Sad times at Al-Aqsa

By EA Sandra, Jerusalem

In May I wrote of the increasing number of attempts by Orthodox Jewish men to enter the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. This indeed is a continuing campaign.

On July 21, the Ma’an News Agency reported the headline: “Right-wing Jews tour Al-Aqsa, Israeli police detain Palestinian”.

On July 24 they reported that:

“Right-wing Jewish organizations have presented an appeal to the Israeli PM signed by 1000 Israelis demanding to open the Al-Aqsa Mosque for Jews via the Moroccan Gate starting Sunday July 26 until the end of the week.

“The organizations demanded that Al-Aqsa be entirely closed to Muslims starting Saturday evening and all day Sunday.

“They also requested the holy site to be closed to Muslims during proposed Israeli visitation hours from 7:30 to 11:30 a.m. from Monday to Thursday next week.

“The organizations also demanded that Jews entering the mosque’s compound on Sunday would be allowed to pray freely inside, and that groups entering the compound from Monday to Thursday would be allowed to enter the Qabali and Marwani mosques inside of the Al-Aqsa compound. 

“The third holiest site in Islam, the compound is also venerated as Judaism’s most holy place as it sits where Jews believe the First and Second Temples once stood.

“Since 1967 Israel has maintained an agreement with the Islamic trust that controls the Al-Aqsa compound not to allow non-Muslim prayer in the area, while Jewish prayer is allowed at the neighboring Western Wall.

“However, armed Israeli forces regularly escort Jewish visitors to the mosque compound, leading to anger among Muslim worshipers, often resulting and clashes and detentions.”

On Saturday July 25, on our routine morning walk round the Old City, we witnessed a group of Orthodox Jewish men praying outside one of the gates of the Mosque compound. Our contact there told us the group had tried to gain access but had been stopped by the police.

Praying at Lion Gate [Photo: EAPPI/S.Horne]

Orthodox Jewish men praying at the Old City’s Lion Gate [Photo: EAPPI/S.Horne]

As we continued our walk we met other groups approaching different gates. All were denied access by the police.

However on Sunday July 27, things became more complicated.

At 7.40am we received a UN alert that there were clashes in the Mosque compound between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians.

One of our key monitoring tasks relates to access to worship, so we set off to check the situation.

We established that all gates to the Mosque compound had been closed to Muslims for ‘security reasons’, as this was the Jewish day of Tisha B’Av. The Jewish information site My Jewish Learning explains the day as this: “First and foremost Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of both the first and second temples in Jerusalem (586 B.C.E, and 70 C.E respectively)”. The commemoration also involves fasting.

It is not difficult to understand that the Palestinian Muslims were not pleased with this decision. At one gate we met a group of predominantly women and children. They, and a TV crew interviewing them, were being watched by the army and police.

Photo: EAPPI/S.Horne

Photo: EAPPI/S.Horne

Photo: EAPPI/S.Horne

Photo: EAPPI/S.Horne

By this time, we had been informed that there had indeed been clashes in the Mosque compound. We were told by local people that if it was suspected that the compound was to be closed, then people would sleep there overnight so they could remain to pray – and, in their terms, protect the Mosque from Jewish incursions.

You can read the Israeli newspaper Haaretz’s report of the events within the compound here.

We proceeded to the tourist gate to see what was happening there, as it is common for groups of Orthodox Jewish men wishing to pray, to enter as “tourists”. There were a lot of perplexed tourists trying to maintain an ordinary queue, and a lot of Jewish men seeking to head up the queue.

Copies of the Torah being passed over the barriers [Credit: EAPPI/S.Horne]

Copies of the Torah being passed over the barriers into the Mosque compound [Credit: EAPPI/S.Horne]

The start of the queue [Credit: EAPPI/S.Horne]

The start of the tourist queue [Credit: EAPPI/S.Horne]

We were approached by a young Israeli who told us firmly that what was happening here was “apartheid”. He told us, “Muslims can pray here every day. We are peace loving Jews who want to pray in our Holy Place. Look at us having to queue. We have more right to this place than the Muslims. This is apartheid. We are the chosen ones”.

The young man seeks us out [Credit: EAPPI/S.Horne]

The young man seeks us out [Credit: EAPPI/S.Horne]

In a hot, hot Jerusalem this is an issue which is not going to go away.

In further bad news for Palestinians, we have been advised by the UN Access Coordination Unit (ACU) that “the Israeli government’s Coordination and Liaison Administration to the Gaza Strip has informed us that due to a decision by the Israeli Minister of Defense, no East Jerusalem or Israeli ID holders will be allowed to enter Gaza until further notice. This includes those with valid permits.  East Jerusalem or Israeli ID holders currently in Gaza will be allowed to exit Gaza. 

The ACU is deeply concerned with this major restriction on the movement of a significant number of humanitarian and development actors into Gaza and will push to reverse this decision.  We will write again with further updates on this issue as they are announced”.

Then as you think this is bad, you read a piece on the Rabbis for Human Rights website about a totally different way of commemorating Tisha B’av.

UPDATE: since I wrote this blog, two further articles have been published which might be of interest to you, both from the Ma’an News Agency:

Israelis enter Aqsa as UN warns against ‘religious provocation’ | July 27

Arab League ministers to meet after Aqsa clashes | July 27