Speculation is deepening over consequences of Saudi involvement in the Islamic Waqf council that administers the al Aqsa mosque compound in the Old City in Israel’s capital of Jerusalem.
As previously reported by TV7, Washington has reportedly been brokering clandestine talks on the sensitive issue between Jerusalem and Riyadh since December 2019. This development is said to be fueled by increasing concern by both Israel and Jordan over a surge of influence by Turkey in East Jerusalem where the mosque is located, as well as general Palestinian matters.
The report also comes amid ongoing efforts by the administration of United States President Donald Trump to advance its proposal to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “These talks are sensitive and clandestine and have been conducted by small teams of diplomats and security officials from Israel, the US, and Saudi Arabia as part of the Trump Administrations’ Peace to Prosperity Middle East initiative,” unnamed senior Saudi officials told the Israel Hayom news outlet.
The 35-acre (14-hectare) compound is revered by Jews and Christians as the Temple Mount, as it is where both Biblical Temples once stood. It is the holiest site in the world in Judaism.
Muslims refer to the contested land as the Noble Sanctuary or Haram al-Sharif. Even though Jerusalem is never once mentioned by name in the Koran, the city has attained the status of Islam’s third holiest site in accordance with the belief of some followers that it was from this location their Prophet Mohammad ascended to heaven. Other Islamic traditions hold that he ascended from mosques in Medina, Saudi Arabia or Kufa, Iraq. The Dome of the Rock Mosque was completed on the Temple Mount in the year 692, and constructed to face toward Mecca in Saudi Arabia, considered as the holiest site in Islam.
Incidentally, it bears noting that all Jewish synagogues worldwide have been built for over 2,000 years to face Jerusalem.
After the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, Jerusalem was divided and Jordan controlled its eastern sector including the Temple Mount. Jews were absolutely forbidden from worshiping at the holy site for nearly two decades until Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War when the city was reunited. In what has subsequently become a controversial decision among many Israelis, the government at time believed it best to leave administration of the Temple Mount to Jordan, which appointed the supervisory Islamic Waqf -which continues to forbid prayer by either Jews or Christians at the holy site.
Due to its sensitive status, the Temple Mount has become a flashpoint of violence between the sides.
Jordan expanded the Waqf from 11 to 18 members in February 2019, to include 7 senior Palestinian Authority and Fatah representatives in violation of the Oslo Accords. The new Palestinian delegates then facilitated Turkey to establish a presence at the holy site by allowing operations by several Islamist-Turkish non-profit organizations funded by tens of millions of dollar payments approved by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Alarmed by the Turkish intervention as well as last year’s violent protests and the reopening of the Gate of Mercy section adjacent to the compound, Jordan’s King Abdullah II reportedly regretted his earlier decision to alter participation in the Waqf. The Hashemite Kingdom then signaled willingness to both Israel and the U.S. to include Saudi representatives on the Waqf council on condition Jordan’s “special exclusive status” would remain unaffected. Both the Saudi and Hashemite Royal families claim direct lineage to Islam’s founder Muhammad. Amman also conditioned Riyadh’s participation on the donation of substantial funds to Islamic associations in East Jerusalem, as well as the application of diplomatic and political pressure toward the expulsion of the Turkish Islamic organizations operating in Jerusalem under Palestinian auspices.
“If the Jordanians allow the Turks to operate unhindered at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, within a matter of years their special status in charge of the Waqf and Muslim holy sites would be relegated to being strictly ‘on paper.’ They need the Saudi’s money and influence to block Erdoğan Israel and the US also have an interest here because they want Saudi support for the US peace plan and Israeli annexation initiative, and because Saudi Arabia can ensure support from Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates,” a senior Arab diplomat told Israel Hayom.
The Arab diplomat added that “it’s still too early to say whether this initiative will indeed come to fruition. The intention is for the Saudi representatives to function strictly as observers, so as not to detract from the Jordanians’ exclusive status.”
All of the recent developments have been occurring against a backdrop of coronavirus implications on religious worship. There have been 18, 268 coronavirus cases and 299 deaths in Israel, and 481 cases and three deaths in the Palestinian territories.
The Waqf reopened the al-Aqsa mosque compound to Muslims on Sunday after a two-and-a-half month closure, in spite of a surge in local infections. Worshipers were instructed to wear face masks and bring their own mats for prayers either within the shrine or outdoor plaza.
Saudi Arabia has yet to announce whether the annual “Haj” pilgrimage to Mecca will proceed as slated at the end of July, but authorities are already cautioning potential travelers to temporarily delay preparations. At least 2.5 million Muslims made the journey to Saudi Arabia from around the world to take part in the Haj, which all Muslims are obliged to perform at least once in their lives if is within their ability.
It has, however, already been declared that suspension of the year-round “umrah” pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina will remain in effect to an as-of-yet to be determined date.
As of today, there have been 783 deaths and 108,571 total cases in the Kingdom, reflecting the worst outbreak in the Persian Gulf. On Sunday, the number of new daily cases surpassed 3,000 for the second consecutive day.
The Saudis had begun to relax restrictions aimed at combating the virus in late May in most parts of the country with the exception of Mecca. At that time, it was though the holy Islamic city was set to resume routine activity on 21 June, but that prospect now appears increasingly unlikely.
Last Friday a lockdown was reimposed on the Red Sea city of Jeddah, which is considered a gateway to Mecca. The measures include the forbidding prayers in mosques, stay-at-home order for public and private sector workers, and the imposition of a curfew between 3 PM and 6 AM the following day.
A return to such strict restrictions may also be reintroduced to the capital Riyadh, which was “witnessing a continuous increase during the last days” of critical COVID-19 infections, according to a statement from the Saudi Health Ministry.
— By Erin Viner