During a visit to the world’s most volatile site, former head of the Shin Bet Avi Dichter shares his insights about what he sees as the Palestinians’ true intentions for the Temple Mount and what Israel must do to stop them.
“The Palestinians will never drop the matter of the Temple Mount. It’s a tool that they, and parts of the Arab and Muslim world, use to take on Israel,” former Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman and former head of the Shin Bet security agency MK Avi Dichter tells Israel Hayom in a special weekend interview.
Dichter was at the helm of the Shin Bet when the Al-Aqsa Intifada broke out after Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount. Last week Israel Hayom accompanied him on a visit to the Mount in an attempt to understand if, since Sharon’s visit, anything has changed at what is considered the most volatile site in the world.
“Do you know what the most frustrating thing about the Miss Universe pageant is?” Dichter asks as we set out. “Coming in second.”
“The Temple Mount is in second place after Mecca and Medina. No one really makes pilgrimages to the Temple Mount. There is no Hajj here. For them, the fact that Israel captured the Temple Mount is outstanding leverage, but their real goal is elsewhere – it’s conflict. The Temple Mount is just an instrument.”
This time of year, the Temple Mount is crowded with visitors. An average of 7,000 tourists arrive each day, and another 150 or so Jewish visitors. Visitors begin making their way in early; Jews and tourists via the Mughrabi Bridge, and Arab worshippers use the other eight entrances to the Mount.
In the past, each visitor had to pay a $10 entrance fee. It wasn’t a bad source of revenue, but Israel decided to end that practice in 2000 because it gave the impression that it was the people collecting the money, rather than Israel, who were in charge. Later on, the sale of food and souvenirs on the Mount was also banned.
The Mount is under heavy security. Police and Border Police are on duty at each of the entrances, and they check the people who come to pray. There are no hi-tech security measures in places, and everything is done by hand. Bags are searched, and so are bodies if the need arises. The biggest concern is that someone, Muslim or Jew, will try and bring weapons into the Temple Mount.
Both sides worry – about extremist Jews who might try to carry out a terrorist attack or Muslims who will bring in weapons for use in an immediate or future attack. Police commanders declare unequivocally that there are no weapons on the Mount, but Dichter is much more cautious.
“I’m telling you that our working assumption must be that there are weapons on the Mount. The police must work under the assumption that they could be surprised by guns,” he says.
Q: Guns that are there for what reason?
“If there are weapons, they see them as something to use to deal with attempts to force something on them they don’t want to happen. Tomorrow they could decide, for example, that the police can’t come into Al-Aqsa Mosque when things start to heat up, and they know they won’t have to standoff against the police barehanded.”
The metal detector crisis that led to the murder of two police officers in a shooting attack perpetrated by three Israeli Arabs in July 2017 prevented the introduction of any advanced technology that would make it harder to bring weapons onto the Mount. Dichter supports the idea of metal detectors.
“I know that eventually, there will be security checks at the entrances to the Temple Mount. I can’t tell you what they’ll look like, but there will have to be security checks because everyone understands the sensitivity of what would happen if, heaven forbid, there was another terrorist attack here.”
“If it did, we’d ask ourselves how we allowed people to bring weapons onto the Mount, and you need to remember that at peak times, the number of people coming in reaches hundreds of thousands per day. It’s very hard to check everyone. That’s another reason why I think that the working assumption must be that there are weapons stockpiles on the Mount, and anyone who doesn’t work off that assumption is missing an important part of his job, I think.”
A chick that turned into a bird of prey
Despite the number of tourists and worshippers, the Mount is very clean. Everything is orderly, calm, and light-years away from the media images of violence that frequently make headlines. The police here are prepared for these sudden extreme shifts. The commanders are very experienced and most of them have been here for years. They’ve all been through plenty of cycles of violence on the Mount.
Dichter is accompanied during his visit by the entire Israel Police chain of command on the Mount: Cmdr. Haim Shmueli, who is in charge of the David District (the Old City); Chief Supt. Yuval Reuven, who is in charge of holy sites (the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre); and Supt. Daniel Mizrahi, the commander of the Mount itself. The Temple Mount police station is the only sign of Israeli sovereignty, and as such is the target of frequent violent attacks. In an attempt to establish facts on the ground, the Muslim Waqf located its offices on one side of the station, and the officer for its security guards on the other.
A few dozen Waqf officials are scattered across the Mount, keeping an eye on things from afar. They use walkie-talkies to report but refrain from interfering. A little like museum guards, who follow visitors and intervene only when necessary. They are especially interested in Dichter – a visit by a high-ranking Israeli official, a politician, who has a notable background in security, is always an unusual event. Dichter’s visit was preceded by lengthy consultations between security officials, who were concerned he might spark riots at a sensitive time. At first, he received hints that perhaps he should cancel, but in the end, his visit was approved.
As we mentioned, Dichter was head of the Shin Bet when Sharon visited the Temple Mount on Sept. 29, 2000, an event that precipitated the Second (or Al-Aqsa) Intifada.
“We checked with everyone, and we didn’t see any problem. It was a Thursday. Even though Arab MKs were waiting for him on the Mount and creating provocations, the event here ended relatively quietly. The storm only broke the next day, and [the visit] was the excuse.”
‘The Palestinians are a cowardly people’
The violence that re-erupted the day after Sharon’s appearance, following Friday prayers, was on a much larger scale than it had been in the past. The police pushed into the Mount with guns and four Palestinians were killed in the compound, along with another three in the Old City. Hundreds were wounded. The violence spread quickly, engulfing Israeli Arabs, Judea and Samaria, and the Gaza Strip.
“The main insights since then are that a casualty on the Temple Mount is not a regular casualty – it’s something else. So incidents here have to be handled in a way that does not result in casualties – starting with the weapons and the tactics, and the people that you put on duty and the commanders who oversee the incidents. The rules on the Temple Mount are different, and we paid a very high price to learn them,” Dichter says.
Q: Israel’s sovereignty isn’t eroded because of how it operates on the Temple Mount?
“How you handle incidents doesn’t add to or take away from sovereignty. On the Temple Mount, it’s impossible to implement sovereignty because the status quo determines that there are to be no flags or any other national symbols, so there is no sign of [Israeli] sovereignty here other than the police station.”
Anyway, Dichter says, the Waqf is taking a “salami” approach on the Mount – “always slicing off small bits, and when they see that they can take a big slice, like they did in 1999 with Solomon’s Stables, that’s what they do, shamelessly.
“Back then, they received the biggest mosque in the region to be built not in the time of the Turks or the British, but under Israeli rule, and we looked the other way. We said, we need to let the chick spread its wings and learn to fly. We didn’t realize that the chick was a bird of prey. The Temple Mount is the only place where you see Palestinian self-confidence on display. Without shame.”
“They feel that it belongs to them, that they have the backing not only of the fragile Palestinian Authority but also of other states. The Waqf officials here don’t feel that they are representatives of [PA President] Mahmoud Abbas, but rather of the King of Jordan, the King of Morocco, [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan – of all Islam. I know the Palestinians fairly well. Look at them. Look at their self-confidence.”
Q: Does Israel even have a clear policy on the Temple Mount?
“Ultimately, we decide what happens here. The status quo is very clear, and where they are challenging us, we need to take decisive action.”
An example of that is a mosque the Waqf wanted to break open near the Gate of Mercy about six months ago.
“That was a classic example in which they had a permit to build offices for the Waqf, but their true intention was clear – they didn’t intend to build anything other than a mosque. In so far as it hinges on me, it won’t happen. I can’t see any Israeli government allowing them to build a mosque at the Gate of Mercy.”
A small rock, big boulders
Tourists walk around the Temple Mount freely, accompanied only by guides. The Jews are protected, both to keep them from being attacked, and to keep them from praying. The police take care not to allow outward symbols of prayer such as a tallit or fringes, but is less careful about murmured prayer, except when it comes to known provocateurs. Their names and faces are well-known, and sometimes they are barred from the site entirely.
Dichter thinks that Jews should be allowed to pray on the Temple Mount, “Just like Muslims are allowed in to pray.”
He thinks that the Palestinians’ current attitude toward the Temple Mount is emotional, not rational: “When a Muslim here sees someone wearing a kippa or a cross he goes nuts.”
However, in Dichter’s opinion that change must be made through consensus and be well-thought-out, because “the Temple Mount is a little rock that’s holding big boulders [in place], and you need to ask yourself what would happen if you moved it after 52 years in which everything here was static, and any change could cause a major shake-up.”
The constant concern is fear of an attack by Jewish extremists. Since the Jewish underground of the 1980s, there hasn’t been any Jewish terrorist activity that hasn’t addressed the possibility of attacking the Temple Mount mosques, or as some of the groups put it, “taking the filth away from where the Temple once stood.”
Dichter recalls two such plots from his time as head of the Shin Bet: One group wanted to shoot an anti-tank missile at the Temple Mount, and the other wanted to deploy an explosives-laden model plane.
“A grenade on the Temple Mount equals war,” he says. “Look what happened when Al-Aqsa Mosque was set on fire in 1969, or after the Western Wall tunnels were opened.”
Q: Why would Jews want to carry out a terrorist attack on the Temple Mount?
“Attacking the Temple Mount has much broader implications that what happens right here, and I’m saying that from all my security experience and knowledge of the Muslim world. We have an army and the Shin Bet and the police here, and we know how to handle it and contain it, but I’m worried about what would happen to Jews and Israelis all over the world. They’d become targets anywhere there are Muslims.”
Q: Should we be worried?
“Yes. There are people whose thinking is detached from the reality in which we live. Tomorrow some Baruch Goldstein who decides that God came to him in a dream and told him to carry out an attack here could get up and cause damage that would have an enormous effect.”
Dichter says that the way to handle that threat is twofold: through intelligence and a physical security presence on the Mount, and through dialogue with the only officials he thinks can get through to the extremists – rabbis.
“After the attempts at terrorist attacks [by Jews] in my time, I went and met with rabbis. I told them I thought they were the ones giving the orders, but they had to demonstrate responsibility. They not only have immediate responsibility for what happens here but also responsibility for every Jew and Israeli all over the world.”
‘The Palestinians are a cowardly people’
Dichter’s most important visit to the Mount was a private one. It was in 2003, and his daughter was about to be drafted. She wanted the family to take a vacation abroad, but Dichter was in charge of the Shin Bet and couldn’t go.
“Her compensation was a two-day tour of Jerusalem that they’ll never forget. One day in ancient Jerusalem, and one day in today’s Jerusalem. We hired the best guides. It was the most in-depth tour I’ve ever had here.”
Q: Can a solution to the Temple Mount issue be found?
“Right now I don’t see a solution in the form of dialogue with them, because the Palestinians are a cowardly people. They don’t have the courage to do anything that isn’t belligerent. You don’t need to be brave to carry out a suicide bus bombing, you need to be a fanatic and not able to see beyond the end of your nose. Look at what they did to Sadat and Hussein, look at Arafat and Abu Mazen [Abbas].”
Q: Nevertheless, international sovereignty on the Mount has been discussed that would allow everyone to pray, things like that.
“The Temple Mount can be one clause of many in a peace deal, but there is no Palestinian leader who’ll go there, stand up in the Knesset, and say, ‘The path of terrorism is at an end.’ At first, I thought that Arafat had an opportunity to be the one, but when I got to know him from close-up, I saw that he wasn’t it.”
Q: So the Temple Mount will remain an eternal point of conflict for us?
“Yes. Or at least until there are leaders, on both sides, like Begin and Rabin, who will undertake dramatic steps and concessions.”
Meanwhile, Dichter thinks, Israel must stand its ground – not violate the status quo so as not to set off riots, but also make sure it doesn’t pay a price for that.
“There is an obvious effort to turn the entire Temple Mount into Al-Aqsa,” he says.
“If we can’t contradict the sense that the Temple Mount is Al-Aqsa, they’ll have legitimacy to keep Jews off the Mount and behave like they do in Mecca and Medina, where non-Muslims are not allowed. That is there guiding motive, and not many people in Israel understand that this is their goal and what ramifications that has for our own goals. We have to be aware of that. This is a battle for hearts and minds whose importance must not be underestimated.”