Israeli police prevent Palestinians under 50 from entering the Old City of Jerusalem to pray at the al-Aqsa mosque. Photo by Julie C.
On 28 September 2000, 13 years ago, former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon entered the al-Aqsa compound in an act of provocation, sparking the Second Intifada. Recently, more and more Israelis have been entering the Temple Mount again, causing “the worst tension in memory” around the mosque, according to Palestinian leaders who have urged all Muslims to defend the site.
The New York Times reported that Israeli religious lawmakers and cabinet members have been questioning the limited entrance to the al-Aqsa compound for non-Muslims and the fact that Jews are prohibited from performing any religious rituals there. On Monday, 16 September, the Knesset passed a law allowing “Jews to worship on the Temple Mount” and voted in favor of a proposition to let them use the site throughout the Jewish Sukkot holiday, an unprecedented move.
Yet much more is at stake than the simple right to visit the mosque. According to WAFA, the Palestinian News Agency, Israeli fanatics are trying to create a daily Israeli presence in order to eventually take full control over the site. Jews believe that some 2,000 years ago the First and Second Temple were located where the al-Aqsa compound sits today. Many Palestinians fear that Israel’s ultimate goal is to destroy the Dome of the Rock and build a Third Jewish temple on its remains. Al-Aqsa is the third most sacred Muslim site in the world, as Muhammad is believed to have ascended to heaven from there.
Provocative Israeli tours of the al-Aqsa compound have been steadily increasing. Before, the site was mainly visited by Jewish individuals, yet in the recent past, more and more organized political and religious groups have been visiting under heavy police protection. Many tours are led by rabbis who stress the importance of the site for Judaism and teach their groups about the Jewish temples.
Muath Khatib, from the Centre of Jerusalem Studies, argues that “Israel wants to create a situation similar to that of the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, which means Israeli control over the mosque and splitting the site in two.”
During the Jewish Sukkot holiday last week, heavy Israeli activity was reported around the al-Aqsa Mosque. On Sunday, 22 September, over 300 Israeli rightists entered the al-Aqsa compound, followed by another group of 100 the following day, according to Ma’an News Agency. They entered al-Aqsa under police protection to perform religious rituals. In total, more than 700 ultra-Orthodox Jews have entered the compound in the last week, which according to Palestinian officials is the largest number since the 1980 Israeli annexation of Jerusalem.
Resistance & Clashes
These provocative tours have been sparking many clashes between Palestinian protesters and the police. Palestinian protests and stones are met with arrests, rubber-coated bullets and tear gas canisters, wounding many protesters. “Two Fridays ago, I noticed that the Israeli soldiers were using a new weapon, which shoots bullets with little metal balls inside, making them very dangerous. My friend took a bullet in his upper leg and couldn’t walk anymore,” Muath relates.
Press TV reported that on Tuesday, 24 September, hundreds of protesters demonstrated outside al-Aqsa against Israeli police brutality. Police responded with tear gas and wounded about 40 people with rubber-coated steel bullets and stun grenade shrapnel, according to medics. The next day, Israeli forces raided al-Aqsa Mosque, injuring seven Palestinian worshippers.
After the Friday prayer this week, more clashes broke out between Palestinian protesters and the Israeli police. At least 11 protesters were arrested according to Mufid al-Haj, a lawyer for the Palestinian Prisoners Society. Haaretz reported that they were arrested on “suspicion of stone-throwing and clashing with Israeli police forces.”
Muath calls 2013 the year of awakening for Palestine, and for Jerusalem especially. “Because the occupation is speeding up its actions in Jerusalem, everyone in the city is aware of what is going on. The Jerusalemite youth is starting to mobilize and organize the resistance like never before.”
Israeli authorities have stepped up restrictions on the entry of Palestinian worshippers to al-Aqsa Mosque. Last Friday, Israeli police and military only allowed men over the age of 50 and holding Jerusalem identity cards to enter for prayers. The Israeli police justified the move by stating that they have “intelligence” that suggests there are plans for a riot within the mosque.
“More and more Jerusalemites are being prohibited from going to al-Aqsa to pray and local journalists are being forbidden to enter with their camera’s. They even banned three or four al-Aqsa guards from entering the mosque for a couple of months,” Muath recounts. “How can we fight this? The only courts we can go to are Israeli.”
A new Jerusalem in the making?
Muath explains that Israel has also started to dig underneath the al-Aqsa mosque to rebuild Old Jerusalem, irreparably damaging five Palestinian houses. “The chemical products they are using underground are also burning up the tree roots. Four big trees inside the al-Aqsa compound have fallen down so far and a number of cisterns and wells have dried up.”
Yet, the al-Aqsa site is not the only site in Jerusalem to increasingly be contested. A recent report by the Euro-Mid Observer for Human Rights reveals that one-third of Palestinian homes in Jerusalem are threatened with demolition, supposedly because they were built without a construction permit. According to the human rights group this is all part of Israel’s “demographic war against Palestinians in the Holy City.” In the meantime, settlement activity in East-Jerusalem is on the rise. At the end of August, the financial committee of the Israeli-controlled Jerusalem municipality approved financial support for yet another 1,500 new houses.
More and more Palestinian shops near the Wailing Wall are also being closed. “Israel has started demanding shops to pay for a certain tax they supposedly haven’t been paying for the past 13 years. When the owners can’t come up with this huge sum of money, they shut the place down and give it to Israelis,” Muath says. “Their eventual goals is full control of the old city and a new Jerusalem for Israelis. The Jerusalemites are trying to protect al-Aqsa, but cannot do it alone. Other Arab countries, especially Jordan, the protector of al-Aqsa Mosque, need to step in and support the resistance.”