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Agreement Between Jordan, Palestinian Authority Officially Recognizes Jordan's Custodianship Over Jerusalem's Holy Places

Written by C. Jacob

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On March 31, 2013, an agreement that came as a surprise was signed between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Jordan, which solidified Jordan's custodianship of the Islamic holy places in Jerusalem. The daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported that the agreement had been signed in total secrecy in the presence of Jordan's King 'Abdallah II, PA President Mahmoud Abbas, and the PA and Jordanian ministers of religious endowments.[1]

Jerusalem Al-Aqsa Mosque BW 2010-09-21 06-38-12Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa Mosque

The agreement states that "His Majesty King 'Abdallah II, as the custodian of the Jerusalem holy sites, will exert all possible efforts to preserve [these] sites, especially Al-Haram Al-Sharif [The Al-Aqsa Mosque]… and to represent their interests." The agreement states further that King 'Abdallah is responsible for ensuring respect for the holy places, guaranteeing the Muslims' freedom of movement to and from the sites, ensuring their maintenance and representing their interests in the international arena.[2]

In practice, the Hashemite dynasty in Jordan has had stewardship over the holy places in Jerusalem since 1924. Even after the Six-Day War and Israel's conquest of East Jerusalem, Jordan continued to play a religious role in Jerusalem's holy places via the East Jerusalem Waqf, which it manages.

In 1988 Jordan did disengage itself from the West Bank by "severing its legal and administrative ties" with it, but this disengagement never applied to the holy places in Jerusalem. In 1994 this custodianship was reinforced via a Jordanian declaration that emphasized the kingdom's historic role in Jerusalem's holy places, as well as by the peace agreement between Israel and Jordan where Israel recognizes Jordan's special status in Jerusalem.

In June 2013, Hamas Prime Minister Isma'il Haniya disclosed that Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi plans to hold an international conference in Cairo on the issue of Jerusalem. He added that the issue of Jerusalem was prominent in talks that took place this month in Cairo between Mursi and Hamas representatives, and also in talks between the heads of Hamas and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan. The liberal website elaph.com assessed that Mursi has decided to convene the conference in response to the PA-Jordan agreement and with the aim of circumventing it, and that this move could negatively affect Egypt-Jordan relations.[3]  

The agreement, then, does not alter the decades-long status quo, under which the Jordanian Waqf manages the affairs of Jerusalem's Islamic holy places in coordination with Israel. Nevertheless, the agreement reinforces Jordan's status in the holy places in a manner that may restrict Israel's freedom of action in Jerusalem.

As the agreement does not constitute a tangible change to the status quo, what then were the motivations for its signing? This report will review these motivations as presented by Palestinian and Jordanian senior officials, commentators and journalists, and they include the desire to step up Jordanian-Palestinian coordination in order to "save" Jerusalem from "The city's Judaization and settlement construction within it"; bypass various parties such as Qatar, Hamas and the Islamic Movement in Israel, who are attempting to usurp Jordan and the PA's role vis-à-vis the holy sites; prepare the ground for a PA-Jordan confederation, and the US intention to reinforce Jordan's role in future negotiations between Israel and the PA.

King Abdallah and PA President Abbas Sign AgreementKing 'Abdallah and PA President 'Abbas sign the agreement (Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, Palestinian Authority, April 3, 2013)

Defending Jerusalem

Jordan and the PA justified the agreement as dictated by the need to unify efforts for opposing Israeli attempts to "Judaize Jerusalem."[4] PA Minister of Religious Endowments Mahmoud Al-Habbash argued that the agreement was purely religious and had no political aspects, and was intended to confirm a reality that has existed for years and provide a legal basis for collaboration between the two sides in defending Jerusalem. The former Jordanian minister of communications and information Samih Al-Ma'ayta likewise stated that the agreement was intended to limit the Judaization of Jerusalem.[5]

The weekly Al-Bayader Al-Siyassi, which is close to the PLO, wrote: "Jordan has the power, capability and influence in the international and Arab arenas to halt any attack on the Al-Aqsa mosque, while the PA is powerless to defend Jerusalem and its holy places."[6]

Thwarting Parties Attempting To Usurp PA's, Jordan's Role in Jerusalem

Some contended that the agreement was intended as a message to parties seeking to appropriate Jordan's custodianship over the holy places – that the kingdom is exclusively responsible for their management. Though these parties were not named explicitly, they are probably Qatar, Hamas and the Islamic Movement in Israel. Qatar recently stepped up its involvement in the Palestinian cause and particularly Jerusalem. At the Arab League summit in Qatar that took place in March 2013, this country called for the establishment of a billion- dollar fund to aid the Palestinians in East Jerusalem, and the Qatari Emir pledged 250 million dollars for this fund.[7] Hamas and the Islamic Movement are also active on the Jerusalem issue. The latter movement has adopted the slogan "Al-Aqsa Is in Danger," and uses it as a title for its activities, such as a September 2012 rally it held in Umm Al-Fahm.[8] At a Hamas assembly in support of Al-Aqsa, the movement called for allowing resistance activists a free hand in defending Al-Aqsa. On another occasion the movement urged full mobilization to rescue the Al-Aqsa Mosque.[9]

Sultan Al-Hattab, a columnist in the Jordanian government daily Al-Rai, argued that King 'Abdallah had inherited sponsorship over the holy places from his father Hussein, had allocated money to them and had emulated his father by contributing from his own pocket to repair the Dome of the Rock and its gold plating. Al-Hattab wrote: "Arab parties who do not comprehend the meaning of the [Jordanian] custodianship [over the holy places in Jerusalem] are trying to strip the Hashemites of this legitimate card… There are attempts to elbow Jordan out of its religious, political and legitimate role and its humanitarian, national and pan-Arab obligation and create a vacuum, by employing the pretext that one must restore Jerusalem to its Palestinian owners."[10]

An article in the weekly Al-Bayader Al-Siyassi argues that "[the agreement] shuts the door to any disputes or competition over the management of the affairs of the waqf and the holy places in Jerusalem by stipulating a single defined authority – the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, as represented by its leader King 'Abdallah II… Groups and institutions will not be able to take over the Al-Aqsa Mosque or treat it as they see fit, and will be unable to extend their sponsorship over it… Every Arab effort to support the holy city will be performed solely via coordination with Jordan and the Palestinians, and not by indirect ways. This will prevent any party from exploiting support for Jerusalem to gain political capital or attempt to increase its influence in Jerusalem."[11]

A Preparatory Measure Towards A PA-Jordan Confederation Or Federation

In addition to the official explanations for the agreement, figures, commentators and columnists broached alternative theories regarding the motives behind the signing, such as paving the way for a confederation between Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. This theory was presented, for example, by 'Abd Al-Bari 'Atwan, editor of the daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, who believes that the agreement is an important preparatory measure for federation between the West Bank and Jordan.[12]

In response, PA officials emphasized that the confederation issue is currently not on the table, though not everybody ruled it out as a future option.  A member of the PLO Central committee, Abbas Zaki, said that the agreement derived from the need to prevent Israel from "Judaizing Jerusalem and emptying it of its inhabitants" and that "it is still premature to talk of a confederation, given the official and resolute Jordanian position that it is necessary first of all to establish an independent Palestinian state." Another senior PLO official, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, denied any connection between the agreement and the establishment of a confederation between Jordan and the Palestinians, as did the Jordanian Minister of Communications, Muhammad Al-Momani.[13]

U.S. Wishes To Reinforce Jordan's Role In Diplomatic Process

Another hypothesis explaining the signing of the agreement is connected with the visit of President Barack Obama to Israel and the Palestinian Authority that took place a week prior to the agreement's signing, and with the attempts to revive the negotiations in the Middle East. Ibrahim Abrash, a lecturer at Al-Azhar University and a former PA minister, said that the clause in the agreement stipulating that the King will "represent the interests of the holy sites in relevant international forums and competent international organizations," provides Jordan with an important role in future negotiations that will assist President 'Abbas in promoting the Jerusalem issue.[14]

Jamal Abu Rida, a columnist on the website Felesteen.ps that is close to Hamas, also believes that the timing of the agreement was connected to the visit of President Obama. He assesses that granting Jordan sponsorship over the Al-Aqsa Mosque represents an American goodwill gesture towards the kingdom, intended to strengthen it in view of the Arab Spring and the dangers menacing it and to allow the renewal of negotiations with Israel without prior conditions. He finds corroboration for his appraisal in "Israel's silence over the agreement although Jerusalem, and especially the Al-Aqsa Mosque, are under Israeli control… It would appear that the agreement includes important concessions that Israel made to the Palestinian Authority in one of the most contentious issues between them… But, in practice, [the agreement] serves Israel more than the Palestinian Authority because it presents Israel once more as a democratic country that respects the religious sentiments of the Muslims, and therefore it can attenuate the criticism against Israel."[15]

Appendix: The Text Of The Agreement

The following an English translation of the full agreement published by the Jordan Times:[16]

Agreement between His Majesty King 'Abdallah II Ibn Al Hussein, the Custodian of the holy sites in Jerusalem, and His Excellency Dr Mahmoud Abbas, President of the State of Palestine, Head of Palestinian Liberation Organization, and President of the Palestinian National Authority

Glory to Him Who carried His servant by night from the Sacred Mosque to Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa, the environs of which We have blessed, that We might show him of our signs! Indeed He is the Hearing, the Seeing. (The Holy Koran, Al Isa', 17:1)

Indeed, Allah loves those who fight in His cause in a row as though they are a [single] structure joined firmly. (The Holy Koran, Al-Saff, 61:4)

This agreement has been made by and between:

His Majesty King 'Abdallah II Ibn Al Hussein, King of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the Custodian of the holy sites in Jerusalem,

And:

His Excellency President Mahmoud Abbas, in his capacity as President of the State of Palestine, and Head of The Palestine Liberation Organization, the representative of the Palestinian people, and President of the Palestinian National Authority,

Preamble

A.   Recalling the indissoluble bond between all members of the Arab and Muslim Ummah;

B.   Recalling the special status of Jerusalem as a holy and sacred city in Islam, and recalling present and eternal association of the holy sites with Muslims of all lands and all ages; and bearing in mind the significance of Jerusalem to those of other faiths;

C.   Recalling the unique religious importance, to all Muslims, of Al Masjid Al-Aqsa with its 144 dunums, which include the Qibli Mosque of Al Aqsa, the Mosque of the Dome of the Rock and all its mosques, buildings, walls, courtyards, attached areas over and beneath the ground and the Waqf properties tied-up to Al Masjid Al Aqsa, to its environs or to its pilgrims (hereinafter referred to as "Al Haram Al Sharif");

D.   Recalling the role of King Al Sharif Hussein Bin Ali in protecting, and taking care of the holy sites in Jerusalem and in the restoration of the holy sites since 1924; recalling the uninterrupted continuity of this role by His Majesty King of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, who is a descendant of Al Sharif Hussein Bin Ali; recalling that the Bay'ah (oath of allegiance) according to which Al Sharif Hussein Bin Ali held the custodianship of the Jerusalem holy sites, which custodianship was affirmed to Al Sharif Hussein Bin Ali by the people of Jerusalem and Palestine on March 11, 1924; and recalling that the Custodianship of the holy sites of Jerusalem has devolved to His Majesty King 'Abdallah II Ibn Al Hussein; including that which encompasses the "Rum" (Greek) Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem that is governed by the Jordanian Law No. 27 of the year 1958;

E.    The continuity of Hashemite King of Jordan's custodianship of the holy sites since 1924 makes His Majesty more able to maintain the holy sites and to preserve Al Masjid Al Aqsa (Al Haram Al Sharif);

F.    Recognizing that the Palestine Liberation Organization is the sole legitimate and legal representative of the Palestinian people and;

G.   Recognizing that the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people is expressed in realizing the State of Palestine whose territory encompasses the land within which Al Masjid Al Aqsa (Al Haram Al Sharif) is situated;

H.   Recalling the terms of the official statement by His Majesty King Hussein Bin Talal, King of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, custodian of the holy sites in Jerusalem, concerning Jordan's qualified disengagement from the West Bank, made on 31 July, 1988; the statement excluded the Jerusalem holy sites;

I.     Recalling the terms of the official statement by the Jordanian Government on its role in Jerusalem, made on 28 July, 1994, reaffirming Jordan's invariable position and historic, exclusive role over the holy sites;

Intending to establish legal obligations and to affirm their recognition of the legal status of the parties set out in this agreement, the parties to this agreement have agreed and declare as follows:

ARTICLE 1:

The "Preamble" to this agreement shall be an integral part of this agreement and is to be read and construed with it as a whole.

ARTICLE 2:

2.1.    His Majesty King 'Abdallah II, as the custodian of the Jerusalem holy sites, exerts all possible efforts to preserve the Jerusalem holy sites, especially Al Haram Al Sharif, which is defined in item (c) in the Preamble to this agreement, and to represent their interests so as to:

A.   Assert the respect for the Jerusalem holy sites;

B.   affirm that all Muslims, now and forever, may travel to and from the Islamic holy sites and worship there, in conformance with freedom of worship;

C.   To administer the Islamic holy sites and to maintain them so as to (i) respect and preserve their religious status and significance; (ii) reaffirm the proper identity and sacred character of the holy sites; and (iii) respect and preserve their historical, cultural and artistic significance and their physical fabric;

D.   To represent the interests of the holy sites in relevant international forums and competent international organizations through feasible legal means;

E.    To oversee and manage the institution of Waqf in Jerusalem and its properties in accordance with the laws of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

2.2.    The King of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the custodian of the holy sites in Jerusalem, will continue to endeavor to procure that the duties referred to in Article 2.1. here be fulfilled.

2.3.    The Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian National Authority recognize the role of the King of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan set out in paragraphs (1) and (2) of this Article 2 and undertake to respect it.

ARTICLE 3:

3.1.    The Government of the State of Palestine, as the expression of the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people, shall have the right to exercise sovereignty over all parts of its territory, including Jerusalem.

3.2.    The King of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the Palestinian President will consult and coordinate with each other concerning the holy sites when necessary.

Done at the Royal Palace in Amman on Sunday, March 31, 2013 on Jumada I 19, 1434 Hijri.

* C. Jacob is a research fellow at MEMRI.


Endnotes:

[1] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), May 9, 2013. It is noteworthy that PA and PLO officials were circumspect about the agreement. For this reason, the harsh reaction of the former PA General Intelligence head, Tawfiq Al-Tirawi, is striking. He severely criticized the agreement: "We have sold out Jerusalem." Amad.ps (Palestine), May 29, 2013

[2] Jordantimes.com (Jordan), March 31, 2013.

[3] Elaph.com , June 23, 2013; alquds-online.org , June 22, 2013.

[4] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (Palestine), April 3, 2013.

[5] Ammonnews.net, April 7, 2013.

[6] Al-Bayader Al-Siyassi (Jerusalem), April 27, 2013.

[7] Al-Raya (Qatar), March 12, 2013.

[8] Panet.co.il, September 21, 2012.

[9] Paldf.net, June 4, 2013.

[10] Alrai.com, April 3, 2013.

[11] Al-Bayader Al-Siyassi (Jerusalem), April 27, 2013.

[12] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), April 2, 2013.

[13] Al-Ghad (Jordan), April 2, 2013.

[14] Middle-east-online.com, April 9, 2013

[15] Felesteen.ps, April 2, 2013.

[16] Jordantimes.com (Jordan), March 31, 2013.

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