Jewish Prayer at Contested Holy Site in Jerusalem Sets Off Alarms

Media reports of prayer groups and mixed messages from Israel’s government raised questions about a potentially explosive policy shift.

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JERUSALEM — Reports of Jewish groups praying at a volatile Jerusalem holy site, in contravention of a longstanding ban, have shined a spotlight on the erosion of a delicate, decades-old arrangement meant to keep the peace.

The Israeli government denied on Monday that there had been any policy change, but appeared to be sending mixed messages. A television report over the weekend by Israel’s N12 news channel revealed the proliferation of quiet prayer gatherings in the courtyards of the sacred compound revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, as the police looked on.

Some religious Jewish groups who yearn to rebuild a Jewish temple at the contested location, where the Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are located, are now openly advertising the holding of daily prayers at the site.

Further questions about a policy shift arose on Sunday, when hundreds of Jews marked the holy fast day of Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the first two Jewish temples, by ascending the mount, a frequent flash point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel’s recently installed prime minister, Naftali Bennett, of the right-wing Yamina party, issued a surprising statement in Hebrew and English in which he thanked the Israeli authorities for successfully managing that day’s events “while maintaining freedom of worship for Jews on the Mount” — a phrase that suggested a radical change in the policy banning Jewish prayer and immediately raised alarms.

After a protest from Jordan, the custodian of the site, and amid rising tensions within Mr. Bennett’s fragile and diverse coalition, which includes a small Arab Islamist party, his office walked back the statement on Monday morning. It issued a clarification saying there had been “no change in the status quo regarding the Temple Mount.”

Referring to Sunday’s statement, his office added: “The press release referred to the freedom to visit. Everything remains as it was.”

The confusion comes at a fraught time for the new government, which is in the process of rebooting relations with neighboring Jordan, an important regional ally, after years of tensions under the long rule of Israel’s former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Raam, the Islamic party in the governing coalition, denounced recent events on the mount, including what it called the ascent of more than 1,600 Jewish “settlers” on Sunday. It proclaimed the site to be “solely the property of Muslims” and warned that provocations could lead to a “catastrophic” religious war.

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Palestinian women arguing with an Israeli security officer after clashes at the Noble Sanctuary, or Temple Mount, on Sunday.Credit…Ammar Awad/Reuters

Tensions in Jerusalem, including a violent clash when police raided Palestinian protesters at the Aqsa Mosque, contributed to the outbreak of 11 days of fierce fighting in May between Israel and Hamas, the Islamic militant group that holds sway in Gaza.

Muhammad Hamadeh, the Hamas spokesman for Jerusalem affairs, called on Palestinians to “march towards Jerusalem, mobilize and station” themselves in the courtyards of the Aqsa Mosque and Jerusalem’s Old City in the run-up to Eid al-Adha, a major Muslim holiday being celebrated this week.

In an effort to calm the atmosphere, Yair Lapid, Israel’s centrist foreign minister, reiterated in Parliament on Monday that there had been no change in policy and that Israel had so informed the Jordanian government and the Biden administration.

Israel captured the Old City, along with the rest of East Jerusalem, from Jordan during the 1967 Middle East war and soon annexed and claimed sovereignty in the area, in a move that was never internationally recognized. It allows the Waqf, an Islamic trust controlled by Jordan, to administer the Muslim shrines on the mount, while maintaining overall security control.

Under the standing arrangement, only Muslims may pray on the mount. Non-Muslims can visit but not worship on the plateau. The next holiest place for Jewish prayer is at the foot of the mount by the Western Wall.

Traditionally, most Orthodox Jews avoided the mount itself for fear of treading on the spot where the temples’ holy of holies once stood. Increasingly, religious Zionist Jews, including some of Mr. Bennett’s constituency, have made a point of visiting the compound, staking a claim and arguing for prayer rights there.

Yeshivat Har Habayit, a Jewish seminary advertising daily prayers and study sessions in the courtyards of the sanctuary, did not respond to requests for comment.

Bassam Abu Labda, a veteran Waqf official in Jerusalem, described the situation as “very dangerous,” adding, “The government is giving cover to the extremists.”

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An Israeli police officer standing guard on Sunday as Jewish men visited the Aqsa Mosque compound. Credit…Mahmoud Illean/Associated Press

“Every day we have people making movements, performing prayers, lying on the ground and dancing,” Mr. Abu Labda said.

Despite the Israeli denials of a policy change, which could have seismic consequences, some officials left room for ambiguity.

A spokesman for the prime minister refused to comment on whether Jews were now permitted to pray on the mount, saying only that this government was continuing the policy of the last government.

A lawmaker from Mr. Bennett’s party was filmed singing Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, as part of a small group in the sacred compound on Sunday along with another former lawmaker from Mr. Bennett’s camp.

Ayelet Shaked, the interior minister from Yamina, on Monday retweeted a post by the diplomatic correspondent for a right-wing newspaper declaring what he described as a “historic milestone” — that after hundreds of years of prohibition, Jews were again praying openly on the Temple Mount in a breakthrough facilitated by the government and the police.

The Israel Police also refused to comment directly on the Jewish prayer gatherings, saying only that they act to maintain order at the site and that the existing restrictions were based on government decisions and court rulings over the years.

Daniel Seidemann, a longtime advocate for a shared Jerusalem, said there has been “a de facto erosion of the status quo going on for years,” with Temple Mount activists testing the boundaries, first by moving their lips in silent prayer, then whispering and swaying and now gathering in groups.

Yehudah Glick, a former lawmaker from Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party and an advocate of Jewish prayer rights on the Temple Mount, said that Jewish prayer there had long been a reality and suggested that Mr. Bennett’s mistake as a rookie prime minister was to have said so out loud.

“Oy Prime Minister Bennett, didn’t they teach you that there are certain words that should never be uttered!! ‘Freedom of worship for Jews’ for example!!!” he wrote on Twitter.

Adam Rasgon contributed reporting.

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