About 350 Jewish and Christian local and foreign tourists yesterday spent two hours on the Temple Mount from 9-11 A.M., after Israeli police and the Waqf reached an informal agreement allowing non-Muslims to visit the site in the heart of the Old City.
Officially, the Waqf denied it had reached any agreement with the police, calling it a unilateral move by the police. But Israeli and Palestinian sources said that the agreement was worked out over the past few days and was the culmination of a much longer process that included Jordanian and Palestinian Authority pressure on the Waqf to allow tourists back onto the site.
Those daily two hours of visiting time for non-Muslim tourists are the same that were in effect on the plaza since the 1920s, and only suspended in the last three years after then-opposition leader MK Ariel Sharon visited the site in September 2000, to protest against then-premier Ehud Barak’s readiness to discuss the sovereignty issue of the site at the Camp David talks.
Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupoliansky was critical of the decision to renew the visits to the mount, saying it could incite Palestinians and ultimately harm Israeli sovereignty. A Haredi, he is opposed in principle to Jews visiting the site, fearful they may tread accidentally on areas where the two Jewish Temples once stood, particularly the site of the Holy of Holies. “It is difficult to say that this was both wise and just,” said the mayor.
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall, said he planned to put up a large sign at the Mograbi Gate entrance to the site announcing that Jews should not ascend to the mount.
Nationalist Jews have been pressing for the reopening of the site, and last week Public Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi announced that the police would open the site to tourists this week, “with or without Waqf approval.”
Police sources say that one reason for the relative ease with which the site was opened yesterday was their efforts against both Israeli Arab Islamic fundamentalists and Fatah activists who have been trying to assert Palestinian Authority security services functions for the Waqf. The sources said that the arrests of leaders from the Islamic Movement Northern Branch and the Fatah activists had essentially paralyzed the Islamic Movement’s activities on the mount.