The scenes of Israeli forces firing stun grenades and tear gas inside Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque earlier this year had a galvanizing effect on Palestinian public opinion.
It also gave the militant group Hamas what it saw as a convincing pretext for launching rockets against Israel, leading to a bloody 11-day conflict and a reminder of the powerful interplay between religious and nationalist dynamics at one of the world’s most contentious holy sites.
This week things threatened to escalate there again, this time over the issue of Jewish prayer.
Ever since Israel captured Jerusalem’s Old City from Jordan in 1967, a delicate status quo has existed at a complex known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) and to Jews as the Temple Mount. It is the holiest site in Judaism and, as the home of the Al Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. The agreement in place since 1967 allows anybody to visit the site, but only Muslims to pray.
On Sunday, about 1,600 religious Jews went to Temple Mount for Tisha B’Av, a day of fasting to mark the destruction of the first and second temples in ancient times.
Video cameras appeared to catch some of the visitors praying.
Rather than calling them out, or overlooking the apparent transgression, Israel’s new right-wing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett appeared to lean in unequivocally.
In a statement released toward the end of the day, Bennett thanked police and officials for “managing the events … with responsibility and consideration, while maintaining freedom of worship for Jews on the Mount.”
Those last 10 words rang out like a siren, a direct challenge to the established order of things.
Asked by CNN whether Bennett’s comments represented a policy shift, an official at the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) insisted there was “no change in the status quo regarding the Temple Mount. Everything remains as it was.”
Somewhat bafflingly, the official added, “the press release referred to the freedom to visit,” but then declined to comment further when pressed on the fact the statement did not in fact make such a reference.
On Monday morning, more than 12 hours later and following an official protest from Jordan, which has custodianship rights at the site, there was a further update.
Unnamed officials in the PMO were quoted in Israeli media saying that whatever the statement might have said, what Bennett meant was that Jews have visitation rights at the Mount.
Even so, days after they were first published, the original comments remained unchanged on the Prime Minister’s official Twitter page.
Palestinians say it was no slip of the tongue, but rather another step in a deliberate long-term process.
“It is gradual encroachment, gradually they have been creating facts, allowing more and more visitors, provoking Palestinians, Muslim worshipers, gradually changing the status quo step by step,” said former Palestine Liberation Organization Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi.
For many Palestinians, other events around the mosque compound on Sunday reinforced the widely held sense that Israel believes it can act with impunity towards them.
They pointed to videos showing Israeli border police in riot gear firing towards the mosque building at sunrise, causing damage to one of its prayer halls.
Or other footage from later in the day showing police forcing Muslim worshipers, some of them women, off the compound.
All of this comes around Eid al-Adha, one of the most important holidays in the Islamic calendar, marking the end of the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
The Jordanian-run waqf, or Islamic trust, which administers the Haram al-Sharif, pulled no punches in a statement, accusing the Israeli government and police of allowing “groups of extremists Jews to storm the mosque and provocatively pray and make public rituals in the compound.”
The growing sense that more and more religious Jews are now worshiping openly at the holy site was given support by a report over the weekend on Israel’s Channel 12, which broadcast footage of Jewish prayer sessions and Torah lessons it said were being held there daily.
The report showed worshipers praying in full view of Israeli police, who simply looked on or looked away, and described developments as “a revolution that is being conducted quietly and gradually beneath the radar.”
Daniel Seidemann, an expert on Israel-Palestinian relations in the city who advises international officials on Jerusalem issues, says Israel’s Prime Minister is “playing with matches.”
“When you say, ‘right of Jewish prayer at the Temple Mount’ you have changed the status quo,” Seidemann said, adding that Bennett’s original words gave “the stamp of approval to a highly problematic erosion [of the status quo] that has taken place over the last few years.”
The Jerusalem expert added that Bennett’s comments could also raise alarms for US President Joe Biden’s administration which wants to achieve an improvement in Israel’s relations with Jordan – seen as damaged by previous longtime Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu – and which believes reinforcing the status quo is an important way to do that.
The propensity of events at Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif to trigger more serious escalations has been a common theme in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In 1990, at least 17 Palestinians died in clashes after a renewed attempt by a group called the Temple Mount Faithful to lay the cornerstone of a third temple.
Ten years later, a visit to the site by Israel’s Ariel Sharon is widely seen as being the spark that set off the Second Intifada.
But Seidemann believes without the status quo things would have been far worse.
That simple arrangement, he said, has in the main allowed Jerusalem “an element of stability that keeps periodic eruptions of violence as just that: periodic eruptions.”
CNN’s Abeer Salman contributed to this report.