JERUSALEM, Israel – Jerusalem’s magistrate court ruled in favor of a Jewish man who was temporarily banned from the Temple Mount after he was caught praying at the holy site – an action that is considered a violation of the fragile status quo on the compound.
The Temple Mount, known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, is the holiest site in Judaism and the third holiest site in Islam. It is a flashpoint of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and tensions at the holy site boiled over into an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip in May.
Informal understandings set in place after Israel captured eastern Jerusalem in the 1967 war allow Jews to visit but not pray on the Temple Mount. Religious affairs at the holy site are administered by the Muslim Waqf, under Jordan’s control.
The ruling by Jerusalem’s magistrate court concerned a Jewish man who was barred from the Temple Mount for 15 days after Israeli police found him praying at the site. The judge ordered police to lift the ban, noting that he did so privately and quietly.
“The appellant stood in the corner with a friend or two, there was no crowd around him, his prayer was quiet, whispered,” Judge Bilhah Yahalom said.
“I have not found that the religious acts carried out by the appellant were externalized and visible… this activity by itself is not enough to violate the police instructions."
Israeli police appealed the ruling, arguing that the man engaged in “improper conduct in the public sphere.”
Magistrate courts make up the lowest level of the Israeli justice system and hear cases concerning relatively minor crimes. Yahalom’s ruling was narrowly tailored to only address this specific instance of Jewish prayer and does not represent a policy change at the Temple Mount.
The judge’s decision drew backlash from Palestinians and Israel’s Muslim neighbors.
The Islamic Waqf that maintains the site called it a “flagrant violation” of the compound's sanctity and a “clear provocation” for Muslims worldwide.
Many Palestinians and neighboring Jordan, which serves as the custodian of the Temple Mount, fear that Israel plans to eventually take over the compound or partition it, like it has done to a similar holy site in Hebron. Israel has repeatedly denied it has such plans.
Jordan rejected the ruling and Egypt said it has “deep concerns about the consequences.”
Meanwhile, advocates for Jewish prayer weren’t impressed by the ruling.
Long-time activist for Jewish Temple Mount prayer Arnon Segal said on Twitter that the decision represents “no change in policy” and he is concerned that it will hurt his cause.
"The harsh Palestinian reaction to the very weak ruling will deter the justice system and the state from even enabling quiet prayers," he said.
In a ruling earlier this year, Israel’s Supreme Court found that “every Jew has the right to pray on the Temple Mount, as part of the freedom of religion and expression.”
“At the same time, these rights are not absolute, and can be limited to take into account the public interest.”