The 9th of Av (corresponds this year to July 18th) is the date of Tisha B’Av, the fast day that commemorates the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem that once stood at the site where now two Muslim structures are located, the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. These two Muslim shrines were built in the 7th century for the purpose of expressing Islam’s superiority over Christianity and Judaism. Arabic texts on the walls and ceiling of the Dome of the Rock bear witness to this.
In 2021, the reality is no different and Muslims on the Temple Mount behave as if they have more rights to that sacred compound than other religious groups, and especially than Jews whom they routinely accuse of “defiling” the holiest site in Judaism.
The 1,600 Jews who visited the Temple Mount’s courtyards on Tisha B’Av were again referred to by several Muslim states and the Palestinian Authority as “settlers” who allegedly “stormed” the Al-Aqsa Mosque. In reality, however, Jewish visitors have no interest whatsoever in Al-Aqsa and do not even try to enter it.
Israel was further accused of violating the “status quo” that has existed since 1967 when then-Minister of Defence Moshe Dayan, made the blunder of handing control over the Temple Mount to the Muslim custodian known as the Wakf, just days after Israeli troops had conquered the Old City of Jerusalem.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett contributed to the confusion and tensions with Muslim groups and countries. He first announced that Jews had the right to “pray” in their sacred place. That message was welcomed by the majority of Jews, but Bennett later retracted his words, saying through officials in his office that Jews had the right to “visit” the Temple Mount. Nevertheless, minyans (quorums) of the obligatory 10 Jewish men were formed on the Temple Mount to recite the prayers of Tisha B’Av.
The Waqf, the Muslim custodian organisation that still manages the Muslim shrines on the Temple Mount, tried to keep the Jews from praying, but the Israeli police prevented a confrontation.
Violent riots later broke out in which Muslims threw stones at police officers and Jewish visitors. Israeli Arabs from the Lower Galilee town of Umm el-Fahm locked themselves in the Al-Aqsa Mosque and barricaded the entrance to the shrine. They then tore down a wall in the mosque to have stones on hand in case the police tried to lift the blockade, which indeed happened ahead of the visits by groups of Jews.
The flip-flop by Bennett most likely had to do with the flood of condemnations that came from the Muslim world, including that of Ra’am, the Islamist political party that is now part of the new Israeli government, as well as from alternate-Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Yair Lapid. “The Al-Aqsa Mosque and dunams around it are the exclusive property of the Muslims and no one else is entitled to it,” Ra’am said in a press release.
It marked the first time that the Islamist coalition partner went directly against its own government. Ra’am also used the words “storming” and was annoyed that a group of Jews had sung the Israeli national anthem HaTikvah during their visit to the Temple Mount. Ra’am further warned that the events on the Temple Mount could heat up the situation in Jerusalem and the entire region and even lead to a “catastrophic religious war.”
The Bible says that Jerusalem is a burdensome stone and a stumbling block, and that’s true not only for the nations of the world, but for Israel’s own government, too. (Zechariah 12)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his party are largely religious nationalists who view a return of Jewish worship to the Temple Mount as central to the full restoration of Israel, and the eventual redemption of the world.
His secular Jewish partners in the coalition as well as the Islamist Ra’am party take an opposite view. The tensions caused by this incident showed the weakness of Israel’s governing coalition and raised questions about how long it can survive.