The Status Quo Arrangement of the Holy Places
Today, there is a well-recognised arrangement that is often referred to as the ‘Status Quo Arrangement of the Holy Places.’ This arrangement was originally established in 1852, when the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Majid issued an edict (firman) freezing all claims of possession by religious communities over Christian Holy Places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, thereby forbidding any construction or alterations to occur to their existing status.
Subsequently, this arrangement was internationally recognised at the 1856 Conference of Paris (at the end of the Crimean War) and through the 1878 Treaty of Berlin (between European Powers and the Ottomans). Article 62 of the Treaty of Berlin stated that: “It is well understood that no alterations can be made to the status quo in the Holy Places.” Article 62 extended that arrangement to include all – not only Christian – Holy Places.
Following the defeat of the Ottomans and the partitioning of their Empire after World War I, the British Mandate Authorities in Palestine (1920-1947) upheld the status quo arrangement and included Al-Buraq (Western) Wall at Al-Aqsa Mosque / Al-Haram Al-Sharif in Jerusalem and Rachel’s Tomb on the outskirts of Bethlehem.
The first major violation of the Status Quo Arrangement occurred in September 1928, when a group of Jewish worshippers set up chairs at Al-Buraq Wall to separate men and women performing Yom Kippur prayers, triggering one of the first periods of significant unrest in Jerusalem. A subsequent White Paper, submitted to the British government in November 1928, reiterated the rights of Muslims to Al-Buraq Wall. Although unsuccessful in their search for documentary evidence of Jewish rights to Al-Buraq Wall, the Zionist movement continued to demand its expropriation for the Jews.
Disputes over prayer arrangements at Al-Buraq Wall escalated. In August 1929, protests turned violent and resulted in dozens of both Jewish and Arab deaths, as well as injuries of hundreds more. The conclusions of the subsequent British Inquiry Commission, presented in December 1930, included the following:
“Subsequent to the investigation it has made, the Commission herewith declares that the ownership of the Wall, as well as the possession of it and of those parts of its surroundings that are here in question, accrues to the Moslems. The Wall itself as being an integral part of the Haram-esh-Sherif area is Moslem property. From the inquiries conducted by the Commission, partly in the Sharia Court and partly through the hearing of witnesses' evidence, it has emerged that the Pavement in front of the Wall, where the Jews perform their devotions, is also Moslem property.”
Despite the aforementioned, in the course of the 1967 War, Israel forcibly seized control of Al-Buraq Wall, confiscating the key to Al-Magharbeh Gate of Al-Aqsa Mosque / Al-Haram Al-Sharif and destroying Al-Magharbeh Quarter which was located in front of Al-Buraq Wall. In place of Al-Magharbeh Quarter, a large prayer plaza for Jewish worshippers was created which was gradually extended from an area of 66m2 (22m x 3m) to an area of some 6300m2 (90m x 70m).
Immediately after the 1967 War, Israel nominally recognised the historical status and religious significance for Al-Aqsa Mosque / Al-Haram Al-Sharif for Muslims, as well as the custodianship of Jordan (i.e. the responsibility for administration and religious arrangements) in respect of the site. Despite this nominal recognition, however, the Israeli authorities have controlled entry into Al-Aqsa Mosque / Al-Haram Al-Sharif’s gates ever since and can force others to enter at their own will. Moreover, all successive Israeli governments and their police and military forces have made efforts to undermine the internationally-recognised status quo.
International efforts have been made to protect the status and integrity of Al-Aqsa Mosque / Al-Haram Al-Sharif, including the United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In 1981, the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site upon the request of the Government of Jordan . In 1982, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee decided to inscribe the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls on the List of World Heritage in Danger, thereby highlighting the threats and risks to the cultural heritage of the sites of the Old City. Since that time, the World Heritage Committee, its Executive Board and the UNESCO General Conference have taken tens of decisions that call onto Israel, as the occupying power, to stop its continuous violations against the heritage of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls. Israel, however, has continued to attempt to change Jerusalem’s pre-1967 status quo.
Until the Oslo “Negotiations” Process in the early 1990s of the 20th century, the Jordanian Awqaf’s Administration of Al-Aqsa Mosque / Al-Haram Al-Sharif and the Waqf properties attached to it was relatively respected and stable. Article 9 of the Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty of 26 October 1994 stipulated that:
“Israel respects the present special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem” and that “when negotiations on the permanent status will take place, Israel will give high priority to the Jordanian historic role in these shrines.”
Due to the Oslo Process taking place however, Jewish extremist elements resurfaced, fearing that Israel would abandon Jewish worship rights to Al-Buraq Wall and therefore, pledged to prevent this.
These extremist elements have become increasingly more vocal, powerful and mainstream in the past few decades. Since the second Palestinian Intifada, which erupted in September 2000 after the provocative visit of the then Likud opposition leader Ariel Sharon to Al-Aqsa Mosque / Al-Haram Al-Sharif. Against the wider backdrop of the failure of the Oslo Process, there have been thousands of Israeli police and soldiers deployed in and around the Old City of Jerusalem (including inside Al-Aqsa Mosque / Al-Haram Al-Sharif).
During the course of the Second Intifada, Israel constructed a wall in and around East Jerusalem on the pretext that it was necessary for security purposes. On 8 December 2003, the General Assembly of the United Nations requested the International Court of Justice to give an advisory opinion on the question of the legal consequences of the construction of that wall by Israel as an occupying power. On 9 July 2004, the International Court of Justice delivered its advisory opinion. The International Court of Justice gave the opinion that the construction by Israel of that wall was contrary to international law as it impeded the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and further constituted a breach of Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law and human rights instruments. Israel continues to fail to comply with the findings of the International Court of Justice that it is obliged to respect the international law obligations that it has violated.
In furtherance of the ongoing and ceaseless efforts to maintain the status and integrity of Al-Aqsa Mosque / Al-Haram Al-Sharif, on 31 March 2013, His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan and His Excellency Dr. Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine signed an Agreement on the Holy Places in Jerusalem, that recalled the “unique religious importance, to all Muslims”, of Al-Aqsa Mosque / Al-Haram Al-Sharif.