Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid last month added his name to the choir of Arab and world officials calling for respect of the status quo in Jerusalem’s Old City and especially at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
It is not clear if the Israeli official was parroting a talking point or if he understood its meaning, because the status quo has been broken at Al-Haram Al-Sharif many times, especially since September 2000, when the Second Intifada broke out. The status quo agreement initiated by Ottoman Sultan Osman III in 1757 has withstood British mandate and Jordanian rule, as well as the early years of Israeli occupation, but has since been repeatedly violated.
Palestinians revolted in 2000 after Israeli police used deadly gunfire to put down protests over the provocative visit by then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon. Israel has since stopped coordinating with Jordan over entry to Al-Haram Al-Sharif through one of the gates to the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Now, Israeli soldiers alone guard the Mughrabi Gate, with this violation of the status quo agreement allowing Israel to bring non-Muslims (both Jews and non-Jews) on to the compound without coordination with or the approval of the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf.
The Jordanian-appointed waqf council is charged by the Hashemite Kingdom with regulating all issues concerning the 35-acre site that affect Muslims. It is also responsible for regulating visits by tourists who wish to visit the historic site, which has been run by Muslims for more than 1,200 years (apart from 88 years of crusader occupation).
Israel has finally agreed to repeated requests by Jordan to meet and deal with the issues surrounding Al-Haram Al-Sharif and its many buildings, yards, mosques, schools, office buildings and the Islamic Museum. The graves of important people, including the late Jordanian King Abdullah I, lie within the compound.
For 16 years, Israel had also unilaterally ordered the Bab Al-Rahmeh (Golden Gate) not to be used by Muslims. The small mosque in this area (which some feel Israeli extremists were eying up as a Jewish synagogue) was retaken after a new, more courageous waqf council was appointed in Jerusalem back in 2019.
In 2014, Jordan reached an understanding with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the help of US Secretary of State John Kerry. But that agreement, which states that “Al-Aqsa is for Muslims to pray and for all others to visit,” has been repeatedly violated by Israelis entering the compound without coordination with the waqf council and under the protection of heavily armed Israeli troops, while sometimes uttering Jewish prayers.
The issue of the keys to the Mughrabi Gate should be top of the list of priorities of the Jordanian government, along with the waqf council of Jerusalem, as they negotiate with the Israelis. The return of the keys — which were taken by Israel in 1967, although coordination with Jordan continued until 2003 — and the placement of a guard employed by the waqf council would make the safeguarding of all the gates the same. At present, the Mughrabi Gate is the only one not to have dual guards: An armed Israeli police officer along with an unarmed Palestinian guard who is on the payroll of the Jordanian Ministry of Awqaf.
Once the waqf council guard is reinstated, it will be possible for Jordan and Israel to work out all other issues, including possible visits to the compound during non-prayer hours. Such visits can be organized at non-prayer times with the exception of Fridays and major Islamic holidays, when all the squares and mosques of Al-Haram Al-Sharif are filled with Muslim worshippers. During Laylat Al-Qadr and the last Friday of Ramadan, more than a quarter of a million Muslim worshippers prayed at Al-Aqsa Mosque. It makes little sense to insist on visits during such periods, when large crowds of Muslims are gathered for their holidays.
Once the waqf council guard is reinstated at the Mughrabi Gate, it will be possible for Jordan and Israel to work out all other issues.
Another issue that will also need to be settled is that of visits by all tourists to the compound. In the past, visitors had to obtain a ticket and pay a token fee. This issue must also be regulated in a manner that allows for orderly visits by individuals who respect the sanctity of the premises of Islam’s third-holiest mosque in terms of clothing and behavior.
The commitment to the status quo of a senior member of the Israeli government and others will be tested once Israel climbs down the tree that radical Jewish nationalists have forced it up. Once there are regulated and respectful visits by non-Muslims, there will be no need for Muslims to be concerned about losing control of their holy place and subsequently to mobilize themselves to protect it.
There is a clear opportunity to ensure the orderly and safe usage of Al-Haram Al-Sharif that will allow Muslims to pray and also allow all others to visit.