Speaking during a U.N. Security Council session, Power did not assign blame for the current tensions on the Temple Mount. But she referred to “provocations” there in the context of actions taken by both Israelis and Palestinians “that may be politically popular with domestic constituencies, but that come at the expense of advancing the cause of peace.”
“We continue to urge all parties to refrain from such actions, including unilateral steps at the United Nations, Israeli settlement activity, and provocations at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, where we urge all sides to respect the status quo of this holy site,” she said.
The “status quo” cited by Power is a sensitive one: Judaism’s holiest site – the location of the biblical Temples – is a hilltop platform, around 35 acres in area, that is also home to two mosques including Al-Aqsa, the third-holiest in Islam. Although it has been under Israeli sovereignty for almost half a century, successive Israeli governments have ceded administration to an Islamic trust.
Visits by Jews and other non-Muslims are tightly restricted, and non-Muslim prayer is forbidden. Jews must instead pray at the remnant of a retaining wall on the platform’s western flank, a popular destination for visitors including American politicians.
The Temple Mount, known by Muslims as Haram Al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), is indisputably the most bitterly contested piece of land in the Mideast conflict. Periodic claims that Jews are conspiring to damage or seize Al-Aqsa rouse anger among Muslims near and far.
The recent Jewish holiday of Sukkot saw violent protests by Muslims objecting to Jewish visitors to the platform, with Palestinians hurling rocks and firebombs at Israeli police – at times doing so from inside the Al-Aqsa mosque itself.
Last Friday, Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas urged supporters of his Fatah movement to defend Al-Aqsa “by any means.”
He called Jews visiting the Temple Mount “herds of cattle” and said they had “no right to enter it and desecrate it.”
“Defending Al-Aqsa” is a customary rallying cry for Muslim critics of Israel. The head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the bloc of Muslim states, accused Israel earlier this month of systematic and “atrocious aggressions” at the site, saying that its actions “inflame religious conflict and extremism.”
Some Israeli organizations and lawmakers call for a change to the status quo on the Temple Mount that would allow Jews to pray there. Most recently, a lawmaker’s bill seeking to make it legal for Jews to pray at specific times and locations on the Temple Mount has made waves, with Palestinian media on Tuesday characterizing it as an attempt to “divide” the revered site.
During a visit to Jerusalem by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last week, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu reiterated his government’s opposition to changing the status quo.
“I’m committed, and Israel is committed, to maintaining the status quo exactly as it’s been for many decades,” he told Ban.
“What we’re seeing are Palestinian extremists who are instigating violence through incitement,” he added. “The incitement is spread by false and baseless rumors that we are threatening the Muslim holy places. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Netanyahu told Ban that Israel was “the only country in the Middle East that fully, unstintingly, continuously and constantly protects the freedom of worship and the access to the holy sites of worship.”
Muslims regard Al-Aqsa as the third holiest site in Islam – after Mecca and Medina – based on the belief that Mohammed stopped there during his “night journey,” a trip from Mecca to heaven on his legendary winged steed, al-Buraq.
The Palestinians want Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount, as the capital for a future independent state.