Praying for peace to hold at the Temple Mount next week

Israeli intelligence warns that the last Friday prayers of Ramadan will be used by Hamas for a demonstration of force


Palestinian protesters hurl stones towards Israeli security forces during clashes on the holy month of Ramadan at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City on April 15, 2022. Photo by Jamal Awad/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** פלסטינים צעירים רעולי פנים אבנים הפרות סדר עימותים משטרה ישראלית הר הבית אל אקצא כיפת הסע עיר עתיקה ירושלים רמאדן רמדן מוסלמים

“To be honest, I’m glad that they’re closing Temple Mount for 10 days,” said the Temple guide on the fifth day of Pesach. “We’ve had so many Jews going in over Pesach and we need to rest a bit as well.” One of a team of young volunteers, who get up early five days a week to accompany groups of Jews who “ascend” to the Mount from 7am onwards, the guide was only half-joking. The group’s stated aim is to see the Al Aqsa compound open constantly to Jews. Currently, Jews are allowed in only for two three-hour periods at morning and afternoon on weekdays. But even for them this Pesach has been gruelling, with record numbers of Jews queuing to enter.

On the first four days of Chol Ha’moed Pesach, 4,625 Jews entered Temple Mount, 75 per cent more than during Pesach last year, and probably the highest number of Jews on the mount since the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans 1,952 years ago. There are both political and religious implications to this surge in pilgrimage.

The vast majority of Jews who came to pray over Pesach remained outside Temple Mount, making do with the ancient wall of the Herodian temple compound, or as we more commonly call it, the Western Wall. But the growing legitimacy of going beyond the wall is a challenge to the Orthodox rabbinical establishment, most of which still regards the entrance to any part of Temple Mount before the coming of the Messiah as an “issur chamur” – breaching a severe prohibition.

There is a sign saying as much at the security checkpoint leading to Mughrabi Gate, where Jews enter. Ironically, within the checkpoint itself, there are contradictory signs explaining how (and where) it is permitted according to Halacha to enter.

A decade ago, only a tiny number of religious Jews were regular Temple Mount visitors. A growing number of Orthodox rabbis, mainly of the dati-leumi (national-religious) camp, permit going inside and are even doing so themselves with their followers on a regular basis. It isn’t a schism, at least not yet, but it certainly is the deepest theological divide today within Jewish Orthodoxy.

I’ve joined these pilgrims a number of times over the past year and many of them fail to conform to the stereotype of religious extremists they have in the media. “Believe me, I have no desire to evict the Muslims from Al Aqsa,” I was told by Eli Yorav, a teacher from the settlement of Ofra, who went up there last week. “Temple Mount is a place for the entire world to worship God. One day, we’ll all pray there together.”

Seconds later, a stone came skidding from the direction of the mosque at the southernmost point of the compound, where hundreds of young men were holed up, though it didn’t come close to our group, which was surrounded by police officers in uniform and plainclothes. The police certainly couldn’t wait for the Wednesday morning pilgrimage to be over. That was when Temple Mount would close to non-Muslims for the last 10 days of the Ramadan month.

Due to the differences between the Muslim and Jewish calendars, Ramadan and Pesach coincide only rarely. Pesach next year will be at the start of Ramadan and then they won’t fall on the same dates for another couple of decades. It didn’t happen last year, but then there were enough sources of tension, not just in Jerusalem, but in Gaza as well, and the Ramadan clashes on the mount were the trigger for 11 days of warfare between Israel and the Palestinian factions in Gaza.

Hamas, which rules Gaza, is still licking its wounds from that round and has no interest in another major escalation. But it still needs to posture as the “guardian of Al Aqsa,” which is why it sent hundreds of its supporters into the mosque, with the movement’s green flags, as well as piles of rocks and firecrackers. The clashes with police were mainly early on Friday mornings, and petered out in time for the main Ramadan prayers at noon.

Meanwhile, the Israeli government insisted that Jewish pilgrims continue being allowed in, though their entrance was limited to just the morning. On the last 10 days of Ramadan, no non-Muslims were allowed in, as in previous years. Both sides want to maintain the illusion that they rule the holy site, while not giving the other side a reason to escalate matters further.

Closing Temple Mount to Jews in the last 10 days of Ramadan gave members of the opposition another reason to attack the Bennett government. “It is diplomatic and security foolery,” said Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionism list. “It is tantamount to accepting the Arab lie as if Jews are to blame for the current escalation.”

He and his colleagues blithely ignored the fact that the previous government in which they served under Benjamin Netanyahu also closed Temple Mount to Jews over the last 10 days of Ramadan.

Alon Gellert, today a senior partner in a Tel Aviv law firm, has a story he likes to tell from the days when he worked as legal counsel in the prime minister’s office, 21 years ago.

It concerns the first week in which Ariel Sharon served as prime minister, just before Pesach. The head of the Shin Bet security service came to ask him to sign off on an order prohibiting the Temple Mount Faithful group from holding a reenactment of the ancient Pesach sacrifice, just outside Temple Mount.

As leader of the opposition, Sharon had challenged his predecessor Ehud Barak just eight months earlier by going up to Temple Mount himself, a protest that some still believe triggered the Second Intifada, though Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had other reasons of his own for setting the violent chain of events in motion.

“Sharon didn’t like the fact that one of the very first decisions he had to make as prime minister was to prevent Jews from praying at Temple Mount,” recalls Mr Gellert. “But he read the Shin Bet intelligence briefing and just like every other prime minister, before and after him, signed off on the restraining order.”

All those years ago, Naftali Bennett was a young tech entrepreneur, making his first millions in Manhattan. As a teenager, he had actually joined the Temple Mount Faithful in one of their outings on the Mount. Now, like every Israeli prime minister before him, he’s prepared to prevent Jews from going up there, just for a few days, in the hope of getting to the end of Ramadan next week as peacefully as possible.

Both sides are looking closely at each other’s calendars.

Israeli intelligence is warning that the last Friday prayers of Ramadan will be used by Hamas for a last demonstration of force on Temple Mount. And next week, immediately after Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim festival marking the end of Ramadan, is Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen IDF soldiers and then Independence Day, which Hamas and other Palestinian factions would love to disrupt.

Next week will be a tense one. “If we can get to the end of Independence Day without any major escalation, then we’ll really have something to celebrate,” said an aide to the prime minister.

After that, the Knesset’s summer session begins and there will be just the normal political problems to worry about.

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