Prime Minister Naftali Bennett asserted on Sunday that both Jews and Muslims have “freedom of worship” on the Temple Mount, potentially hinting at a change in policy at the most contentious site in Israel.
While Jews can visit the site in Jerusalem’s Old City that houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the long-maintained status quo there has been that any non-Muslims are forbidden from praying there.
But during Tisha B’Av on Sunday, a day that marks the destruction of the First and Second Jewish Temples that once stood on the Mount, and amid clashes at the site, Bennett issued a statement that appeared to be at odds with that policy.
Bennett “thanked the public security minister and the Israel Police [chief] for managing the events on the Temple Mount with responsibility and consideration, while maintaining freedom of worship for Jews on the Mount,” according to the Prime Minister’s Office.
Bennett also “emphasized that freedom of worship on the Temple Mount will be fully preserved for Muslims as well, who will soon be marking the fast of the Day of Arafah and the Eid al-Adha.”
The statement came a day after Channel 12 news reported that groups of observant Jews have been ascending to the Temple Mount in recent months and quietly prayed without interruption by police.
A spokesman for Public Security Minister Omer Barlev told The Times of Israel on Sunday that there is “no change in policy” atop the Temple Mount.
The Times of Israel asked the Prime Minister’s Office to clarify whether the statement marked a change in policy, and is awaiting a response.
Allowing Jewish prayers to take place atop the Temple Mount would mark a major change to the status quo that has existed at the holy site since the Jewish state captured the Old City of Jerusalem from Jordan during 1967’s Six Day War. Since 1967, Israel has allowed the Jordanian Waqf to maintain religious authority atop the mount.
More than 1,600 Jews reportedly ascended to the Temple Mount during Tisha B’Av. Earlier in the day, dozens of Muslim worshipers barricaded themselves on the Mount and clashed with police ahead of the arrival of the Jewish visitors. Some of them briefly chanted: “With spirit, with blood, we’ll redeem Al-Aqsa.”
Jordan, Turkey and Egypt all reacted angrily on Sunday to news of clashes at the site and waves of Jewish visitors.
“The Israeli actions against the mosque are rejected and condemned, and represent a violation of the historical and legal status quo, international law, and Israel’s obligations as an occupying power in East Jerusalem,” a Jordanian foreign ministry spokesman was quoted as saying by the official Petra news agency.
The Islamist Ra’am party, a member of Bennett’s governing coalition, also condemned the ascent of hundreds of Jewish “settlers” to the Temple Mount.
“The Al-Aqsa Mosque, in its 144 dunams, is solely the property of Muslims, and no one else has any right to it,” the party said, warning that “the events that may result from it could inflame the situation in Jerusalem and the entire region, leading to a catastrophic religious war.”
Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.