"You are dealing with flammable material -- It would be wise not to meddle in the business of holy places," Mustafa Abu Sway, an irenic Muslim theologian and Ghazali lecturer at al Aqsa Mosque, is quoted as saying in an article by Jodi Rudoren and Isabel Kershner published in today's New York Times and the Boston Globe ("Israel relents after shutting access to holy site"). Now, there are threats and there are warnings. In this case, I am convinced, that we are dealing with a warning, not a threat. Dr. Abu Sway is not in the business of threats. Then why the dire warning?
In 1982, the Israeli Knesset passed a law that declared Jerusalem the eternally undivided capital of Israel (Jerusalem Basic Law). By passing that law, Israel committed itself to preserving Jerusalem whole, united and under the sovereign control of the State of Israel. It also committed itself to keeping it as the seat of government or capital of the State of Israel. It's a long story why that law was passed. Israel had already annexed Jerusalem, not once but twice. Once, late in 1949, it annexed the western parts of the city when David Ben Gurion reversed course and began to move Israeli governmental institutions from Tel Aviv, the original capital of modern Israel, to West Jerusalem, which Israel had earlier agreed to place under an international regime. This was in defiance of the UN Partition resolution of November 29, 1947, which Israel had accepted. The UN reiterated its views in 1950, after Israel violated that agreement. To be sure, the neighboring Arab states of the time did not recognize the UN Partition Resolution at all, and the Palestinian Arabs of the time had no real political voice, or rather, their major voice was that of the former Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al Husseini, who was ignored and his return forestalled by a collusion between the departing British Mandate and the incoming Jordanian royal house. The second time Israel annexed Jerusalem was in the wake of the June 1967 war (Six Day War), when Israel captured East Jerusalem and extended civilian administration over an enlarged territory intended to stay under Israeli control forever.
The interesting bit is that, in the Jerusalem Basic Law, the Israeli government committed itself not just to perpetuating the situation created by the Six Day War but also to preserving the status quo at the holy places and provide free access to worshipers of all religions to their places of worship.
As it turns out, these last two provisions are in fact contradictory because freedom of access to members of all religions to the places they regard as holy cannot be granted without violating the status quo at the holy places. How so?
The most sensitive site in Jerusalem is the place Muslims call the Al Aqsa Mosque or the Noble Sanctuary (Haram ash-Sharif) and Jews call the Temple Mount. To maintain the status quo at that holy place means to keep Jews away from what many of them regard as their most holy place, where in ancient times their holy temple stood. In fact, many rabbis regard it as too holy for Jews to step on in a state of ritual impurity (a state that the proper ritual sacrifice of a red heifer can remedy) that they forbade Jews from treading on it. This injunction is being increasingly ignored by other Jews who have been arguing that, given Israel's guarantee of free access to the holy places, it should be permitted for them to pray on the Temple Mount/Al Aqsa. The Jewish desire to access and pray on the Temple Mount has many fathers and mothers, and not every group simply wants to assert Jewish sovereignty, bring about the coming of Messiah, or just stick it to the Palestinians, as Sharon did when he visited in 2000 with a huge police contingent for protection.
Anyone who has visited the Haram ash-Sharif, and I have done so repeatedly over the years, will have been struck by the serenity of the place. I don't really pray much anymore, but I can see why one would want to do so here, no matter one's religious affiliation. It's a beautiful place, well appointed by masterful architects working over the many centuries of Muslim rule, both before and after the place was retrieved from the Crusaders. Palestinian Muslims consider themselves the guardians of two sacred places (harameyn): the Haram of Al Quds and the Haram of El Halil, the tomb of the patriarchs. Both places are also sacred in Judaism and both are contested by Jewish national religious settlers. Both are flashpoints of violence, and the Israeli government, as the sovereign power, has the responsibility of mitigating violence. As Dr. Abu Sway rightly warns, Israel must not give up on its responsibility to maintain the status quo at the holy places. Israel must not tinker with the sacred, but the state is in a bind: because of an overreaching law that has opened the gates to all sorts of reasonable and unreasonable desires for Jewish presence at sites that are holy to Muslims and carry the utmost symbolic value for Palestinians as well. It should be a matter of dignity and respect, but it is certainly a question of prudence.
Dr. Abu Sway issues a warning to Israel because he believes Israelis understand that they have something to lose if they allow Jews desirous of status quo rectification to prevail. And he issues the warning because he knows that Palestinians will not accept it. "The average person is very upset. People are angry, and people are sad." This should be taken as a polite understatement.