December 1, 2020

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The hysteria versus the reality on the Temple Mount

Ma’an, the Western-funded news agency, reports in Arabic:

Dozens of extremist settlers stormed the Al-Aqsa Mosque on Sunday morning, in memory of the “naksa,” the occupation of Jerusalem in 1967, to coincide with the tours and provocative marches on the doors of the mosque and in the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City under Israeli police protection.

The director of Al-Aqsa Mosque, Sheikh Omar Kiswani said that 208 settlers stormed Al-Aqsa Mosque through the Mughrabi Gate, in small groups, tightly guarded by Israeli police and special forces.

Al-Kiswani said the Israelis started their tour at the Moroccan gate, before moving on to the al-Qibli and al-Marwani mosques on the compound, and then to Bab al-Rahma area. Some of them attempted to perform religious rituals but were prevented from doing so by guards.

Sheikh Kiswani stressed that the settlers have no right to storm Al-Aqsa, blaming the Israeli government and the Israeli police responsibility tense situation in the Far eve of the holy month of Ramadan.

The Islamic Waqf denounced the provocative practices that took place by the settlers in the Aqsa Mosque.

Jews peacefully visiting the Temple Mount is the top story in Ma’an today in both English (where the rhetoric is toned down) and Arabic.

This hysteria is published day in and day out in Arabic media worldwide.

But last year secular Israeli journalist Shlomo Eldar decided to visit the holy spot to see what the fuss was all about. He published the truth in Al Monitor:

I did not visit the Temple Mount for religious, political or ideological reasons. Rather, I came as a journalist wishing to know what the commotion is all about. I wanted to find out firsthand whether the Palestinian allegations that the Al-Aqsa Mosque is in danger are founded. Has Israel really changed the sanctified status quo at the Temple Mount or is it — as Israeli officials claim — the unbridled and deliberate incitement by the northern chapter of the Islamic movement in Israel and by Palestinian Authority (PA) officials that sparked the current wave of terror?

Visiting the compound is possible only through organized groups or those that get organized on the spot. That’s why I asked to join a tour of the Temple Mount Heritage Foundation headed by right-wing activist Yehuda Glick, who heads the LIBA Initiative for Jewish Freedom on the Temple Mount. To my surprise, however, I discovered that I was the only tourist in the initiative, which is why I was privileged to have a private tour guide who gave me a detailed overview of the history of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.

Orna — a certified tour guide and a secular woman — volunteers once a month, as do many other tour guides, to provide a free-of-charge professional tour “without religious, political and ideological agendas,” for anyone who wants to see the site and be informed.

When we arrived at the entrance gate another surprise awaited me: Hundreds of tourists from around the world were lining up, waiting patiently for the visiting hours. Buses packed with tourists parked close to the Western Wall parking lot. Column after column of visitors from different countries joined the long meandering line that sprawled all the way from the entrance to the Old City’s Dung Gate. Naively, I thought that only a handful of people, mainly from right-wing Israeli groups that insist on changing the existing order, would come to visit this hot spot.

As it turns out, tourists have a priority accessing the compound. When a group of Jews gets organized, it has the last priority to enter. Jews wishing to visit the Temple Mount are assigned police officers, border police soldiers and Waqf security guards who make sure they bring no Jewish ritual objects whatsoever. They are also forbidden from praying, bowing, sitting down, quietly reciting prayers, bringing a prayer book, a photo of the compound or a Star of David. They are allowed to bring nothing that could potentially upset Muslim worshipers and stir up more tension. Before going in, Orna carefully stashed all the photos, drawings and maps she was carrying under the stairwell so as to meet the stringent visiting restrictions. Standing next to the long line of tourists were five Jews wearing skullcaps. Once organized as a group, they waited for the instructions of the security guards to let them in. After going through a rigorous security check at the entrance gate, they were assigned border police soldiers as well as Waqf security guards that surrounded them throughout the visit. As soon as they set foot in the plaza, the women of the Mourabitat (organized Muslim activists) started shrieking in loud voices: “Allahu akbar.” This was the first time I saw from up close the women who have been recruited by the northern faction of the Islamic movement in Israel and who receive pay for participating in the mission to “defend the Al-Aqsa Mosque.”

At the farther perimeters of the entrance, some 20 women in a religious study group were sitting down in a circle and reading the Quran. On a knoll across from there, outside the structure, were the Mourabitoun — the men — who were also having a Quran class. When they noticed the religious Jewish men they, too, started shouting in loud voices — which blended in with the yelping of the women — “Allahu akbar.”

Unflustered by those chants, the small Jewish group continued to walk slowly along the plaza all the way to the entrance to the mosque, which is marked by a strip on the ground. That’s where they stopped for fear that they would cross into an area that is prohibited. From there they proceeded to take another round along the plaza. Then they left the compound escorted by the guards and the Allahu akbar yelling.

I drew closer to the group of Mourabitoun men. I pulled out my cell phone and took their picture. All of a sudden a few Waqf guards showed up, demanding that I hand over my device, claiming that I had taken a photo of a sight that cannot be photographed.

“I have no objection deleting the forbidden photo,” I told one of the guards, who made sure I deleted all the photos showing the Mourabitoun and Mourabitat at the Temple Mount as well as photos of the Waqf security guards around the mosque. However, they did let me keep a photo of myself against the backdrop of the mosque. But then another group of Waqf security guards showed up with their commander (which is what I inferred from the tone of his voice and the orders he bossed around to his subordinates.) They demanded that I be removed from the Temple Mount because, according to them, I had violated the rules. “Nobody told me I couldn’t take photos of the worshipers,” I tried to explain. To support my argument, I added that I had taken the photos openly and in the presence of the security guards. “If I had known that you can’t take pictures of the Mourabitoun, would I have done so in front of your own eyes?” I wondered out loud.

Raising his voice, the commander of the Waqf detail said forcefully, “Get him out right now. Khalas! [That’s enough!] Out.” As they started escorting me to the exit gate, a border police soldier stationed at one of the security posts showed up where the altercation was taking place. At that point an argument about sovereignty at the Temple Mount ensued. “You have no right to remove any visitors from the plaza,” the soldier told his Waqf counterparts, who insisted on removing the “rogue tourist.”

One of the Waqf officials turned to me in English and said, “Here, we make the decisions. Here, we call the shots. Here, we are kings — the rulers.” He kept repeating the word “king” over and over. “Nobody can dispute what we say,” he argued. “We determine who comes in and who goes out and what they can or can’t do. We are the sovereigns at Al-Aqsa Mosque.” The border police soldier tried to calm him down, telling him that those were not the procedures and that decisions have to be made jointly. Yet, the Waqf guard insisted that they were the sovereign and that they had been explicitly ordered to banish me.

This ended my visit to the Temple Mount, from which I learned that if Waqf officials have the authority and ability to decide who gets to visit the compound and who fails to meet the threshold criteria, the Al-Aqsa Mosque is therefore not in danger.

Knesset member Ghattas alleged that Israel was deepening its control and occupation, yet I don’t understand what he saw. The Waqf security guards are densely deployed at the Temple Mount compound, going to great lengths to make sure that only small groups of Jews get to visit the site compared to the thousands of tourists that are allowed to visit almost uninterruptedly. While keeping order and security at the Temple Mount and at Al-Aqsa Mosque is shared jointly by Israel and the Waqf, the tension awards the Palestinian almost total control of who is allowed into the Temple Mount and who isn’t. This, of course, stands in total contrast to the Palestinian allegations that Israel has changed the status quo and that Al-Aqsa is in danger.

Even an Israeli journalist had believed the hysteria without question, until he decided to look at the situation first-hand.

The reality is that Jews are peacefully visiting the Temple Mount and are subject to rigorous restrictions that secular tourists and Muslims are not. And every time they visit the Muslims make a big deal out of it in order to create a situation where Jews would be banned altogether.

And to a large extent, the strategy has already worked.

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