What really caused the clashes at the Temple Mount?

“Ultimately, peace is about mutual respect. Each side needs to confront the psychological impact of our offenses against the other. We must learn to respect each other’s difficult histories.”
Palestinians wave Islamic flags as they gather in front of the Dome of the Rock mosque inside Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque complex following Friday prayers, the third of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, on April 22, 2022. - Israeli police clashed again with Palestinian protesters at Jerusalem's flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque compound, raising fears of further escalation. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP) (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)

We’re curious…

As Palestinian rioters clashed with Israeli police at the Al-Aqsa Mosque last week, another “clash” was taking place on CNN International between host Christiane Amanpour and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

“When the world, Palestinians and your region sees Israeli police inside that mosque, it creates a lot of tension and unease,” Amanpour said to Bennett. “Why do you allow Israeli soldiers to go into that mosque?”

“Well Christiane, there you go again, starting the story in the middle,” Bennett replied, noting that Israeli police had entered the mosque only after rioters had hurled rocks and explosives in the compound following the completion of morning prayers.

“My responsibility as prime minister of Israel is to provide freedom of prayer for everyone in Jerusalem, including Muslims, which is why I had to send in policemen to remove the rioters and it worked,” Bennett said.

Israeli officials said that they cleared the site because 80,000 worshippers were coming later for afternoon prayers and that the rioters were a security risk.

Then, Amanpour asked Bennett to respond to comments made by an Israeli general to the New York Times, expressing concerns over “settler terrorism” in the West Bank. 

“What you’ve been projecting is blatantly false,” Bennett said, underscoring that only a tiny minority of Israeli settlers engage in violence. “It’s a lie, simply a lie… You’re misrepresenting the facts.”

As videos and photos showed Israeli police entering the compound (without context), headlines like “Israeli police enter Jerusalem holy site sparking violent clashes” (PBS) and “Israeli police fire tear gas at Palestinians in clashes at holy site” (New York Times) wrongly suggested that Israel instigated the violence.

So, what really happened on the Temple Mount? What caused the clashes, and how is the international community and the Jewish world responding?

What caused the clashes on the Temple Mount?

In the current climate on social media where many of us are being bombarded with messages, it can be difficult to understand what really happened and how the clashes started. Here is a timeline of the events and reactions from parts of the international community.

The clashes started after days of rumors that Israel was going to allow Jewish sacrifices of paschal lambs on the Mount for Passover. This did not happen, and the handful of extremists who attempted to do this were arrested.

But the rumor spread in Palestinian media that this was a major threat, and Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan all issued statements against the supposed planned sacrifices.

The violence began on April 15, the eve of Passover, when hundreds of Palestinians started throwing rocks and fireworks inside the mosque, while others hurled rocks from the top of the compound down onto the Western wall plaza below.

Israeli police waited until morning prayers at the mosque finished before entering the compound. Then, the rioters started throwing stones and shooting fireworks toward the police. More than 500 people were arrested and 150 were wounded in the clashes that ensued.

Reactions from the international community

Shortly after the clashes broke out, many countries in the region condemned Israel’s actions.

In a rare rebuke, King Abdullah of Jordan said that Israel’s “unilateral” moves and “provocative acts” against Muslim worshipers undermined the prospect of peace. Jordanian Prime Minister Bisher Al-Khasawneh went even further, praising all Palestinians “who throw rocks at the pro-Zionists who are defiling al-Aqsa Mosque.”

Israel’s new peace partners in the Abraham Accords, the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco, joined Jordan in condemning Israel. The UAE summoned Israel’s ambassador over Israel’s “attacks on civilians and incursions into holy places,” and two Emirati airlines canceled their participation in the Jewish state’s upcoming Independence Day flyover event amid the tensions.

Meanwhile, the Arab League called on Israel to end Jewish prayers on the Temple Mount, warning that it was a “flagrant affront” to Muslim feelings that could trigger a wider conflict, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a tweet that his country “is always on the side of Palestine.”

Last Tuesday, rockets were fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip, prompting a response by the IDF who struck a weapons depot in Gaza. Two days later, more rockets were fired into Israel from Gaza, and Israel attacked another weapons facility in Gaza in response.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid last week, asking that both Israelis and Palestinians take steps to “de-escalate” tensions. Meanwhile, a joint statement by European members of the UN Security Council called for “calm and de-escalation,” stressing that “violence needs to stop immediately.”

What is the Temple Mount and why is it important?

First, let’s unpack some key terms you need to know. There are many names associated with this area — the Temple Mount, Har Habayit and Haram al-Sharif. What does each refer to and who calls it what?

Plus, within this area are a few important structures: the Dome of the Rock, the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Western Wall (Kotel). If you’re unfamiliar with the site, read this overview of key terms and why this site is the holiest place for Jews and the third-holiest for Muslims.

Multiple narratives: Respecting each other’s histories

First, let’s look at the current clashes and the importance of the Temple Mount from a Muslim perspective and a Jewish perspective, and why it is critical that each side respect the other’s history.

In his book, “Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor,” Yossi Klein Halevi wrote that “many Jews fail to understand the depth of the Muslim connection” with Al-Aqsa, dissmissing it as “only” Islam’s third holiest site, as though holiness could be quantified.

“We Israelis also need to understand how the Mount has become a symbol for Muslims of occupation,” Halevi wrote. “The fact that [Palestinians] cannot freely cross the wall and pray in Al-Aqsa without a security permit is an ongoing wound [for Israel]…Israelis need to recognize the deep pain we’ve caused in pursuing our security needs.”

Palestinians, for their part, must “end their campaign denying any Jewish connection to [their] holy places,” Halevi continued. “The relentless message from Palestinian media is that there was no ancient Temple in Jerusalem, no Jewish attachment to the Western Wall, no archeological proof of Jewish roots in this land at all.”

On top of this, Palestinians must stop spreading rumors about a Jewish plan to take over the mosque. “The notion of a Jewish plot against Al-Aqsa is a baseless rumor that has been spread, in one form or another, since the 1920s, often with disastrous results,” Halevi wrote, adding that “the 1929 massacre in Hebron was a result of that poisoned rumor.” 

Far from plotting to bring about the mosque’s collapse, Israel’s policy since the Six-Day War has been the opposite: “to accommodate the Muslim presence and restrain the Jewish presence, going so far as to forbid Jewish prayer.”

“Ultimately, peace is about mutual respect,” Halevi concluded. “Each side needs to confront the psychological impact of our offenses against the other. We must learn to respect each other’s difficult histories.”

In a blog post about the current clashes, Michael Koplow, chief policy officer at the Israel Policy Forum, echoed this message, underscoring that the world must respect the Jewish connection to the site:

“Anyone — either those living in the crucible of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or those watching from the outside — who suggests that one side has a monopoly on the symbolism and emotion of the site or legitimates efforts to claim the site exclusively is contributing to the problem and guaranteeing future clashes,” he wrote.

Diversity of perspectives

Responding to the current clashes, many leaders and commentators focused on how “fake news” and conspiracy theories about Israel are fueling the violence. 

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid tweeted: “Videos posted online with false context are part of a campaign of disinformation by extremists whose objective is to incite a violent confrontation. Israel has no interest in a confrontation, and in fact, has enacted tangible policies to reduce tensions during Ramadan.”

The left-wing Haaretz columnist Nir Hasson expanded on this, writing, “Contrary to what is being said on Palestinian social media [and] in the mainstream Arab media…the Israeli government has no secret plans to push Muslims off the Temple Mount and turn it into a site of Jewish worship.”

He underscored “the people who want to offer sacrifices or build a synagogue there belong to small, radical groups that are unpopular with most Israelis,” adding that, even among Israel’s religious parties, “most oppose visiting the Mount for reasons based on Jewish religious law.”

“So it’s important that the Palestinians not be tempted to believe all the rumors that derive from fake news online,” Hasson concluded.

Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Post Editorial Board put this in historical context, explaining how the falsehood that Jews “have a secret plan to undermine the mosque” stretches back at least a century:

“The deadly 1929 riots started because such a rumor was spread. Likewise, the idea that the Zionists had designs on the mosque was used as fuel to fire up the masses in the Second Intifada 71 years later. And Raed Salah, head of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, has been spreading that lie ever since to foment discontent among Israel’s Arab minority.”

(To learn about how “fake news” that Jews were planning to take over the mosque led to the 1929 riots, listen to our Unpacking Israeli History podcast.)

The editorial board went further, characterizing these lies as a modern blood libel: “The blood libel in the medieval ages was a ridiculous slander, but it nonetheless led to the killing of countless Jews. So, too, has the ‘Aksa is in danger’ libel led to hundreds of deaths over the last century…What is needed now is for responsible leaders and countries to dispel the lie.”

Similarly, Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum argued that much of the reaction from the world is contributing to the violence. Koplow noted how varied governments, the U.N. and the Arab League have “blamed Israel for violating the sanctity of the site and being insufficiently sensitive to Muslim rights in al-Aqsa Mosque,” while ignoring or casting doubt on any Jewish connection to the site.

“Acting as if Palestinians rightfully own the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif while Israeli Jews are foreign interlopers who are trying to claim something to which they have no rightful connection is shameful, and when the site transforms into a driver of war rather than peace, that attitude is the driving reason why,” Koplow wrote.

Meanwhile, Mohammed Dajani Daoudi, a prominent Palestinian professor and peace activist, posted a photo of a child cleaning the Al Aqsa Mosque following the clashes. “Are these the memories we want our children to have growing up, that of hostility, enmity and violence?” he wrote. 

He called on moderates on both sides of the conflict to “not let the extremists win,” adding, “Oh mothers teach your children violence is not the way.”

Why is Jewish prayer forbidden on the Temple Mount?

In what is known as the “status quo” on the Temple Mount, Jews are allowed to visit the site at set times, but are not allowed to pray there. Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu summarized the policy this way: “Muslims pray on the Temple Mount; non-Muslims visit the Temple Mount.” The status quo was negotiated by then-Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan in 1967 after the Six-Day War. 

In an effort to minimize the Arab-Israeli conflict and reduce hostility, Dayan ceded governance of the site to the Jordanians, allowing them to determine who could pray there and who could not. Israelis still debate whether Dayan made the right decision. Read more about the history of the ban on Jewish prayer at the Temple Mount.

A Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (Photo: Noam Chen via Twitter)