Less than a week after the swearing-in of Israel’s new government, Itamar Ben-Gvir, now the minister of national security, paid another contentious visit to the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif in Jerusalem. When still a regular Knesset member, Ben-Gvir paid periodic visits to the site, which is holy to Jews and Muslims, as well as to other disputed areas in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Ben-Gvir’s visit on January 3 immediately reignited controversy within Israel and sparked outspoken condemnations and clear warnings from across the world. At the request of the United Arab Emirates, a recent Israeli ally, the matter was swiftly referred to a separate meeting of the UN Security Council.
While the Israeli-Palestinian question is, of course, not new, the attention on a single geographical focal point may lead observers to lose sight of the larger picture. The bigger picture, however, is crucial to understanding the intricate web of perspectives on the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif issue, as well as its explosiveness.
As far as the complex itself is concerned, the current “status quo” implies, in a nutshell, that while Israel considers itself the sovereign over all of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif is administered through the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, or endowment, appointed and financed by Jordan. Muslims have unrestricted access—though Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza need an Israeli permit to reach Jerusalem—whereas non-Muslims are allowed at certain times, without a right to pray at the site. Israeli police present at the spot have variably enforced the latter prohibition.
Interestingly, Ben-Gvir defends his visit, which was short and featured no public praying, as an action to counter the “discrimination of Jews on Temple Mount,” casting the debate as a freedom of religion issue. Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, was also quick to emphasize that Jewish visits to the site do not constitute a violation of the status quo.
While both statements do not seem outrageous at face value, the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif question can not be seen as disconnected from the fact that there is no stable, agreed solution for the territories that came under Israeli control in 1967 and that are home to a large Palestinian population—namely the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. The lack of such a solution means that Palestinians cannot build a vision for a political future (whatever that future will be), nor see any substantive improvement in terms of mobility and economic opportunities. For Israel, the absence of a solution entails the persistence of security issues in territories both within its control and beyond (Lebanon, Syria, Iran), as well as restricted or risky access to sites considered holy in Judaism, such as the Temple Mount and Joseph’s Tomb in the Palestinian city of Nablus. Crucially, the lack of a solution, combined with internal political instability and crises—between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA), within the PA, and within Israeli politics—has led to frustration and extremism on both sides. This is reflected in the Israeli government Ben-Gvir is a member of, in the radicalization amongst Palestinian youth, and in a general loss of belief in the two-state outcome traditionally proposed as a solution to the issues.
In this context, it is not surprising that Ben-Gvir’s thirteen minutes on the site in question sparked such outrage. To him and his followers, the “status quo” in the place where two Jewish temples are believed to have stood, illustrates that the “Jewish sovereignty” they aspire to is not complete yet. For Palestinians, the status quo is one of the last straws they clutch to after coming to feel that they have lost their historic homeland. In the wider Muslim world, although Haram Al-Sharif is considered Islam’s third-holiest place after Mecca and Medina, upholding the status quo is considered the minimum that Israel can do in the context of a protracted conundrum. It is not without reason that during the Israel-Gaza conflict in May 2021, one of Hamas’ main propaganda lines was that it was “defending” Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is located at the Temple Mount.
More generally, the largely non-overlapping, even mutually exclusive, narratives of the Israelis and Palestinians go so far as to ignore or deny outright the other group’s historical, cultural and religious ties to the land and its sites. This phenomenon affects not only the city of Jerusalem but also Israeli areas where the Arab presence prior to 1948 has been erased, as well as West Bank sites, where the importance of Jewish historical and religious sites is either disregarded or exalted. When only half of a story is told, it should not come as a surprise that words or actions revealing the other half are seen as disconcerting and threatening.
It is clear that any path toward a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue must include arrangements regarding Jerusalem, including its places of worship. However, the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif fallacy consists of thinking that this particular site is the main question at stake or that it can be treated as a separate issue. While the site is certainly important for many, the opposite is actually true. If the Israelis and Palestinians can make progress on their opposing security, economic, and political issues, a compromise on the highly symbolic site will be much more likely.
Dr. Alexander Loengarov is a senior affiliated fellow at the Institute for International Law at the University of Leuven (KU Leuven, Belgium) and a former official of the European Economic and Social Committee of the European Union. He coordinated the first rounds of the EU’s Erasmus Mundus External Cooperation Window scheme for academic mobility with Israeli and Palestinian institutions. In addition to his thesis on the entanglement of politics and law in the issue of recognition of Palestinian statehood, he has published analysis for think tanks like the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Israel Policy Forum, as well as opinion pieces on Middle East and Israeli politics for the Brussels Times.
His writings reflect solely his own views, and not those of the European Economic and Social Committee or the European Union, which cannot be held responsible for any use made of it.