The Ongoing Fight For Al-Aqsa

Muslim worshippers pray in front of the Dome of the Rock on the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

A bitter conflict between Palestinians and Israelis

BY Maher Abukhater

JERUSALEM— A group of people clad in traditional Jewish religious attire slowly made its way across Al-Aqsa mosque’s courtyard escorted by armed police forces and tens of anxious Palestinian worshippers’ eyes. Behind calm masks lay anticipation.

In Jerusalem, there’s really no telling when the existing cautious calm might turn into a brutal confrontation.

For nearly six decades, Al-Aqsa compound and its surrounding neighborhoods have been the site of countless deadly clashes.

Israel occasionally blocks or restricts Muslim worshippers’ entry to the holy compound in the morning hours, mainly during Jewish holidays when “visitation” to the compound increases, as Jews and tourists continue to enjoy unrestricted access.

Palestinians under the age of 40 are also banned, for long intervals, from praying inside Al-Aqsa’s compound, and Israeli forces often demand Palestinians to hand over their IDs for check up prior to entering the mosque’s courtyards.

Fighting Over Heaven
Al-Aqsa compound, also known as Al Haram Al Sharif or The Sacred Sanctuary, includes Al-Aqsa Mosque, is home to the iconic seventh century golden Dome of the Rock. The compound, which is over 1,400 years, is one of Islam’s most sacred sites after Mecca. Muslims believe the dome was built atop the same rock from which Prophet Mohammed is believed to have apprehended heaven. The event is celebrated by Muslims worldwide as the night of ‘Isra wal Miraj.’

But the site is also considered Judaism’s most revered site. For Jews, Al-Aqsa is known as “Temple Mount,” where the holiest temple once stood, thousands of years ago.

Outside the compound’s western part lies the Wailing Wall, where Jews gather to hold prayers. Israelis believe the Wailing Wall is the last standing part left of the Second Jewish Temple. The second temple was destroyed in a battle between Jews and Romans, according to Jewish narratives.

Excavating History or Destroying it?
The tense struggles over the physical control and access to Al-Aqsa compound, symbolizes the bitter, simmering conflict between Palestinians and the Israelis.

Jewish tours of Al-Aqsa compound have escalated in recent years since the compound reopened to visitation in 2004. It was shut down to non-Muslims following the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising, or Intifada in 2000.

Palestinians fear that that those Israelis who visit the holy site, which spreads over one-sixth of the ancient old city of Jerusalem, have designs to alter its Islamic character, and occupy or convert it into a site of Jewish worship.

“The Israeli police describe them as visits, but they are far from being visits,” said Mustafa Abu Sway, a professor of Philosophy and Islamic Studies at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. “These are politically motivated tours held under a religious guise.”

“If Israelis merely visit Al-Aqsa as other tourists do, no one will bother them,” said Sufwan Amr, 21, a resident of Silwan, a Palestinian village bordering the mosque. “But they don’t and that worries us and keeps us on guard all the time.” Calls by prominent Israeli rabbis, such as David Yosef, against entering Al-Aqsa compound, usually fall on deaf ears. Radicals insist on their right to access the compound and even build a third temple in the place of Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Excavations near Al-Aqsa compound, the Old City and neighboring areas began long before the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem in 1967, but have intensified ever since, according to Jamal Amro, professor of archaeology at Birzeit University in the West Bank.

Accusing Israel of committing a “massacre to the terrain” near the excavations, Amro explained that the Israelis use heavy machinery and chemicals in their excavations, which “is destroying and distorting the entire area.”

Israel’s continued excavations contradicts UN General Assembly Resolution 194 of December 1948 banning any interference with Palestine’s holy sites.

Despite four decades of intensive Israeli excavations near and under the compound’s foundations, Israel is yet to claim any significant archeological finding that traces the vicinity’s relics back to the second temple.

In turn, Israeli archaeologists have also accused the Muslim Waqf, which operates as a Jordanian government department and is in charge of the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem including Al-Aqsa Mosque, of carrying out wrongful digs under the mosque.

Defending Al Aqsa
Meanwhile, Palestinian officials repeatedly urge people to be present at Al-Aqsa Mosque to protect it whenever Jewish groups ask their followers to congregate on site.

Amr and hundreds of other Palestinians, who call themselves Murabitoun (the steadfast) at the mosque, have vowed to prevent an Israeli takeover of the compound. They are physically present in Al-Aqsa every day to block any attempt by Jewish groups and Israeli police.

Israeli police routinely raid the compound to subdue the Murabitoun and ban young Muslims from accessing the holy site. According to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Israeli police carried out nearly 500 attacks against Al-Aqsa Mosque since January 2015 to date, including raids on the holy site, beating worshippers and firing stun grenades at them.

But despite the tension, professor Abu Sway believes that a Jewish takeover of the Al-Aqsa Mosque won’t be possible because the Palestinian reaction would be “more than what the occupation forces can handle.”

When the late Israeli opposition leader at the time, Ariel Sharon, visited Al-Aqsa in September 2000, flanked by hundreds of Israeli riot police, he sparked a Second Intifada that lasted for five years leaving thousands of casualties from both sides.

The threat of violence erupting, in addition to world governments standing against such an act, deter Israel from allowing the takeover of Al-Aqsa, according to Abu Sway. Waqf officials allege there is an Israeli scheme to divide Al-Aqsa between Muslims and Jews, similar to Israel’s acts against the Ibrahimi Mosque in the West Bank City of Hebron.

Sheikh Azzam Khatib, director of the Waqf, explained that by closing the compound to Muslims during morning hours and banning many worshippers, including women, from entering it for months at a time, while allowing Jews to freely venture in, “Israel is actually dividing the mosque with time.”

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