This week Israel’s Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, signed an order banning male Murabitun and female Murabatat Islamist groups from Jerusalem’s sacred Temple Mount (Har HaBayit).

In an earlier LI post we highlighted how these groups have been maintaining a permanent presence on the site, and intimidating and harassing non-Muslim visitors on a daily basis.

The Murabitun/Murabatat are self-identified “guardians of Al-Aqsa” who consider it a duty to protect the integrity of the Muslim Noble Sanctuary from devout Jews and Christians who just want to pray there. In fact, they’re a bunch of hecklers who’ve been allowed to act with impunity for far too long.

Now they’re being shut down.

It’s a move that comes as welcome news to the many devout Jews and Christians who’ve been trying for years to raise public awareness about the situation.

But the fight for religious freedom and interfaith respect on the Temple Mount isn’t over yet.

Israel Cracks Down on Temple Mount Troublemakers

The Islamist groups are made up of Israeli Arabs and Palestinian residents of Jerusalem. They’re funded by Israel’s northern branch of the Islamic Movement, which according to media reports has for some years been serving as a front for Hamas.

The Islamic Movement has been regularly paying Arab activists a handsome sum every month and transporting them to the Temple Mount—Judaism’s holiest site and the third most revered site in Islam—from communities in central Israel, the Galilee, and the Negev.

The new decree aims to put a stop to this “support and direction” from “hostile Islamist organizations”. In his statement, Ya’alon described the Muslim activists as engaging in “dangerous incitement” against Israeli citizens and tourists at the site, which “harms public order and threatens the peace of worshippers”.

Facilitated by an emergency law that allowed the British government to crack down on Jewish paramilitary organizations during the years before Israel’s independence, the order declares the Murabitun and Murabatat groups “unlawful organizations”. This means that anyone participating in their activities, or organizing or funding them, is committing a crime and is likely to face prosecution.

The new order, approved by Israel’s Attorney General, has been in the works for over a month. The Israel Police, Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan, and the Shin Bet (Israel’s domestic intelligence agency) all recommended to Ya’alon that the step was necessary to “protect national security and public order”. Anticipating the imminent move, the Israeli police on the site had already begun preventing entry to the Murabitun/Murabatat agitators during morning visiting hours.

But up until this week they were still being allowed in during the afternoons, where they’ve continued to foment incitement and generate commotions.

Our earlier LI post showed how non-Muslim visitors on the Temple Mount are constantly harangued and subjected to verbal taunts—and sometimes physical abuse—from these activists:

The routine intimidation of religious Jews visiting the Temple Mount compound by throngs of Palestinians—primarily women, but sometimes joined by men and even children—who aim to make the Temple Mount a ‘Jew-free zone’ is well documented…There are dozens of videos on the internet that capture the continued harassment of these women ‘protectors’ who’ve escalated from in-your-face screeching to screaming at visitors to chasing them.”

It’s an absurd “Kafkaesque” situation that’s been described in a growing number of recent eye-witness accounts.

Ironically, the latest was published this past Tuesday in The Jerusalem Post—coinciding with Ya’alon’s announcement that the Islamist groups would now be outlawed. In it, highly regarded Knesset reporter Lahav Harkov recounts a “jarring” and “humiliating ride”.

It was her first visit, where she decided not to wield her press pass but to visit the place “like any other Jew on a tour of our religion’s holiest site”:

The norm is for Israeli Jews to be treated like dangerous criminals just for wanting to walk around? In the State of Israel?…I’m not used to be treated like I’m guilty for existing…”

Harkov describes a truly degrading experience in what has essentially become a no-go zone for Jewish worship:

During the tour, we were constantly yelled at…first by the Waqf [Islamic religious trust] officials in Arabic, and then by police translating into Hebrew. Things like stopping too long (whatever that means) to take a picture or sitting on a ledge…Suddenly, I heard shouting in Arabic and saw one of the Waqf stalkers pointing right at me. A [Israeli] policeman turned to me: ‘You can’t close your eyes and cry. That’s like praying’.”

U.S. Congressmen Hounded on the Temple Mount

It’s not just religious Jews who’ve been hassled this summer.

On August 4 a 35-year-old Christian tourist from France was beaten up after he unfurled an Israeli flag near the Al-Aqsa mosque.

Also last month a group of Murabitun “stalked a delegation of US congressmen” who happened to be visiting the site. According to media reports, Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-PA) and Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-WV) and his wife were in Israel participating in a program hosted by the Israel Allies Foundation, an organization that supports 33 parliamentary caucuses across the globe that “mobilize political support for Israel based on Judeo-Christian values.”

The itinerary included a guided tour of the Temple Mount, where the delegation witnessed the shrieking “protectors of Al-Aksa” up close and personal.

Interviewed in The Jerusalem Post, the congressmen recounted how an “exhilarating and meaningful experience” was marred by the Muslim men on the Mount who followed the group the entire time they were there, doing a terrific job of making everyone feel uncomfortable. Said Rep. Jenkins:

It was a place of great religious meaning to me as a Christian, a destination…that me and my wife were looking forward to, and then to have the confrontation from the Muslims who yelled and shouted at us and my wife individually…To literally step on the Temple Mount and be confronted was certainly shocking.”

Members of US congressional delegation at the Temple Mount, August 2015 Credit: Israel Allies Foundation

Members of US congressional delegation at the Temple Mount, August 2015 Credit: Israel Allies Foundation

The Struggle for Religious Freedom Continues

This week’s landmark change in Temple Mount policy has left advocates for universal access and religious freedom hopeful that non-Muslims will ultimately be able not just to visit there—but to also pray freely.

But so far, it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen any time soon.

This past Tuesday, a boy who had gone up to the Mount in the morning to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah was reportedly removed by the police when he said the “Shema” prayer out loud. Then, in the afternoon a religious Jewish man was arrested for praying there when he made a customary blessing over a sip of water.

As noted in our previous post, the Israeli courts have repeatedly upheld Jewish prayer rights on the Temple Mount. But because the courts also authorize the police to forbid worship if it determines that religious expression would disrupt public order, in practice non-Muslims are subject to some pretty wacky rules and regulations:

By law, Jewish Israeli citizens are allowed to visit the Temple Mount. Jewish worship is technically legal. But in reality the right of Jews to pray on the site is severely restricted. Israeli police, who maintain a small presence there, routinely impede Jews from praying openly on the grounds that it would cause the Muslims on the site to riot, or could trigger widespread violence in East Jerusalem—and even ignite a larger regional conflagration…The courts have usually deferred to the judgement of the police as to how to keep the shaky peace at the holy site. It’s a bizarre situation in which the courts have condoned Jewish citizens being banned from the Temple Mount, often for lengthy periods, if the police think their presence could ‘provoke violence’ or ‘aggravate the Muslims’. Other severe restrictions on Jewish prayer are also routine: no singing, no praying out loud…even moving lips in a prayer-like manner isn’t allowed…”

In her “Reporter’s Notebook” article last week, Harkov notes that it felt as if the Israeli “police work for the Islamic Waqf, which manages the site, and not for the citizens of Israel.”

To be sure, the police are often caught between a rock and a hard place—they’re trying to protect visitors while minimizing the possibilities for things to get out of hand. But, as Harkov notes, the police are also notorious for treating Jewish visitors with disdain. During her visit, they “catered to and tried to anticipate every inane complaint by Waqf staff”.

Other Jewish visitors have voiced similar objections.

All of which means that merely removing the Murabitun/Murabitat from the site, while a welcome development, isn’t going to solve a problem rooted in the extreme anti-Jewish hostility of the Muslim authorities who work there.

Denying Jerusalem’s Centrality to Judaism

Neither the Waqf nor the Palestinian Authority believe that Jews have any legitimate connection to the Temple Mount—much less the right to pray there.

As meticulously documented by Yitzhak Reiter, an Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies scholar at Ashkelon Academic College and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, their long-held position—repeated for decades by numerous officials—has been that Jews have no historical or religious claim to the site.

This summer these preposterous falsehoods have been on shameful display.

Back on July 26, as Jews in Israel and around the world prepared to mourn the destruction of the ancient Jewish temples on Tisha B’Av, Palestinian Minister of Religious Affairs Mahmoud Al-Habbash said: “The Al-Aksa Mosque is located atop the Temple Mount…Look for your Holy temple in another place…this is a holy site for Islam, and only for Islam…”

Then, on August 6, a group of Palestinian Muslim and Christian religious leaders signed a declaration stating that Jews have no right to enter the Temple Mount. This “Blessed Aksa Mosque Document” was initiated by the head of the Islamic Supreme Commission, former Jerusalem mufti Sheikh Ekrima Sabri. At a press conference, Sabri told journalists that the Temple Mount compound is “purely and exclusively sacred to Muslims”, that neither Jews nor any other party had any right to “even one grain of soil” there, and that non-Muslim entry was a “grave assault and desecration” of the holy site.

A new bulletin by Itamar Marcus of Palestinian Media Watch (PMW) also documents the Palestinian Authority’s recent incitement this summer to

reject religious tolerance by defining any presence of Jews on the Temple Mount as an ‘invasion’. Jews who want to visit the Temple Mount are considered to be ‘defiling’ the pure Islamic holy site…The PA solution to Jewish visits to the Temple Mount is to increase violence there and eventually be rid of any Jewish presence.”

Fatah-run Awdah TV, July 17, 2015 Credit: PMW

Fatah-run Awdah TV, July 17, 2015 Credit: PMW

Conclusion

Since 1967, Israel has admirably granted freedom of worship on the Temple Mount to all of its citizens and to tourists visiting the site, regardless of religion. This past week the government finally moved to better align this “basic, central, and important value”, long enshrined in the law, with the reality on the ground. Two Islamist groups, which have harassed visitors to the site for years, have now been declared “unlawful organizations”, rendering membership or financing of them illegal.

The Wakf religious authorities are none too happy about this new development.

According to the Palestinian Ma’an News, Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib, head of the Islamic Waqf, “slammed the decision as totally unacceptable”, insisting that “nobody has a right to prevent a Muslim from entering their holy site and praying.”

Sheikh Sabri also called the decision a “dangerous precedent”, an “assault on al-Aqsa”, and “illegal, illegitimate, and inhumane”. According to Sabri, who spoke to The Times of Israel in a phone interview, the new order “shows that the Jews covet al-Aqsa mosque and want to drive all Muslims out of it”.

ElderofZiyon, a pro-Israel blog which also covered the development, included a link to a statement from a lawyer associated with the Waqf who declared the new policy a “war on the rituals of Islam” and “religious persecution”.

None of these protestations can be taken seriously. Removing belligerent gangs from one of the most sacred sites on the planet is a no brainer. It’s the right decision—one that’s “better late than never”.

But simply outlawing a bunch of abusive hecklers does nothing to resolve the more pernicious problem: the flagrant disregard for religious pluralism and tolerance exhibited in the rhetoric and policies of the site’s Muslim authorities.

Those increasingly fed up with this blatant bigotry are now making their voices heard. One Jewish activist, Baruch Ben Yosef, filed a NIS 1 billion lawsuit at a Jerusalem District Court a few weeks ago, naming Jordan, the PA, and the Islamic Movement as defendants. The suit claims that their policies to limit and restrict Jewish worship on the Temple Mount violates Israel’s anti-discrimination laws.

As for the Jew who made a bracha (blessing of gratitude) over his sip of water last Tuesday while visiting the Temple Mount on a scorcher of a day, Honenu, one of the many non-governmental organizations struggling for Jewish prayer rights at Judaism’s holiest site, released this statement condemning his arrest:

The saga on the Temple Mount continues. Almost every day Jewish visitors are detained and arrested on bizarre suspicions that cross new red lines. To arrest a Jew because he made blessing on the water [he was about to drink] is a scandal, and if this was going on outside of Israel, one could easily argue that this was anti-Semitism”.

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Miriam F. Elman is an associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs at Syracuse University. She is co-editor of the book, Jerusalem: Conflict and Collaboration in a Contested City, published last year by Syracuse University Press.