Israel won’t change prayer rules at Temple Mount, Netanyahu assures

The golden Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem covers the place where it is believed the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. For Jews, the Western Wall, foreground, is one of the holiest sites.
The golden Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem covers the place where it is believed the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. For Jews, the Western Wall, foreground, is one of the holiest sites. MCT

Moving to head off a crisis with Jordan, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday assured the Jordanian monarch, King Abdullah, that Israel had no plans to change prayer arrangements at a contested site in Jerusalem that’s sacred to both Muslims and Jews.

Netanyahu’s phone call to Abdullah came a day after Jordan recalled its ambassador to Israel in protest of police actions during clashes Wednesday with Palestinian protesters at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City, an area Jews know as the Temple Mount.

By treaty, the Jordanian monarch is the custodian of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, and the Al Aqsa compound is administered by a Jordanian-run Islamic trust. The sensitive site has been the focal point of rising tensions in recent weeks, fueled by a campaign by Israeli right-wing activists and lawmakers to lift a ban on Jewish prayer at the compound. Jews revere the site as the location of two ancient Jewish temples. Muslims refer to it as the third-holiest site in Islam.

“We agreed that we’ll do every effort to calm the situation,” Netanyahu said after his conversation with Abdullah. “I explained to him that we’re keeping the status quo on the Temple Mount and that this includes Jordan’s traditional role there, as consistent with the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan. We have to make every effort to restore calm, quiet and security.”

A statement by the official Jordanian news agency said that Abdullah, who’s contending with public anger and Islamist protests over events at Al Aqsa, “stressed Jordan’s complete rejection of any measures that would tamper with the sanctity of Al Aqsa Mosque, endanger the mosque or change the status quo.”

After Wednesday’s clash at the site, in which Israeli police used stun grenades to drive stone-throwing protesters inside the mosque, Jordan called its ambassador home for consultations and accused Israel of “unprecedented and escalated aggressions” at the compound.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said Israeli “violations are infuriating the emotions and sensitivity of 1.5 billion Muslims around the world,” and he demanded that Israel “respect the sanctity of the holy sites.”

The Jordanian information minister, Mohammad al Momani, suggested that Jordan might review its 20-year-old peace treaty with Israel, and Jordanian diplomats lodged a complaint with the United Nations Security Council, accusing Israeli forces of storming the mosque compound, damaging mosaics and burning rugs.

Micky Rosenfeld, an Israeli police spokesman, denied the charges, saying the damage was caused by firecrackers launched at police from the mosque area. He said riot officers had removed a barricade set up by protesters at the mosque entrance and had shut the doors after using stun grenades and foam-tipped bullets to disperse masked youths who’d attacked police with rocks and firecrackers in the plaza outside.

The unrest was triggered by plans by right-wing Jewish activists to visit the Temple Mount to mark a week since the shooting of a prominent campaigner for Jewish prayer there. The activists, who seek greater Jewish access to the site, have been arriving in greater numbers during visiting hours for Israelis and tourists, alarming Palestinians, who fear an Israeli takeover of the site.

Under arrangements that have been in place since Israel captured the area in 1967 Six Day War, the Al Aqsa compound is reserved for Muslim prayer, though Israelis and foreigners may tour the area during designated visiting hours.

Hours after the clash Wednesday at Al Aqsa, a Palestinian motorist plowed a minivan into Israeli border police and commuters at a light-rail station in Jerusalem, killing an officer and injuring 13 people before he was shot dead. The attacker’s wife said he’d watched televised scenes of the clashes at the mosque earlier in the day.