Reprinted from Yediot Ahronot August 13, 1999


By Roni Shaked

Israel's sealing a window on the Temple Mount this week did not conclude the power struggles over the most disputed site in the Middle East. As Israel attempts to flex its muscles, the Palestinians are increasing their control over the Temple Mount -- which is already looking like part of Arafat's autonomous zone.

A small window, broken through and resealed with lightning speed, threatened to ignite Jerusalem this week. A number of elements and circumstances meant that in the end the dynamite that is the Temple Mount was not set off, but merely remains primed for the next dispute. From each side of the window, the two sides see things differently: The Palestinians consider the Temple Mount as their territory, on which they must constantly work to strengthen their hold. Israel, in contrast, is making efforts to prove that the slogan "The Temple Mount is in our hands" remains in effect in the political reality of 1999. When Prime Minister Barak decided last Monday to act quickly and decisively, he remembered his election campaign, which was based on the slogan "Barak will not divide Jerusalem."

His decision to close up the window, opened up by the Moslems in the "Lower Al-aqsa Mosque", was out of the ordinary: It is three years since the political echelon issued any order connected to Israeli control and sovereignty on the Mount. Barak took the advice of Supreme Court Judge Eliezer Goldberg from two years ago, who ruled that "With regard to issues related to the Temple Mount, the legal solution must yield its place to solutions based on political considerations. The political echelon, not the courts, must give content and meaning to the cry "the Temple Mount is in our hands."

A Miniature Israeli Flag

Even though the window has been sealed, the struggle over sovereignty remains open and the Palestinians, in truth, have all the reasons to be satisfied: The Jordanians put up the money, Israel is responsible for security -- but real control is in Palestinian hands.

Today, 32 years after IDF forces liberated east Jerusalem, the symbol of Israeli sovereignty on the Temple Mount is a tiny Israeli flag, measuring 15 x 10 cm, found on the table of Israeli police commander. The flag was placed on the table after drawn-out negotiations on its precise placing and size, following riots on the Temple Mount ten years ago. The Police commander on the Temple Mount, who is also responsible for the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, is officially known as the "Commander of the Unit for the Holy Places."

The feeling that the Palestinians controlled the Temple Mount increased during the Intifada. The mosques were a focus for incitement and demonstrations; Hamas cells turned the mosque courtyards into a meeting point for terror groups; funds and instructions were passed on from commanders to activists in the mosques, the Temple Mount has become a central Palestinian national site for hosting respected guests from abroad, and Feisal Husseini, for example, has moved some of his meetings from Orient House to the Temple Mount area.

The Turning-point: The Tunnel Events

Three years ago marked the turning point. The opening of the Western Wall tunnel by Israel in September 1996 and the bloody events that followed, forced the Netanyahu government to quietly agree to the construction of a mosque in Solomon's Stables. Since then, the situation on the Temple Mount has been similar to that in Area B on the West Bank: Palestinian civil control, Israeli security control.

The victory following the construction of the mosque in Solomon's Stables strengthened the Moslem feeling that the Temple Mount was to all intents and purposes in their hands, and led to a breakdown in contacts with the relevant Israeli bodies -- government ministries, the Jerusalem Municipality and the Antiquities Authority.

As in the areas under Israeli security control in the PA area, so too Border Police and police patrols on the Temple Mount take place mainly for security reasons, rather than to demonstrate sovereignty. For their part, the Palestinian organizations send their members to perform police and security duties during periods of tension.

"The police station on the Temple Mount can enforce the law in the event of disorder, but on the big issues - those which require the enforcement of Israeli sovereignty on the Mount -- the police cannot do a thing without permission from the political echelon. Such permission has not been given in the last three years," say senior police figures.

Civilian control is handled for the Palestinians by the Waqf administration, which treats the area as its own. Formally the Waqf is answerable to the Jordanian government, which pays its employees' salaries and operational expenses. In practice, the Palestinian Authority controls the Mount. The Palestinian Mufti, Sheikh Akrameh Sabri, was appointed by Arafat.

Sheikh Sabri has recently moved his offices to the Mount. The Netanyahu government objected, claiming that this represented a violation of the Oslo Accords, which forbid PA activity in Jerusalem, but Sabri continues to carry out his activities on the Temple Mount, and now it is Ehud Barak who must deal with the problem.

No Entry for Inspectors

On the basis of the breakdown of the status quo due to the tunnel events three years ago, the Muslims began to energetically pursue the repair of the "Lower Al-Aqsa." The new balance of power forced the government of Israel to ignore the building, and watch with clenched teeth as hundreds of volunteers from the Israeli Arab Islamic Movement worked to realize Moslem control of the Temple Mount.

The Lower Al-Aqsa mosque, which can be used by up to 500 worshipers, is situated on 1000 square meters of ground in the south western corner of the Temple Mount, beneath the Al-Aqsa Mosque. In the days of the second Temple, this was one of the main entrances to the temple. The construction was carried out without any request for permission being made, in complete disregard to building codes and is causing archaeological damage. But as the Moslem workers broke down walls, cleared out dust from knolls and built a new pavement, the Waqf prevented the entrance of inspectors from the Antiquities Authority to the area. "We enter any area in the State of Israel without restriction; the only place where this does not apply is the Temple Mount", says Amir Drori, Director-General of the Antiquities Authority angrily.

This week, even after the window in the "Lower Al-Aqsa" was re-sealed, the Palestinians continue to be firm in its stance: Muslim construction on the Temple Mount does not depend on the authority of Israel. "We are not asking for, and will not ask for Israeli permission, license or agreement for construction" says Adnan Husseini, the Director-General of the Waqf. "At the end of the day, Israel does not control the Temple Mount."

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