egyptian descent and author of The Arab Awaking (1938), hailed Arab nationalism as a way for Arabs to obtain political rights domestically and take part in the community of nations.

Nasserism and Ba’athism were pan-Arab philosophies born out of the concept of nationalism. Both concepts also highlighted socialism and secularism as central tenants. The former was based on the manner of governing by Nasser in Egypt, and the latter was a philosophical set of ideals put forward by Syrian intellectuals and took hold in Syria and Iraq.

It was these secular nationalist ideologies that confronted Israel in its early existence. That is not to say they did not play to religious sensitivities when it suited them, but that their goals were not necessarily Islamic primacy and expansion, but centered on Arab honor, prestige, and position. Even early Palestinian movements were mainly secular and nationalist in nature.

As nationalism continued to fail in achieving domestic rights and international respect for the Arabs, they began looking elsewhere, namely, to their past. The watershed moment can be identified as early in 1979. On March 29, 1979, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty at the White House. Egypt, the largest Arab nation in the region, was not necessarily a friend of Israel, but it was no longer a foe.

Almost two months before the signing of the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty, the once-exiled Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran after Shah Reza Pahlavi, a US and Israeli ally, left Iran two weeks before. Khomeini began consolidating power and imposed his Islamic Revolution on the larger, more diverse opposition to the Shah. Khomeini imposed viyalat-e faqih, rule of the (Islamic) jurist, which made Iran an Islamic theocracy. In doing so, the US and Israel lost an ally and gained a foe, but the larger, more immediate ramification was the newly rediscovered centrality of Islam as the prominent motivator in Middle Eastern conflicts.

The ripe fruits of returning Islam to its proper centrality began to appear throughout the ‘80s. An obvious example of success was found in the Islamic Republic of Iran and the immediate impact it had in Islamizing Middle Eastern conflicts, whether against Iraq or through proxies in Lebanon. Another was to be found in the success of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan as they relentlessly fought the Soviets. Islamism promised to succeed where the nationalist failed vis-à-vis Israel and the larger dar al-Harb.

It is this transition from nationalism to Islamism that led to the rise in prominence of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood affiliate Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Palestine, a member of dar al-Islam, while still important, was not a solely political issue any longer; it became secondary to the more religious issue of liberating Jerusalem’s holy sites and exterminating the Jews. This is seen in the propaganda images of the Palestinian flag, Yassir Arafat, and Leila Khaled at the center of Palestinian liberation art and its replacement with the Dome of the Rock, al-Aqsa Mosque, and glorified suicide bombers. Arafat could have, in theory, accepted a return to the borders of the 1949 Armistice; Hamas cannot.

In addition to the security issues at the Temple Mount, Israel faces the threat of rockets and tunnel infiltration by Hamas in Gaza. IS-aligned fighters have made the Sinai lawless and threaten Israel along the entirety of its once secure frontier with Egypt. Along the Golan Heights, IS-aligned groups control some areas while the Syrian regime controls others that may become bases of operation against Israel for their Iranian and Hezbollah allies.

Jordan, while still in a state of peace with Israel, must be careful in its relations. In the Hashemite Kingdom, where approximately 20% of the population is Palestinian, King Abdullah II must take care in his relationship with Israel and how he responds, as a response deemed too moderate can have domestic implications and a response too excessive could have international implications given Jordan’s long-standing alliance and reliance with the British and the US. The Syrian refugees in Jordan have made the situation even more precarious and stretched Jordan’s resources thin.

It is under these external conditions and the domestic religious and political context that Israel must decide how to proceed in handling security and dissuading violence at the Temple Mount.

Kenneth Depew

Kenneth Depew is retired from the U.S. Army after having served two tours in Baghdad, Iraq as an Infantryman and one tour in Kunar Province as a Human Intelligence Collector. He served on Senator Ted Cruz’s 2012 U.S. Senate election campaign and on Senator Cruz’s senate staff. He is an alumnus of the University of St. Thomas in Houston where he studied political science and philosophy and Tel Aviv University where he earned a master of arts in security and diplomacy studies.

Join the conversation!

We have no tolerance for comments containing violence, racism, vulgarity, profanity, all caps, or discourteous behavior. Thank you for partnering with us to maintain a courteous and useful public environment where we can engage in reasonable discourse.