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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
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Stopping the Spread of the Coronavirus at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem

Filed under: Israel, Jerusalem, Jordan, Palestinians

Stopping the Spread of the Coronavirus at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem

As Mecca and other mosques throughout the Muslim world were closed due to the spread of the coronavirus, on March 23 the Temple Mount in Jerusalem was closed to both Jews and Muslims. A petition to Israel’s High Court of Justice demanding that the State of Israel once again permit Jews to visit the Temple Mount apparently reveals the details of the agreement, or the understandings, between Israel and Jordan. Only after they were achieved was it appropriate for the Waqf to close the Temple Mount gates and to prevent Muslim worshippers from entering. Before this, the Waqf and the Muslim worshippers violated Israeli guidelines to prevent the spread of the epidemic and conducted mass prayers on the Temple Mount.

The agreement with the Waqf to stop Muslim prayers on the Temple Mount was only achieved after Israel promised Jordan and the Waqf  to prevent corresponding visits by Jews on the Temple Mount, as a condition. A report on this matter was published on the Hebrew website of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs on March 23,1 and it is quoted in the petition, as is additional evidence.

The claim states, inter alia, that on March 22, “An agreement was devised, or an understanding has taken shape, between the highest echelons in the State of Israel and the Royal Palace in Rabat Ammon, and in parallel, between the ranks on the ground in the Israel Police force and the (Jordanian) Waqf on the Temple Mount. According to the agreement,” so says the petition, “the entrance for the Muslim civilian public will be closed off from the Temple Mount plaza, and in exchange, the entrance of Jewish groups will be completely prohibited at the end of that same day. Yet, we will rule – and this is the situation until today – that all the employees of the Waqf can enter the Mount as usual, will hold prayers, and the muezzin’s call will be conducted as routinely done.”

An explicit authorization of the existence of the agreement was given to the petitioners’ claims by Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, the head sermonizer in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, in an interview he granted to the Palestinian Information Center website on March 26. In this interview, Sabri said: “Regarding the decision to stop the prayers in Al-Aqsa: the decision to close the gates of Al-Aqsa, including the Mughrabi Gate, controlled by the occupation police (the Israeli authorities), was clear. Our condition was to close the Mount also to entry by (Jewish) settlers, and in the event that the occupation (the Israeli authorities) will breach this, and open the Mount (the Mughrabi Gate by which Jews enter the Temple Mount), then all of the external gates of Al-Aqsa (the Temple Mount) will be open (for entry by Muslims).”

On the same site, Sheikh Abdul Azim Salhab, the head of the Jerusalem council of endowments, was interviewed on the same day, and his words also attest to the apparent existence of an agreement, in which both understandings – the limitation on Muslims and the barring of Jews – are interdependent: “The temporary cessation of prayers in Al-Aqsa,” Salhab said, “were meant to guard from the spread of the coronavirus….The closure would be from worshippers entering Al-Aqsa, yet, it is full of guards, clerks and gatekeepers, praying in houses of worship there….Today there aren’t any forced entries by groups of settlers and extremists, but if the occupation will change its policy on the current situation in Al-Aqsa, then we shall surely react accordingly to every incident.”

The High Court of Justice petitioners are journalist Arnon Segal, who has published a column on issues relating to the Temple Mount in the newspaper Makor Rishon for years, and veteran Temple Mount activist Yehuda Etzion. The pair, represented by lawyer Itamar Ben-Gvir, are requesting the issuance of a conditional order (order nisi) against the state from the High Court of Justice that will exempt the Temple Mount from the regulatory framework of the National Health Order – in a way that will allow at least limited entry for groups of ten to the Temple Mount, while keeping rules of social distancing. In practice, the Temple Mount is being exempted to allow the entry of Waqf employees, including allowing their prayers in the Temple Mount plaza and inside the mosque. Other Jewish sites such as the Western Wall, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, and the Tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on Mount Meron have been exempted and Jews are allowed to enter and pray there.

In parallel, the petitioners request “to immediately cancel the agreement or the understanding with the Kingdom of Jordan and/or Waqf agents on the Temple Mount from March 22, 2020, and by which, they say, “The gates of the Temple Mount will be closed to Jews (as part of additional understandings), as this agreement contradicts Israeli sovereignty on the Temple Mount and the laws of the country, as it unjustifiably discriminates against Jews.”

The details in the petition on the agreement with Jordan are dependent both on Muslim sources and on Israeli sources including an article by this writer in Israel Hayom which says, inter alia, that Prime Minister Netanyahu authorized the deal between Israel and Jordan to stop Jews visiting the Temple Mount in exchange for the Waqf’s willingness to stop mass Muslim prayers on the site. In addition,   Israel’s Channel 11 television news reporter Suleiman Maswadeh reported that the decision to stop the prayers in Al-Aqsa was made “after Jordan and the Waqf received commitments from the most senior echelons in Israel that Jewish visitors would not be allowed entry, also to the mosque plaza.” Maswadeh quoted a senior official in the Waqf who said: “We accepted a commitment from Israel that Jewish visitors also would not be allowed entry to the Mount, and therefore we agreed to the Israeli request.”

It should be noted that in response to the petitioners’ letters that preceded their petition to the High Court of Justice, Adv. Frankenburg, who represents the Jerusalem District Police Commander, Commissioner Doron Yadid, denied that an agreement had been reached, but wrote that “it was decided in a conversation between the Waqf and the Israel Police to close the Temple Mount to worshippers and visitors, beginning at the end of the day, on March 22, 2020.”

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