Something sinister is brewing around and below Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem – it has all the hallmarks of a familiar Israeli campaign to strip the mosque of its Muslim-Arab identity. This time around, however, the stakes are much higher.
The status of al-Aqsa is unparalleled within the context of Muslim heritage in Palestine. It is also the third holiest Muslim shrine anywhere. Equally as important, it is a symbol of faith, resistance and defiance. Its story of struggle and perseverance goes hand in hand with the modern Palestinian struggle for rights, freedom and identity.
In a statement released on March 7, the Palestinian Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs said Israeli forces carried out 30 attacks against Al-Aqsa Mosque and other holy sites during the month of February alone. Most of the attacks targeted Al-Aqsa itself. While the recurring violations at Al-Aqsa were led by Jewish settlers, according to the statement, they have done so under the watchful eye, protection and support of the Israeli police and army.
The most alarming aspect of these attacks is their political context, which indicates that a great degree of coordination is underway between politicians, security forces and Jewish settlers.
In anticipation of a Palestinian backlash, on March 4 an Israeli court sentenced Islamic leader Sheikh Rade Saleh to eight months in prison for “incitement”. The Sheikh is the most outspoken Palestinian leader regarding the danger facing Al-Aqsa. Why silence Sheik Saleh now when the attacks against al-Aqsa are at an all time high?
On February 25, 1994, US-born Jewish extremist Baruch Goldstein stormed into the Ibrahimi Mosque in the Palestinian city of al-Khalil (Hebron) and opened fire. The aim was to kill as many Arabs as he could.
At that moment, nearly 800 Muslim worshipers were kneeling down during the dawn prayer in the holiest month of the Muslim Calendar; Ramadan. He killed up to 30 people and wounded over 120. Exactly 20 years later, the Israeli army stormed al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest Muslim site, and opened fire. The timing seems no accident.
Like the rest of the West Bank, Al-Khalil has to face both armed Jewish settlers and Israeli occupation soldiers. The latter are enforcing the military occupation, while providing further protection to the settlers. The settlers, extremists from the illegal settlement of Kiryat Arba, often attack Palestinian residents of the town with complete impunity.
This symbiotic relationship between the army and settlers, which dates back to the early days of the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, continues.
While Israeli bulldozers dig into Palestinian land during the day, leveling mounds of ground and destroying olive groves for settlement expansion, heavy machinery burrows beneath the Old City of al-Quds, Jerusalem, at night. The Israelis are looking for evidence of what they believe to be ancient Jewish temples, presumably destroyed in 586BC and AD70.
To fulfill a “prophecy”, Jewish extremists believe that a third temple must be built. But of course, there is the inconvenient fact that one of Islam’s holiest sites is on that particular spot: The Noble Sanctuary, or al-Haram al-Sharif. It has been an exclusively Muslim prayer site for the last 1,300 years.
The Noble Sanctuary, located in Jerusalem’s Old City, is the home of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. The site has been under constant threat, attacks, acts of arson and military violence for nearly five decades. The Muslim clergy belonging to the Islamic Trust which manages the area, along with the custodianship of Jordan are mindful of the ever-lurking threat.
It was no surprise that late Israeli leader Ariel Sharon chose that exact place to carry out a “tour” of the al-Aqsa compound in 2000. Many unarmed Palestinians, mostly worshipers, died on that day. Thousands more were lost in the following months and years as the entirety of the occupied territories and Palestinian towns inside Israel exploded with unprecedented fury.
That same dangerous combination – right-wing politicians allied with religious zealots – is at work once more. They are eyeing Al-Aqsa for annexation, the same way the Israeli government is laboring to permanently annex large swathes of the occupied West Bank, to preclude any future settlement with the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas.
The Israeli Knesset (parliament) chose the 20th anniversary of the Goldstein massacre of Palestinians in al-Khalil to begin a debate concerning the status of the Al-Aqsa compound. Right-wingers – which constitute the bulk in the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – want the Israeli government to enforce its “sovereignty” over the Muslim site, which is administered by Jordan per the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty of 1994. Israeli parliamentarian Moshe Feiglin, is the man behind the move, but he is not alone. Feiglin is a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, and has strong backing within the party, the government and the Knesset.
A major backer of Feiglin’s initiative is Miri Regev, also a far-right Likud member. Regev is demanding that the government establish separate prayer times for both Jews and Muslims in Al-Aqsa Compound. The model she wishes to duplicate is no other than that of the Ibrahimi Mosque. “We will reach a situation where the Temple Mount will be like the Cave of the Patriarchs, days for Jews and days for Muslims,” she said.
Of course, Regev omitted the fact that 20 years ago to the day, a Jewish extremist and Israeli troops killed and wounded hundreds of Palestinians kneeling for prayer.
On the next day following the Israeli government debate, a thundering sound was heard around 3am in the Wadi Hilweh neighborhood of Silwan, located south of the Old City of Jerusalem. Residents heard the “sounds of heavy duty machines digging under their houses throughout the night”, Ma’an reported. Then, a large wall suddenly collapsed, while a few houses sustained damage. The Israeli underground network of tunnels is growing, as some of these tunnels connect Wadi Hilweh to the Western Wall to Al-Aqsa.
While the danger of Al-Aqsa Mosque collapsing is very real, the situation is also an apt representation of the mentality that rules Israel: one of annexation and military occupation, with no regard whatsoever for Palestine’s holiest site.
Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. He is a PhD scholar at Exeter University, UK. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London)