November 2014 has seen a disturbing rise in tensions and violent attacks taking place between Israelis and Palestinians, including the murder of five Israelis at a synagogue in West Jerusalem on 18th November. Amid the most recent wave of attacks, an underlying source of resentment frequently cited by analysts as a cause of tension is the issue of access to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem – its temporary closure in late October by Israeli security forces was described as "a declaration of war" by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Since then, all sides have declared their commitment to maintaining access to the Temple Mount and protecting the peace of the holy site, but the status quo is not accepted by all sides, and the issue looks set to remain controversial.
The Temple Mount, known in Arabic as al-Haram al-Sharif (The Noble Sanctuary), and in Hebrew as Har ha'Bayit (The Mount of the House/Temple), is one of the most important religious sites in the world, to Muslims, Jews and Christians. The Temple Mount is located in the old city of Jerusalem, which is claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians as an integral part of their state. It has long been a symbolic focal point, at which the consequences of the events that take place there are magnified in the light of the religious significance of the location, and the weight of other political tensions resulting from the Israel-Palestine conflict.
To Jews, the significance of the Temple Mount lies in the fact that it is the location of the first and second temples, which existed for around 900 years until the destruction of the second temple by the Romans in 70 CE. The site is also the location of a prophesised third temple. The consensus among Rabbis is that, because the exact location of the most sacred part of the temples is not known, Jews should not walk on the Temple Mount in order to protect its sanctity. Therefore, the Western Wall of the site, as the closest place that can be reached without walking on it, is a focus for Jewish prayer and pilgrimage. The Temple Mount is of comparatively less centrality to Christians, but is still important as the location of key events in the life of Jesus.
The golden dome is one of Jerusalem's best-known landmarks.
The Temple Mount is the location of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which most Muslims consider to be the third holiest site in Islam, after the al-Haram Mosque in Mecca, and al-Nabawi Mosque in Medina. Al-Aqsa, meaning 'the furthest' (that is to say, the furthest holy site from Mecca), is believed by Muslims to be the place visited by the Prophet Mohammed in the 'Night Journey' recounted in the Qur'an, during which Mohammed travelled from Mecca to Jerusalem and back on a winged horse in the course of a single night, and from Al-Aqsa ascended to heaven. In the earliest years of Islam, Jerusalem was the direction of prayer for Muslims, although this later changed to Mecca. Next to the Al-Aqsa Mosque is the Dome of the Rock – which is believed by some Muslims to be the exact spot where Mohammed rose to heaven, and is believed by Jews to be the place where Abraham was to sacrifice his son – its golden dome is one of Jerusalem's best-known landmarks. Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock have central symbolic importance to Palestinian aspirations for a state, and their image is found universally throughout Palestinian homes and public spaces.
Controversy arising from the rights of access of different religious groups to the Temple Mount has existed since Roman times, and continues to this day. The State of Israel took control of the old city of Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount, in 1967, and subsequently handed responsibility for the management of the site to the Jerusalem Islamic waqf, or religious trust, with access remaining dependent on restrictions enforced by Israeli security services. Muslims with Israeli citizenship or East Jerusalem ID cards usually have unrestricted access to the Temple Mount, while visits by non-Muslims are allowed only on certain days and within restricted hours. However, Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza are subject to complex entry restrictions in reaching Jerusalem, and therefore the Temple Mount.
Despite the religious consensus that Jews should not enter the Temple Mount, the security services do not prevent them from doing so along with other non-Muslims. However, Jews that show outward signs of religiosity are prevented from accessing the area, and Jews are prevented from praying there, in order not to inflame tensions. There is also a growing movement within Judaism that challenges the traditional view that Jews should not enter the Temple Mount, and indeed calls on Jews to visit and pray there.
Many Palestinians consider Israeli presence at the Temple Mount extremely provocative. The visit to the Temple Mount by then Likud party leader Ariel Sharon in 2000, accompanied by around 1,000 police officers, is widely seen as a spark of the second intifada. The recent closure of the Temple Mount comes in the context of five months of increased violence between Israelis and Palestinians, and the attempted assassination of Yehuda Glick, an activist calling for increased Jewish access to the Temple Mount. The strength of the rhetoric issued by Mahmoud Abbas in response to the Israeli closure of the Temple Mount, and the resulting upsurge in violence in Jerusalem, demonstrate the huge importance of the area for both Israelis and Palestinians, and underline the need to find a solution for access to the site that is acceptable to both sides as a precondition for any future peace agreement.