The battle for Al-Aqsa: 'This is not about prayer'

2015-07-27 17:32
Palestinians hold a banner during a protest against blasphemy following the Friday prayers at al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's old city. (Ahmad Gharabli, AFP)

Palestinians hold a banner during a protest against blasphemy following the Friday prayers at al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's old city. (Ahmad Gharabli, AFP)

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Jerusalem - On Monday, chunks of rock still peppered the entrance to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third holiest site. Volunteers worked to remove shards of glass and metal, but parts of the crimson and gold carpet were charred by stun grenades hurled into the holy site by Israeli forces, who also fired rubber-coated metal bullets at Muslim worshippers.

Clashes broke out on Sunday when soldiers cleared the way for Israelis, including a cabinet minister, to visit the Al-Aqsa compound on Tisha B'Av, a Jewish holiday marking the destruction of two Biblical temples.

This has become a reoccurring scene, with ominous implications, which has ignited Palestinian fears of an Israeli takeover of the holy esplanade. Jews call the esplanade the Temple Mount and consider it their holiest site, and Muslims refer to it as the Noble Sanctuary or al-Haram al-Sharif.

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Approximately 30 Palestinians were injured and treated - most for tear gas inhalation, others for injuries sustained from beatings - according to the Islamic Waqf authorities, which administer the affairs of Al-Aqsa Mosque and other religious sites.

At least three others were reportedly detained. In a statement, Israeli police said they stormed the compound because Palestinian protesters hurled stones at them. 

"Masked Palestinians inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque threw rocks at police officers at the Mughrabi [Moroccan] Gate," said Israeli police spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld, adding that a number of police were wounded. "Our police units entered inside the Temple Mount area to deal with the disturbances and quickly took control of the situation."

For years, religious figures and politicians have been warning that any Israeli move to change Muslims' exclusive control of the site would add an explosive religious angle to the political conflict, with Jerusalem at its core.

"The Al-Aqsa Mosque compound is a very sensitive area. You can say it's the most volatile in the world," said Abdel Azim Salhab, chair of the Islamic Waqf Council in Jerusalem. "[Al-Aqsa] is the centre of the conflict in Jerusalem and in Palestine. Tensions here will have implications globally."

Non-Muslim prayer has been banned at the compound for centuries, and attempts by Jews to pray there were few and far between. In the aftermath of the Six-Day War, a status quo evolved wherein Jews were sometimes allowed to enter the compound under the protection of Israeli forces - through the Mughrabi Gate - but not to pray there.

Alter its character

In recent years, however, there have been more attempts by both right-wing and even secular Jewish groups to enter the compound for worshipping, with the support of Israeli politicians and under the protection of soldiers.

"Unfortunately, since the 1967 war, the Israeli occupation has been trying to impose their own rules and policies on the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound," Salhab said. "They are trying to alter its character."

But the Waqf and others say the real shift began after the second Intifada, following a visit by Ariel Sharon, Israel's opposition leader back then, to the Noble Sanctuary.

Samar Nimer, a Jerusalemite who works on ancient manuscript restoration, said the frequency of clashes has increased since September 2000. At the Al-Aqsa Mosque, she points to a glass display case that contains spent tear gas canisters and bullet casings dating back to that time. "It's the same scene repeating itself,” the 27-year-old said.

"The Palestinian youth barricade themselves inside the mosque and the soldiers shoot tear gas inside. Now, in what's become more frequent on Jewish holidays, Muslims - even Waqf employees - are prevented from entering Al-Aqsa. Meanwhile, the Moroccan Gate is open for settlers and extremists, provoking Muslims' feelings."

Nimer said that over time, the discussion over entry to the compound has shifted to one focusing on freedom of worship - with Israeli groups arguing that Jews, like Muslims, should be allowed to pray there.

"This is not about prayer,” she argued. "We are worried by the entry of extremists who want to demolish our mosque and build their temple. There's been an increase in the number of attempts to do so in recent years."

In 1990, Israeli border police killed 22 Palestinians during a demonstration triggered by an attempt by Jewish extremists to lay the cornerstone for a new temple in the compound. 

Several years earlier, two members of an organisation called the Jewish Underground (who were founding figures in the pro-settlement Gush Emunim movement), were caught trying to bomb the two sites with the hope that the Third Temple would be built on their ruins.

No change

The issue of the compound was recently addressed by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, which suggested that Jews wishing to visit should be permitted to do so without being allowed to pray. "Access for all communities is the best way to ensure access for each," the report states. 

The group reported discussions between Israel and Jordan, which has custodial rights at the compound, over the possibility of allowing non-Muslim visitors. There's been no confirmation on the Jordanian side to this report, and an Israeli official in the Israeli prime minister's office has denied it, according to Israeli daily Haaretz.

"There are no negotiations and no change in the status quo at the Temple Mount," the official said. 

The Crisis Group also recommended that Israel communicate with the Palestinians on issues related to access to the esplanade, especially after it had effectively banned any official Palestinian presence in East Jerusalem in the years following the second Intifada.

One analyst said that excluding Palestinians has only strengthened the stubborn impasse. "As long as there is no political solution that includes and is satisfactory to all, we will continue to see scenes from Al-Aqsa like the ones we saw [on Sunday]," said Esmat Mansour, a West Bank-based expert on Israeli affairs.

Israeli authorities have repeatedly said they do not want the arrangement they have had with Jordan since 1967 to change. But last year, when Yehuda Glick, a right-wing advocate of Jewish prayer at the compound, was shot and critically wounded by a Palestinian man, unrest in Jerusalem heightened sharply.

Glick's weekly attempts to enter the esplanade had regularly sparked dozens of demonstrations by Muslim protesters, but the attempt on his life was followed by an unprecedented closure of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and a security beef-up by Israeli authorities.

This heightened Palestinian fears that changes to the status quo were imminent, with some believing that Israeli authorities would impose a division on prayer times or space, with Jews worshipping at certain hours and places, and Muslims at others.

There is precedent for this apprehension, as Israeli authorities partitioned the Ibrahimi Mosque, or Cave of the Patriarchs, a site holy to both Muslims and Jews located in the Old City of Hebron. After an Israeli settler killed 29 Palestinians during Friday prayers in 1994, the site was effectively divided two years later.

"There have been rumours circulating about this change for a long time,” Nimer said. "God knows what will happen if this turns out to be true."

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