(RNS) — For the past few weeks, the area surrounding the Al-Aqsa Mosque, known to Muslims as the Al-Aqsa compound and to Jews as the Temple Mount, has been calm. The quiet is deceiving.
This 35-acre compound on the eastern edge of the Old City in Jerusalem, one of the most politically combustible places in the Middle East, has seen a rise in violations of an international agreement that bars Jews from praying on the plaza outside the mosque.
The third holiest site in Islam, the mosque marks the spot where Prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven. Jews, meanwhile, revere the mount as the site of the First and Second Temples.
Although the police refused to provide Religion News Service with precise numbers, a spokesperson acknowledged in an email that “during the past few years, there has been a constant increase in the number of Jews ascending the Temple Mount.”
In late November, United for Israel, a self-defined “pro-Israel” group that advocates for Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, reported that more than 10,000 Jewish worshippers had visited the Temple Mount between September and November, an increase of 80% compared with recent years.
Israel and Jordan share control of the compound in an arrangement that began after the Israeli army took Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War. When the hostilities ended, Israel granted religious and administrative responsibility for the compound to the Jordanian Islamic Waqf, a religious trust, while Israel retained overall control, including policing.
Popularly known as the status quo, the agreement gives Muslims the sole right to pray in the compound; Jews and others are allowed to ascend the Temple Mount as individuals, but not in groups and not to pray. Jews, meanwhile, have the sole right to pray at the Western Wall (the “Wailing Wall”), a portion of the ancient retaining wall of the Temple Mount below the Al-Aqsa plaza.
In Islamic tradition, the Western Wall is the site where Muhammad tied his winged horse, al-Buraq.
Jews are increasingly seen on the plaza performing their morning and evening prayers, which require a quorum of at least 10 men. Morning prayers are followed by religious study sessions. At least a dozen organizations have been established to further their cause.
Any time the status quo has been broken, violence has erupted. In 1990, deadly riots exploded after a group of Jews tried to lay a cornerstone for a new temple. In 2000, a visit led by Israeli politician Ariel Sharon triggered the Palestinian uprising known as the Second Intifada, which led to some 1,000 Israeli deaths and between 3,000 and 5,000 Palestinian casualties.
In May 2021, Israeli police clashed with Palestinian rioters, entering the mosque to fire tear gas; Hamas responded by firing rockets at Israel, including Jerusalem, initiating the latest round of conflict between Israel and Gaza.
For years, those who called for Jewish prayer on the mount were regarded as marginal, even crackpot, extremists, and leading Orthodox rabbis discouraged visits on the grounds of religious purity. In the past decade, however, nationalist religious activists have insisted that prayer on the Temple Mount is an issue of freedom of religion and human rights.
Lately, a few rabbis have offered their support. In September, Rabbi Meir Y. Soloveichik, a leader in mainstream American Orthodoxy, published a call for “freedom of worship.”
In the summer of 2021, newly appointed Prime Minister Naftali Bennett released a statement calling for “allowing freedom of worship for Jews on the Mount.” Though he subsequently said he had “no intention of changing the status quo,” he did not backtrack on the question of Jewish worship. His office did not respond to requests for clarification.
The prayer sessions take place in full view of Israeli police, who in the past would not allow Jews to even hold a prayer book on the mount. Rabbi Eliyahu Weber, head of the Temple Mount Yeshiva, whose students visit the site daily, told The Times of Israel recently that Jewish groups coordinate their activities with the police.
A police spokesperson, responding to RNS inquiries, wrote in an email, “The police act in accordance with the conditions for visits (by non-Muslims) which are intended to allow for maintaining the public order and security. We will continue to allow visits to the Temple Mount, subject to the conditions for visiting.”
Women have been particularly active, with nearly a dozen women’s organizations encouraging prayer and study on the mount. Rina Ariel, a leader of Women for the Holy Temple, organizes bat mitzvah programs for mothers and daughters in memory of her daughter, Hallel, who was 13 when she was murdered in her bed by a Palestinian terrorist in 2016.
“Women’s lives (are) deeply entwined with issues of purity and impurity, and it is right that we women should have a special presence here. Women’s lives have an extra layer of holiness and spirituality; we represent the meaning of life,” said Ariel in a 2021 film that is part of a series titled “Conversations on the Mount.”
Ofira Levy, director of the film series and a journalist for the daily Maariv newspaper, said she said she hopes that Muslims “will come to realize” that their “true holy place is in Mecca.” If not, she says, “there is room for everyone to build their holy place, and Muslims, too, will be welcome.”
Some Jewish activists hope to do more than pray. A group known as the Temple Institute hopes to build a third temple where one of the Al-Aqsa complex’s three mosques now stands and reinstate animal sacrifices. The group’s website reports that it has been working with an architect on a design.
Over the past two years, Jordan has repeatedly complained to Israel about Jewish activity on the compound. In early December, the U.N. General Assembly approved the Jerusalem Resolution, which refers to Al-Aqsa solely by its Muslim name. For that reason the U.S. opposed the resolution, saying that the “omission of inclusive terminology for the site sacred to three faiths was of real and serious concern.”
But Ali Awar, a researcher at the Hebrew University who has advised the Palestinian Authority on issues related to Jerusalem, said the resolution’s reference only to Muslims is correct. “Palestinian people will never accept a foreign presence on the Al-Aqsa compound,” Awar said. “It is not only a religious site — it is sum of all of our national and religious aspirations. We have already compromised. The Jews pray at the al-Buraq, which is also holy to us.”
Palestinian women are also taking the lead in praying and studying at the compound. According to Awar, thousands of women from East Jerusalem have formed an organization known as the Mourabitat, a reference to a phrase from the Quran that obliges every Muslim to defend Israel’s holy places.
Suheir, a Mourabitat member who refuses to give her full name, told RNS: “Praying at Al-Aqsa is who I am. This is my heart, my self. We see policemen up here and they have guns. But I hold up my Quran to remind them that the real power comes from Allah.”
Awar noted that, like the Jews, the Palestinian women have organized prayer and study sessions as well as social and charitable activities. “The public admires them for their modest devotion, they are gaining political power, and they may run in future Palestinian elections,” he said.
He concluded: “Israel must understand that no Palestinian will ever give up on Al-Aqsa. Today, the Israeli-Palestinian struggle is largely a national conflict. But if it becomes a religious conflict, only Allah will be able to help us.”