Wednesday was quiet on the Temple Mount – relatively. At 1:30pm a line of 70 visitors gathered at the southern edge of the Wailing Wall’s plaza, near a small barred gate.
The heat was intense, suffocating, as is often the case in Jerusalem at the end of summer. Two metal signs in Hebrew and English, warned: “It is against the Torah to enter the Temple Mount area due to its sanctity." The Chief Rabbinate had signed the warning.
But Israel being Israel, every instruction comes with a wink. On the side of the sign forbidding entry hangs a big mezuzah, so that the person who decides in any event to enter will have something to kiss.
A tourist wearing a big black kippah, appropriate for visiting the Jews' holiest site, is, to his shock, forced by the security guards to remove it. Kippahs are forbidden there. They anger the Muslims.
Two of those standing in line stood out. One, wearing a denim shirt, with a small red beard, was carrying forbidden artifacts in his backpack. When he was asked to leave his backpack behind, a commotion broke out.
The second, in the work uniform of a soldier of the religious Nahal Haredi battalion, his side-locks swaying, a wool hat hung carelessly on his head, was at the front of the line, as if he were the owner. The police gathered around. No less than twelve Special Patrol Unit policemen surrounded them.
Further along, Shlomi Tubul, Temple Mount police commander, was protecting them. Tubul’s eyes were red. He had a busy Rosh Hashanah at the Temple Mount.
It looked like a stroll by two high-level gangsters in the prison yard, or a prime minister’s tour of a terrorist attack site. Every one of the participants knew that he was taking part in a play, that nothing was real. The two young men moved forward at a snail's pace, playing their game near the policemen and the Muslims on the esplanade.
They spoke loudly, taking turns, as if they were having an argument. They spoke about Jews, Muslims, the slain, mosques. Their words were meant to pressure the policemen, to spur them to action. One policeman filmed the procession, pace by pace.
The first stop was Al-Aqsa’s façade. Outside the mosque’s western door sat a group of elderly women, dressed in black, on plastic chairs. When the procession passed by, they started shouting “Allahu Akbar”. The screams were part of a ritual. Just like the children’s game "hot or cold", when the child gets closer to the hidden object, the children scream, hot, hotter, burning, and when he gets further from it they scream cold, colder, freezing.
After exactly two minutes the women were quiet, and resumed speaking to each other calmly. But a girl of about 12 or 13 stubbornly followed the procession eastward. She screamed in a clear, strong voice: Allahu akbar, and the duet took place on both sides of Kerem Hazeitim, on the eastern side of the Mount. Schoolchildren in uniforms silently watched the spectacle. The Waqf officials accompanied the procession from a safe distance.
I followed them, drawn to the performance, embarrassed by its wretchedness. On this side, the less toured part of the Mount, there was a huge pile of building debris, scrap-iron, a broken-down tractor, collapsed roofing, and garbage that was waiting in vain to be picked up. One looking for stones to throw would find a veritable treasure trove here. I asked one of the Waqf officials why they don’t get rid of the garbage, and he responded: “They won’t let us”.
One of his friends said: “Look, two people are causing the state all this uproar. They don’t care about anything. Look at how many soldiers, how much money is spent.
“Everyone is getting money,” he said, “the police, the settlers, the screaming women. It’s all income.”
Visiting time was almost over. The two young men tried to climb the staircase leading to the Dome of the Rock. The police blocked their way. This is also part of the ritual. They both now turned their backs on the Shalshelet Gate, from which they are supposed to leave the site, and went backwards, looking small, transparent. The police pushed them almost without touching them, the police moving forward, the two backwards, a kind of Temple Mount pasodoble.
“You are infidels,” one of the Waqf officials screamed at them in Hebrew. He was wearing a black t-shirt with the words CastroMan written on it.
Then Sheikh Zihad Abu Halayel came and lectured to the policemen: “Do you want blood to be spilt here, Jewish blood, Arab blood?” Tubul listened patiently to the speech. He kept his reaction to himself.
The sheikh approached me. He was wearing a brown robe and a keffiyeh. His left hand held a walking stick and a yellow robe, carefully folded. His right hand held a paper coffee cup. He looked noble, except for the paper cup. In a paper cup, it’s not the same coffee.
“You listen to me and write,” he told me in good Hebrew. “I was a junk peddler in Meah Shearim in Jerusalem. Once I saw small children in a burning house. I entered and saved them. I also got burned a bit. Thank God the Magen David Adom came and took me and the kids to the hospital.”
"When did this happen?" I asked him.
“When Olmert was mayor”, he said.
He’s from the village Dura, south of Hebron. In his old age he has found recognition – he organizes reconciliation ceremonies and serves as a conciliator and a gate preacher. “The settlers together with the police want to create chaos at Al-Aqsa,” he said. “They want to scream, to hit, they want our lives to end. If they want peace they should stop the settlers at the entrance gate. They should not let them enter.”
I asked him why he doesn’t reconcile between the Jews and the Arabs given that he is an expert at reconciliations.
He got riled up. "Reconciliation? What kind of reconciliation? We have 10,000 prisoners. We have land that you have stolen. We have little kids that you have burnt. Give us first what is ours, what belongs to us, and then we will have reconciliation.”
He got angrier. “Netanyahu, that dog…” he said.
I cut him off. "Why are you cursing that way?"I said "You are an old, respectable man."
He saw that I had stopped writing. “You write what I told you,” he ordered.
Niso Shaham, a former deputy commissioner, knows the Temple Mount better than any other police officer in Israel. He was a commander of its security three times – first as an officer responsible for the holy sites in Jerusalem, then as a commander of the area and a third time as a district commander.
He wove exceptionally trusting relationships with all the major players on the Temple Mount, starting with the Waqf, the Jordanian government, the Palestinian Authority and ending with the Jews who are most attached to the site. They were wary of him and respected him. More importantly, they accepted his authority, and through him the state’s authority.
I asked him what he thought of the situation on the Temple Mount. He told me he was worried. “During Rosh Hashanah they found three pipe bombs on the Temple Mount,” he said. “In 20 years there's been nothing like it”.
I asked why this was happening.
He gave me a crash course on the status quo.
“Let’s start with the Jordanians, “he said. “For them the Temple Mount is an opportunity but also a thorn in their side. It’s an opportunity as it gives them a standing and influence. A thorn, as people come to them with complaints. Any change in the status quo threatens them.”
"But the status quo changes all the time," I said. "At one time a religious Jew wouldn’t dare to go to the Temple Mount due to the religious interdiction. Today, thousands of them go. Uri Ariel, a government minister, wants to build a synagogue there. How can a country that preaches freedom of religion refuse his request?"
“There are always powers, from the Jewish side and the Arab side, who want to change the status quo,” he said. “The Jews are harder to control, for obvious reasons. But this is the police’s job. It requires an intelligent police officer, who knows how to be generous, but also holds a big stick. One must never show weakness.”
If I understand Shaham correctly, the problem does not stem from action but rather from oversight: a government that evades dealing with the Temple Mount during relatively quiet times, ends up encountering it during difficult times, of blood and fire.
Shaham believed in a combination of generosity and aggressiveness. He used to say to Adnan Husseini, the governor of Jerusalem on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, that he wears a straightjacket to meetings with him – as if Husseini gets him angry he may act wildly. “What did you wear today?” Husseini would ask him at the start of every meeting, half in jest and half seriously.
“The Islamic Movement in Israel”, said Shaham, “that of Sheikh Raed Salah, wants to take control of the Temple Mount. The Palestinian Waqf hates this as this harms its standing. The Jordanians are angry. The salaries of the Waqf’s workers, including the 164 security guards on the Mount, come from Jordan. Salah would collect contributions and would give each guard an additional $200 a month. This would kill the Waqf leadership. Do you know what that does to a young man from Silwan, who is living on a small Jordanian salary in dinars?”
Sheikh Salah is from the city of Umm al-Fahm. His father was an Israeli policeman and his brother was an officer in the police force. His years-long struggle against what he deemed Israeli attempts to expel the Muslims from Al-Aqsa caused much damage.
People from both sides were killed in the resulting clashes and terrorist attacks. Our ties with Jordan and the rest of the Arab world were damaged. The Hashemite Kingdom's monarchy suffered as a result. Arab MKs were dragged into the quagmire he created as a response to right wing MKs.
The sheik's campaign began as false incitement, and later became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Controlling the Temple Mount is as important in Islamic fundamentalism it is in Jewish fundamentalism. That’s how things are in wars between religions, just like wars rooted in nationalism.
Muslim tradition revered Jerusalem because it was revered by Jews and Christians. The story says that the Prophet Mohammed rose to the heavens from Jerusalem. He tied up his infamous horse, Al Buraq, to the city's walls.
Recent generations of Muslims have changed the horse's location from the Eastern Wall to the Western Wall, due to the reverence Jews hold towards the Western Wall. The marks left by the rope are still displayed to this day, on the southern corner of the Western Wall.
"You should have placed Sheik Salah in the same cell with Uri Ariel, deep in the Nafha Prison," I told Niso Shaham. "They would have quickly realized how similar they are to each other, in their aspirations, working methods, and determination, and they would have become good friends.
"Raed Salah is a genius," said Shaham. "He once told me that, 'you can kill me, but you can't kill Islam.' He established the Murabitan – the groups of men who are Israeli citizens who would riot on the Temple Mount, and the Marabitat, the women's group. He used to drive them and pay them. I wanted to arrest them. My commanders told me to forget about it.
"They would show up in buses, seat themselves under the olive tree in front of Al Aqsa and listen to the Imam's sermon," he continued. "When they would see an Israeli visitor they would start yelling. They scared the Waqf just as much as they scared the Israelis.
"When I wanted to arrest them, they would ask me under what article. I told them according to article gimmel, which doesn’t actually exist in the books. First security – then articles."
"How do you explain the religious Zionists' movement to visit the mount?"I asked.
"When settlers started visiting the mount, I went to the rabbis," he said. "I asked what it was about. The answers were mumbled. They didn’t know how to deal with the movement. The phenomenon was part of the breakdown in the religious hierarchy. The nationalist ideology took precedence over the religious ideology.
"This is where the police come into the picture," he added. "I didn’t allow right wing politicians to enter. I told one of them, you can see the Temple Mount in a movie. You're not just anyone: You’re a symbol. I don’t let people who are trying to change the status quo up to the mount."
"But they have the right to," I pointed out.
"There is a time and place where even rights shouldn’t be fulfilled," Shaham said. "That’s why I opposed Sharon's visit in 2000. The Muslim High Council agreed to hear me out. I told them that he was the head of the opposition. It's his right.
"Jerusalem's mufti heads the High Council. 'What saddens me most, and what I don’t understand,' he said, 'is how we can't defeat you. You’re a nation that doesn’t learn its lesson, doing silly things all the time, and we still lose against you.
"'If Sharon visits the Temple Mount, rivers of blood will spill here,' the Mufti said," he recalled. "Who brings Ariel Sharon, a catastrophic figure for the Arab world, to the Temple Mount a day after the one year anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre? I told them he wouldn’t enter the mosques. I would make sure of that. He replied saying that in his eyes the whole mount was a mosque.
"I went with that to Barak, who was the Prime Minister back then. 'There will be an intifada,' I said. Barak replied,' you're saying this, but there is no intelligence to prove it.' 'When the visit will happen there will be intelligence,' I said. Danny Yatom, Barak's chief of staff waved me out."
"Why," I asked, "is the status quo so holy in your eyes?"
"I'll tell you a story," he said. "One day, when I was commander of the David sector, the Franciscan patriarch called me. In our previous meeting he spoke to me in English. This time he insisted on speaking Italian, for the record. His assistant translated. 'You blocked the entrance to the new gate,' he said. 'The patriarchs' building is close to the new gate.'
"I told him they were doing construction work on the new light rail. There was no alternative.
"'We have had the right to enter through the gate for a hundred years,' the patriarch said. 'You're hurting the status quo.' 'A hundred years ago, I said, there were horse drawn carriages. Now there is a train.' 'Status quo beats the train,' he said."
"How did it end?" I asked.
"There was a police booth next to Gethsemane, on the Franciscan property. After a few days, he brought a crane, and moved the booth away from there."
"What does Netanyahu need to do?" I asked.
"He needs to stand up and proclaim that the status quo from 1967 won't be altered. The way things were is how they shall remain. Whoever attempts to target the status quo will be targeted."