Al Aqsa – what’s all the fuss about?

By EA Kate, Jerusalem.

The Haram Al Sharif/Temple Mount 37 acre compound is in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem. The compound contains the Al-Qibali Mosque, the Dome of the Rock shrine and the Al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam where thousands of Muslims worship every day. There are also three schools – a kindergarten, and Al-Aqsa boys and girls schools with over 500 enrolled pupils.

30.09.15 Dome of the Rock.Photo EAPPI K.Cargin

A view of the Haram Al Sharif with the golden Dome of the Rock [Photo: EAPPI/K.Cargin]

The Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall) is one of the retaining walls of this compound. Jews consider it the remaining foundation wall of the Second Temple compound which was destroyed by the Roman Empire in 70 CE, so they call it the Temple Mount. It is their most important and significant holy site with large numbers of Jews worshipping at the wall daily.

25.11.2015 Western Wall Plaza with Dome of the Rock above. Photo EAPPI K.Cargin

The Western Wall Plaza with the Dome of the Rock above [Photo: EAPPI/K.Cargin]

Since the Crusades, the Muslim community of Jerusalem has managed the Haram Al Sharif without interruption and legally through a body called a Waqf which operates like a trust. It remained in place before and throughout the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate and Jordanian rule in the middle of the 20th century. After the 1967 War, when Israel occupied the West Bank, of which the Old City of Jerusalem is part, Defence Minister Moshe Dayan left the Waqf in control, with Jewish and Muslim worshippers separated on the site, to avoid what he feared could be a major conflagration with the Arab and Islamic world. This division of Muslim and Jewish worshippers is called the ‘status quo’ and this, and the Waqf, continue to be overseen by Jordan. Interference with this status quo is hugely provocative. Both the first and second intifadas and the current violence started with incursions into the Haram Al Sharif/Temple Mount compound by Jewish worshippers.

Haram Al Sharif is hugely significant for Palestinian Muslims. Where people have lost rights to land and self-determination it is for many a symbol of Palestine itself. For Muslims, it is the one place in Jerusalem where they are not under the eye of occupying forces. A man said to one of my team, “Now they are trying to take the Al Aqsa from us, so we will have nothing.” Another man said to me, “In Israel, we are looked down on as Arabs. We don’t belong. In the Al Aqsa compound we are free to be Muslims”. Another man, born and brought up in the Old City, said that the compound represented his childhood, with weekly family picnics. There is very little free space in the Old City.

28.9.15 Al Aqsa mosque  Photo EAPPI H.Griffiths

The Al Aqsa mosque [Photo: EAPPI/H.Griffiths]

Although the compound is controlled by the Waqf, its eight gates are controlled by armed Israeli authorities. Daily gate monitoring by EAs of access for Muslims in the last few months indicate there have been many and various restrictions and sometimes complete closure, all of which have caused problems.

Muslims see an Israeli Jewish viewpoint to demolish the Dome of the Rock and the mosques in order to rebuild the Third Jewish Temple becoming alarmingly mainstream, even among views within or close to the present government. In July 2010, the government-owned Knesset media channel ran a public opinion poll which showed that 49% of Israelis want the Temple to be rebuilt. In July 2014, the Third Temple Institute which aims to see Israel rebuild the Third Temple on the Temple Mount published a video depicting this. Muslims fear that incursions of extremist Jews combined with archaeological tunnelling under the compound is a covert way of achieving that goal.

10.12.15 Settlers coming into Al Aqsa Betancourt..JPG

Settlers coming into the Al Aqsa compound [EAPPI/Betancourt]

A Palestinian shopkeeper told me of a more immediate fear, that the Al Aqsa compound will be divided and there will be certain times for Jews and other times for Muslims. The Ibrahami Mosque in Hebron sets a precedent for this with treatment for worshippers going to pray differing for each community: Muslims are scanned for metal but Jews openly carry guns through. In such circumstances, Muslims do not feel safe.

Middle East Monitor reports evidence of increasing attempts by Jewish extremists to change the status quo.  During the Jewish festivals when Israeli forces entered the compound to secure it for groups of Jewish visitors (sometimes including extremists) they cleared it of Muslim worshippers. During clashes Israeli soldiers fired sound grenades, rubber bullets and pepper gas resulting in damage to the Al-Qibali mosque.

Some Jewish Israelis I met have pointed out to me that this site is also sacred to Jews. No one would deny this, but the status quo was drawn up to be as fair as possible to give each community a place to worship and to keep the peace. In a future time, when the occupation is ended, the state of Palestine is recognised and Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Muslims have equality and justice, sharing the site might be a possibility. But in the present climate, there is very little hope that this could be done peacefully.