Itxaso Domínguez de Olazábal
Last updated: 3 November, 2014

“Palestinian worries about Israeli intentions towards the site are not without foundation”

Should Jews be allowed free access to pray at Haram al-Sharif, also known as the Noble Sanctuary or Temple Mount, one of Islam’s holiest sites? The al-Aqsa Mosque, the third most sacred site in Islam, adjoins the Western Wall in Jerusalem and stands on what Jews insist are the first and second temples. Haram al-Sharif has been an exclusively Islamic shrine since the Arab conquest of Palestine, but the al-Aqsa Mosque was built upon the Temple Mount, itself one of Judaism’s most sacred sites.

THE WESTERN WALL, the only remnant of the Jewish temple destroyed by Herod, is under direct Israeli control, and Jewish prayer has never stopped being allowed there. Even Christians revere the site they consider the place where Jesus walked and reasoned with the rabbis. The compound has been under factual if not legal Israeli sovereignty since Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1980, and is the holiest site in Judaism. That’s not the case of Haram al-Sharif, which is administered by an Islamic trust under Jordanian authority by virtue of an implicit understanding. The centuries-old religious site is however held dear by both groups of believers and has for years been both a place of worship and a place of confrontation.

“al-Aqsa Mosque was built upon the Temple Mount, itself one of Judaism’s most sacred sites”

For years, the status quo has been respected by both sides, barring certain extremists (particularly from the Israeli extreme right). The apparent calm seems to be facing a new turn of events, for a draft Israeli law granting Jews the right to pray at the al-Aqsa Mosque esplanade (the text would designate “time and space” for Jews wishing to pray there) is allegedly being voted next month in the Knesset. For Sheikh Muhammed Hussein, head of the Supreme Muslim Council managing the site, “this issue transcends politics. It is greater than politics.” Some Muslim religious leaders even dare to dispute the site’s importance to Judaism: according to Ikrema Sabri, an imam at the al-Aqsa Mosque, “we as Muslims cannot succumb to Jewish myths and whims.”

This move could be considered by many as a blunt provocation against Palestinians, for whom any Israeli presence nearby the holy site is regarded as an affront. One of the facts that triggered the Second Intifada was when former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (then leader of the opposition) insisted on walking on the site without even pretending to pray. The stated purpose for Sharon’s visit of the compound was indeed to assert the right of all Israelis to visit Temple Mount. The Palestinians condemned Sharon’s visit to the site and, shortly after he left, angry demonstrations by Palestinian Jerusalemites erupted into riots. The uprising led to the breakdown of peace negotiations and the reoccupation by Israel of territory under the control of the Palestinian Authority. The current outbreak of violence in Jerusalem is in response to the killing of a suspect in the attempted assassination of a far-right religious activist who campaigned for Jews to be allowed to pray at the al-Aqsa compound.

SINCE THE ISRAELI army occupied Jerusalem in 1967, the site has borne witness to several provocative events. In 1969, an Australian Christian-Zionist named Denis Michael Rohan torched the mosque’s pulpit. In 1982, Alan Goodman, a Jewish American-Israeli soldier, fired an automatic rifle at Muslim worshippers in the Dome of the Rock, killing two and wounding 11. Last week, Israeli troops forcibly entered the al-Aqsa compound and deployed heavily around the entrances, preventing Palestinian worshipers from accessing the area. Meanwhile a group of ultra-orthodox Jews were allowed entry to the area. The Chief Rabbinate in Israel, by virtue of halacha or Jewish religious law, strictly prohibited Jews from praying or even walking in the area years ago, for fear they would profane the “Holy of Holies” – the inner sanctum of the Second Temple, whose location is unknown. Religious Jews are instead supposed to venerate the site but not to visit it or seek to possess it in any way.

“The Israeli Supreme Court has refused to rule”

The Israeli Supreme Court has refused to rule, insisting that the corresponding permission should be granted by a security authority. In fact, many security forces actually believe that changing the status quo now would spark massive religious and political unrest. An unrest that has been running deep for Palestinians throughout the years, who are astonished at the ease with which Jews can access sites in and around Jerusalem, while the city is off limits to the vast majority of Palestinians. In fact, only a small proportion of Palestinians can reach the mosque. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza cannot get past Israel’s separation wall, and the 1.5 million Palestinians in Israel and Jerusalem are finding it harder to pray there, and nowadays male worshipers under the age of 50 are banned from accessing the site.

PALESTINIAN WORRIES about Israeli intentions towards the site are not without foundation, as they have been reflected on the ground in the country’s efforts to reshape the very geography of the city. It began with the razing of a Muslim neighbourhood next to the Western Wall, replaced by a prayer plaza. Next came the building of Jewish settlements separating East Jerusalem from the West Bank. Jewish settlers have also been confiscating and buying Palestinian homes in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter. Many Palestinians are afraid that the history repeats itself pointing to the division of the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron, which is now divided into two parts and is visited by believers in a time-sharing system. Mahmoud Abbas declared that Israel’s closure of Al-Aqsa mosque constituted an “act of war.”

Will this move indeed spark a third Intifada?