Seeking ‘Clarity’ in Jerusalem

Secretary of State John Kerry rejected calls for an international presence at the religious site Jews revere as the Temple Mount and Muslims as the al-Aqsa mosque.

Francisco Seco / AP

Secretary of State John Kerry sought “clarity” on the status of a religious site in Jerusalem that Jews revere as the Temple Mount and Muslims as the al-Aqsa mosque.

Kerry’s comments in Madrid appeared to reject a French proposal for the presence of an international observer who would oversee the status quo at the site. Tensions over the site have resulted in the worst violence between Israel and the Palestinians since the end of the second intifada in 2005. Israel, which rejects the French idea, summoned the French ambassador to the foreign ministry and expressed its “firm opposition” to the plan.

Under the status quo arrangement, Jews are allowed to visit but not pray at the site, which is under Muslim religious administration. Some Palestinians believe Israel is trying to slowly change that arrangement by allowing prayer there—and idea Israel rejects. The site is sacred to both Islam and Judaism: Al-Aqsa mosque is Islam’s third-holiest site and the Temple Mount is Judaism’s holiest site.

“Israel understands the importance of the status quo and ... our objective is to make sure that everyone understands what that means,” Kerry said at a news conference in Madrid.

He added: “We are not seeking a new change or outsiders to come in, I don’t think Israel or Jordan wants that and we’re not proposing it. What we need is clarity.”

Last week my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg wrote about the roots of the tension surrounding the site:

In September of 1928, a group of Jewish residents of Jerusalem placed a bench in front of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, for the comfort of elderly worshipers. They also brought with them a wooden partition, to separate the sexes during prayer. Jerusalem’s Muslim leaders treated the introduction of furniture into the alleyway in front of the Wall as a provocation, part of a Jewish conspiracy to slowly take control of the entire Temple Mount.

Many of the leaders of Palestine’s Muslims believed—or claimed to believe—that Jews had manufactured a set of historical and theological connections to the Western Wall and to the Mount, the site of the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, in order to advance the Zionist project. This belief defied Muslim history—the Dome of the Rock was built by Jerusalem’s Arab conquerors on the site of the Second Jewish Temple in order to venerate its memory (the site had previously been defiled by Jerusalem’s Christian rulers as a kind of rebuke to Judaism, the despised mother religion of Christianity). Jews themselves consider the Mount itself to be the holiest site in their faith. The Western Wall, a large retaining wall from the Second Temple period, is sacred only by proxy. …

The current “stabbing Intifada” now taking place in Israel—a quasi-uprising in which young Palestinians have been trying, and occasionally succeeding, to kill Jews with knives—is prompted in good part by the same set of manipulated emotions that sparked the anti-Jewish riots of the 1920s: a deeply felt desire on the part of Palestinians to “protect” the Temple Mount from Jews.

The violence, meanwhile, continues. As my colleague Adam Chandler reported Sunday an Israeli soldier was shot dead by an Arab citizen of Israel at a bus stop in Beersheba. The attacker was shot dead by a security guard, who also shot an Eritrean asylum-seeker. The Eritrean was then beaten by a mob who mistook him for the gunman’s accomplice. He later died in hospital. Israel said it’s investigating his death.