Unrest on and around the Al Aqsa Mosque/Temple Mount in Jerusalem last autumn caused the Palestinian president, Mahmood Abbas, to warn that the conflict between Israel and Palestine could escalate into a religious war.
The site has extremely powerful national and religious symbolic value for both Palestinians and Israelis.
The tension caused Jordan’s King Abdullah to summon Israel’s prime minister Netanyahu to talks in Amman. The 1994 peace agreement between Jordan and Israel confirms the Jordanian king as custodian of the mosque. The king funds the mosque’s maintenance and the salaries of its staff. When King Abdullah demanded that Netanyahu exert control over the activities of Jewish extremists, Netanyahu knew that the Israel-Jordan peace agreement could be in danger, and that the Muslim world could rapidly be engulfed in flames over this.
Netanyahu confirmed the King’s role as custodian and that the mosque would continue to be a Muslim holy site. He has also contributed to subduing Jewish activists. Whether this state of affairs will continue, however, remains to be seen.
The first temple
Before King Solomon commenced the building of the first temple, the site was probably, as Karen Armstrong has shown, a Jebusite holy site. According to Jewish theology, however, the world was created from this site. This was where God breathed onto dust and created the first human. This was also the place where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. Solomon’s temple was built on this site, probably around 1000 BCE. The temple was destroyed when King Nebuchadnezzar’s forces conquered Jerusalem in 587 BCE and exiled most of the city’s population to Babylon. When the exiles returned to Jerusalem they rebuilt the temple. This “second temple” was completed around 516 BCE.
The first temple was divided into three parts: one part for ordinary people, one for priests, and one part to house the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments. This third room, the Holy of Holies, could only be entered once a year and only by the High Priest, who first had to undergo extended purification rituals.
The Romans destroyed the second temple in 70 CE and expelled the Jews from Jerusalem in 135 CE. Since that time, Jewish rituals have expressed sorrow over the destruction of the temple, and Jewish daily prayers have expressed a longing for Jerusalem.
The first mosque
When Caliph Omar conquered Jerusalem in 638 CE, he asked to be shown the site of the Jewish temple. Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad came to this site in a nightly journey with his horse Al-Buraq, and from there to undertake his heavenly journey to converse with God. The horse was tethered to the wall that Jews today refer to as the Western Wall, or “Wailing Wall”. After his heavenly journey, the prophet held a prayer meeting by the wall with those prophets in Judaism who are also considered prophets in Islam: Abraham, Moses, Elijah and Jesus.
Caliph Omar commenced the building of the Dome of the Rock. This was completed in 691 CE. Later Muslim rulers built the southern mosque that faces towards Mecca. Right from the start, the whole site, both inside and outside the buildings, was considered to constitute a mosque.
Accounts exist from as early as the 4th century of Jews seeking out the Western Wall to pray. This wall was closest to where the temple had been. At the end of the 16th century, Caliph Suleiman the Magnificent confirmed that Jews were permitted to pray along the Western Wall.
Between 1948 and 1967, however, Jews did not have access to the wall, as the site was inhabited by Palestinian refugees. But when Israel conquered Jerusalem during the Six Day War in 1967, the Palestinians were driven out of the area adjacent to the Western Wall. Nonetheless, the Israeli government decided that the Al Aqsa Mosque (both the buildings and the outdoor areas) should continue to be a Muslim holy site, controlled by Muslim authorities.
The peace agreement with Jordan confirmed this position.
Michael Dumper shows how the tension surrounding this holy site relates to the current situation of, in particular, East Jerusalem. An important factor here is Israel’s closure, or increased control, of Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem. The Al Aqsa Mosque continues to be the most important site where Palestinians can mark their identity and their presence in the city. Restrictions on their access to this mosque makes Palestinians in East Jerusalem feel as though their lives and future in Jerusalem is challenged and possibly at risk.
In addition, groups linked to Jewish settlers and their sympathizers have secured increased influence both in Israel and within the city. They have contributed to intensifying archaeological excavations around the Al Aqsa Mosque. This activity in itself is provocative – since both the Palestinians and the international community consider this as a occupied city.
A forthcoming report from the International Crisis Group shows, however, that there are major differences of attitude amongst the various Jewish factions in the area. These differences are both political and theological.
First, ultra-Orthodox Jews believe that the third Temple will descend ready-built from heaven. This will happen when the Messiah comes, and in accordance with God’s will. Humans have no power to hasten this event. This is the official theological position of the Israeli Chief Rabbis The Chief Rabbinatehas posted a sign at the entrance to the mosque stating that it is forbidden for Jews to enter the area. This is because there is a risk that they might step on the site of the Holy of Holies.
Second, the National-Religious (or Religious Zionist) faction views the founding of the state of Israel as a link in God’s plan for mankind’s salvation. They want the state to exert its sovereignty over the Temple Mount. Some members of this faction believe that the Temple must not be rebuilt before God has put in place the conditions for doing so, while others believe that building can begin when all Jews in Israel are living pious lives. Secular, nationalist groups have links with this latter faction. These Israelis want Israel to exert sovereignty over the site, and refer to human rights when they demand that Jews should be permitted to pray there. All members of this group believe, however, that the Temple should only be rebuilt when everyone, both Jews and others, are able to come to the site in peace.
Finally, a third faction favours rebuilding the Temple now. This faction is small but influential, and believes that the temple would help Jews to live piously and would hasten the arrival of the Messiah. Their goal is a Jewish state with the Temple at its centre. The group has achieved a certain degree of political influence, including support from the vice president of the Knesset, Moshe Feiglin.
On the Palestinian side, the conflict has been escalated because Muslim groups among Palestinians in Israel, as well as Hamas and others, are acting in what they call “the defence of Al Aqsa”. Their agitation is fuelled when Israel – for reasons of security and the possibility of unrest – prevents Palestinian men aged between 15 and 55 from entering the mosque. It is also fuelled when Palestinian women now encounter difficulties entering the mosque, since they often are the most vocal protesters when Jewish groups are admitted to the area.
Amid enormous security, Ariel Sharon visited the Al Aqsa Mosque in 2000. This visit contributed to starting the Second Intifada and increasing tensions. From Muslim perspective, the visit was seen as an attempt to manifest Israeli sovereignty. Jews are still permitted to enter the area, but the Israeli police will prevent Jews from praying or conducting religious rituals while they are there. From the perspective of some Israelis, this is seen as unwarranted interference.
Palestinians generally believe that the police is protecting Jewish extremists.
The late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat claimed that there had never been a temple in Jerusalem. This was his response to arguments from certain Jewish quarters that historical and religious associations gave rise to a right to change the site’s current religious and legal status.
No one knows exactly where the temples stood, but there can be no doubt that they were in Jerusalem and on the Temple Mount. An official guidebook dating from 1924, published by the Supreme Muslim Council in Jerusalem, states that there can be no doubt that the site is identical with “Solomon’s temple”. Accordingly Arafat was undermining his own position when he implicitly accepted that historical and religious associations, if they do in fact exist, can give rise to rights.
However, neither God, nor historical or religious rights can be used as a basis in national or international law. There is no other solution to this conflict than the one accepted by Prime Minister Netanyahu. The Western Wall will continue to be a Jewish prayer site. The Al Aqsa Mosque will remain a Muslim holy site.
- Karen Armstrong: Jerusalem. One City, Three Faiths. London 1996, 1997
- Simon Sebag Montefiore: Jerusalem.The Biography. London 2011
- Michael Dumper: The Old City of Jerusalem in the Middle East Conflict. London 2002
This text was published in Norwegian in Aftenposten, 17 February 2015.
Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext