In what has widely been seen as a provocation, more than 1,000 Jewish Israelis marched into the Al-Aqsa compound in East Jerusalem on July 22. Under heavy police protection, they walked the grounds, praying and singing Jewish liturgy, both of which are forbidden in Al-Aqsa.
While the group was inside, armed Israeli forces set up barriers at the doors and confiscated ID cards of all Muslim worshippers who entered. Police quickly arrested a Palestinian boy who held up the Palestinian flag as the Jewish group passed.
The 35-acre Al-Aqsa compound, also known as Al-Haram Al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) contains the sacred Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The Dome of the Rock is built on the site that is thought to be where the Prophet Muhammad was transported during his revelatory Night Journey from Mecca. That site, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque (“The Farthest” Mosque), make up the third holiest place in Islam, after Mecca and Medina.
In Judaism, this area is called the Temple Mount, and is the holiest place on Earth for Jews. Jewish tradition maintains that the Mount is the site of the First and Second Jewish Temples, which were built by Kings Solomon, David, and Herod and destroyed by the Babylonians and the Romans.
The Al-Aqsa compound and its environs are the locus of enormous tension, due to their profound meaning to both Jewish and Muslim tradition and their location in East Jerusalem, considered by Palestinians to be territory illegally occupied by Israel. This tension frequently flares up into bursts of conflict.
Since the 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel took control of East Jerusalem, Israel has policed and regulated entry to the Al-Aqsa compound, while Jordan is its official custodian. Jews are permitted to enter, but all non-Muslim worship is forbidden.
While Jews are subject to certain restrictions, including the prohibition from worshipping, Israel has increasingly facilitated the entry of large groups of Jewish worshippers under armed guard; at the same time, it has placed restrictions on the entry of Palestinians. Israeli groups like the Yaraeh Organization and the Temple Institute organize some of these “marches” and encourage Israelis to enter the compound. Muslim worshippers view these actions as aggressive and threatening manifestations of Israel’s aspirations ultimately to expel Palestinians and Islam from Jerusalem.
In the past ten months, 22,000 Jews have entered Al-Aqsa – the highest number since 1967. By this measure, the 1,000-strong visit on Sunday was simply the latest in a long string of intrusions. The International Middle East Media Center described the groups as consistently “storming” the compound in an “attempt to desecrate its sanctity.” One group of Jewish Israelis entered the compound on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
While Jewish prayer is illegal in the compound, most of the groups have loudly prayed, without penalty. Jerusalem’s Magistrate Court decreed this spring that Jews are legally allowed to shout pro-Israel slogans (including “the people of Israel live” and “Jerusalem is the capital of Israel”) in the Al-Aqsa compound. Muslim worshippers, scholars, and Al-Aqsa guards have attempted to obstruct the movement of the Jewish worshippers and have shouted in opposition. While accompanying one group of Jewish Israelis in June, Israeli police arrested Al-Asqa’s head of security, Abdullah Abu Taleb, and searched the grounds.
The influx of Jewish Israeli worshipers to the Al-Aqsa compound has been concurrent with an increasing militarization of Israel’s regulation of the compound and occupied East Jerusalem.
Major protests erupted in East Jerusalem in July 2017, almost exactly one year ago. Israel had installed metal detectors and surveillance cameras at the Al-Aqsa gates after three Arab Israeli citizens killed two Israeli police officers outside of the compound. Both officers were of the Druze ethno-religious minority. This attack was one of several against Israeli police and civilians in retaliation for Israel’s continued encroachment into the Al-Aqsa compound.
Palestinians and other Muslim worshippers saw the imposition of security checkpoints as a clear attempt by Israel to take full control of Al-Aqsa and obstruct Palestinian access. For one day, Israel barred all men under the age of fifty entirely from entering the mosque.
Protests, including peaceful sit-ins outside the compound, persisted for two weeks, leaving at least ten Palestinians dead and 1,300 injured. Eventually, Israel capitulated, removing the barriers and re-opening Al-Aqsa to worshippers. Thousands entered the compound that day for prayers. During the protests and in the weeks that followed, Israel arrested hundreds of Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Some protesting Palestinians were banned from entering Jerusalem.
In the wake of the 2017 protests, Zahra Qaws, an African-Palestinian nurse living in Jerusalem’s Old City, told Al Jazeera, “Al-Aqsa is like our own home . . . .Separating us from Al-Aqsa is like stripping us of our lungs.”
Israeli encroachment upon the Al-Aqsa compound has been creeping in steadily. On July 3, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sidestepped a previous restriction and allowed members of the Israeli parliament (the Knesset) to visit the Al-Aqsa compound once every three months. Since a 2015 agreement between Jordan and Israel, Members of the Knesset (MKs) had been banned from entry entirely. MK Uri Ariel called the restriction “draconian.” Following the decision, Ariel and other right-wing MKs Yehuda Glick and Shuli Moalem-Refaeli made public shows of entering the compound.
Jordan’s Islamic Waqf trust, which stewards Al-Aqsa, condemned the incursion as a violation on the site’s “sanctity” and of Israel’s “obligations as an occupying power,” imploring international powers to intervene. Palestinian spokesperson Yousef al-Mahmoud called the decision a “blatant and serious provocation” that “encourage[ed] harm” to Al-Aqsa, according to the Wafa news agency. Yahya Moussa, a Hamas leader, urged local Palestinians to occupy the compound en masse to deter further incursions. Many critics characterized the move as a yet another attempt by Israel to erase Palestine from Jerusalem.Last week, Jordan persuaded Israel to prevent MK Uri Ariel from violating the new rule by visiting the compound for the second time this month.
Some observers called Netanyahu’s decision a distraction from the several accusations of corruption that he is facing. This move adds to his promotion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and encroachment into East Jerusalem as attempts to garner more approval from right-wing Israeli voters.
The 1,000-plus march of Jewish Israelis into Al-Aqsa on Sunday, July 22, was notable in that it marked the Jewish holiday Tisha B’av. The holiday commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Jewish Temples, on whose remains Al-Aqsa was built. Tradition holds that a third and final temple will be built on the site.
Far-right MK Yehuda Glick, an adamant advocate for Jewish Israeli access to Al-Aqsa, praised the march, calling it a part of “the realization of the prophecy.” The Temple Institute, which helped organize the march, promoted the event by saying, “We pray and intensively work so that our next march will culminate at the Third Holy Temple on the Holy Temple Mount when the enemies of the G-d and people of Israel will be removed from the Holy Hill of the G-d of Israel forever!”
This statement gives context to what political advisor Harry Hagopian has described as Israel’s pursuit of its “political aims of encroaching on Palestinian lands through religious prisms.” Israel, he wrote, attempts to “appropriate the lands on the basis of a political ideology and then claim that they are being taken for religious purposes.” While Al-Aqsa could theoretically be a shared religious space, the most conservative – and increasingly powerful – sectors of the Israeli government predicate their interests in Al-Aqsa on its destruction and replacement by a Third Jewish Temple.
The U.S. Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, caught flak when he was photographed next to an image of Jerusalem doctored to remove the Al-Aqsa compound and replace it with the Third Temple. Critics took it as implicit U.S. approval of right-wing Israelis’ vision for the destruction of Al-Aqsa.
Indeed, Israel has been emboldened by wholehearted U.S. support under the Trump Administration along with growing, quiet approval from major Arab powers. Breaking from a long-standing international norm, the U.S. moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem three months ago. Relocating to that city implies the recognition of the whole of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as their capital. Concerned with inflaming a fragile situation, nearly every country declines to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Most Western countries also avoid recognizing Palestine as a country (although Prince William recently slipped up in this regard after his recent visit to Al-Aqsa).
The recent Tisha B’av march into Al-Aqsa came just a few days after Israel’s Knesset passed an inflammatory new law declaring Israel a Jewish nation-state. Effectively a constitutional amendment, the law decrees that “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people,” excluding those of other faiths. Netanyahu said it affirmed “the founding principle of our existence.”
It neglects to mention democracy or equal rights for members of all religions, as ensured by Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Under this new structure, the judicial system will give primacy to Israel’s Jewish character in its rulings. The law demotes Arabic from being an official language, although about 21 percent of Israeli citizens are Arab. It also promotes Jewish settlements (though it does not say where) and discriminatory land distribution.
Further, it predicates future peace agreements on the Palestinian Authority’s recognition of Israel’s essential Jewish character. After the vote, Arab Knesset members (who comprise less than ten percent its body) ripped up and hurled their copies of the bill and protested loudly. MK Ahmad Tibi, called it the “end of democracy” and the “beginning of fascism.”
Although the law was a slightly softer version than that which the right-wing coalition originally proposed, it still was a win for Netanyahu’s exceedingly conservative government. While its declarations are largely symbolic, that symbolism matters. It can be a justification for giving greater rights and privileges to Israel’s Jewish citizens while excluding and discriminating against citizens of other faiths, namely Muslim and Christian Palestinians.
The Al-Aqsa compound has become a symbolic battleground for this increasingly institutionalized exclusion of Palestinian and Muslim identity from Israel. The night before the Tisha B’av march, hundreds of Israeli settlers rallied in Jerusalem’s old city, at the gates of Al-Aqsa, praying and aggressively shouting anti-Muslim chants. If they continue unchecked, these provocations could bring the already simmering tension to a rapid boil.