One of the world’s most revered sites forms the heart of a political battle
On 26 July this year there was rioting at Temple Mount in Jerusalem as Israeli police entered the compound to find and eradicate suspected Palestinian stockpiles of fireworks and petrol bombs ahead of a major Jewish holiday.
The ‘Wailing’ or Western Wall – the last remaining section of the Herodian-era Jewish Temple – is a holy place for Jews, and its prayer plaza was expected to be packed with worshippers for Tisha B’Av. The prayer plaza is overlooked by the mosque that sits atop Temple Mount (which is called Haram al-Sharif in Arabic).
Tradition and faith hold that Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif is the Mount Moriah at which Abraham’s faith was tested, Solomon built the First Temple, and Muhammad ascended to heaven to discuss Muslim law with Allah. The religious beliefs of more than half of the world’s population, quite literally, find common ground here. Apocalyptic language is common in its description and, as well as being one of the world’s most emotive sites, Temple Mount is also one of its most violent.
‘The political value of Temple Mount as potential propaganda vehicle is inextricably tied to its religious significance’
For a site founded on sacrifice perhaps this is not surprising – but in all versions of the tale Abraham stayed his hand and saved his son. Temple Mount is not violent because it is the siting of religious faith, it is violent because it has been politicised. It is the most significant small pocket of Jerusalem – the capital claimed by two states – and its religious significance makes it irresistible to the politicians who are rallying two vociferously religious populations. Perhaps the most potent symbol of the union of militarised politics and religion is the swearing-in ceremony for the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). Held in the Western Wall’s prayer plaza – the site considered by even secular Israelis as the most lasting achievement of Jewish construction in history, and a de facto symbol of national solidarity – the ceremony involves each soldier being presented with a Hebrew Bible and a gun.
The Western Wall’s prayer plaza is controlled by the Israeli government, and policed by the IDF. It is open to people of all faiths, subject to an airport-style security check. The IDF also polices access to Temple Mount, although the enclosure itself is actually controlled by the Wafq, a Jordanian Islamic authority. Although open to non-Muslims for parts of the day – again subject to security checks – non-Islamic religious items, symbols or expressions of non-Islamic prayer are forbidden. In addition, the Israeli government, at times, limits access to the Mount for certain groups if the security situation is particularly volatile, such as in November 2014 in the wake of a Palestinian attack on one of Jerusalem’s synagogues.
Due to the access restrictions, both actual and perceived, of Temple Mount and the prayer plaza, each competing nation has the chance to tell its own narrative for the site, largely unheard by the other. Many non-Muslim visitors to Jerusalem do not bother to visit Temple Mount, and Palestinians are denied entry into the Western Wall Tunnel, which houses an exhibition and the opportunity to pray at the place believed to be closest to the Jewish Holy of Holies. Thus, many visitors have a skewed picture of the city and its history, affirming its division and unwittingly contributing to the ongoing conflict and propagation of the curated narratives.
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The political value of Temple Mount as national symbol and potential propaganda vehicle is inextricably tied to its religious significance. Therefore sharing this space is widely seen as impossible, owing to each community’s desire to inhabit it absolutely and exclusively. The integrity of its holiness makes it indivisible. Both nations see control over the site, and over the fragile equilibrium of its shared space, as paramount. To control the site is to control the political narrative.
The caustic combination of politics and religion centred here has caused some of the most significantly violent chapters in the history of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. So entangled with visions of Israeli or Palestinian nationalism have sections of the complex become, that Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Dome of the Rock in 2000 was enough to trigger the second intifada. In 1929 the erection of a temporary screen between male and female worshippers in the Western Wall’s prayer plaza resulted in the Western Wall riots, culminating in the Hebron massacre. The equilibrium is fragile.
The co-opting of this symbol by Israeli and Palestinian politicians and its violent history has created a spatialised narrative of collective sacrifice, a divinely ordained holy war, in which only the full control of the holy places and the universal acceptance of one narrative could ever bring peace. This volatile merging of holy place and warring people means the rhetoric of the conflict is not purely about the definition of two separate states, but also about prophetic legacy.
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