For a few dangerous days last month, it appeared that the Palestinians’ anger at Israel’s attempts to assert its control over the Haram al-Sharif compound in East Jerusalem might lead to the eruption of a third intifada, as Ariel Sharon’s invasion of the compound provided the spark for the second intifada in September 2000. The latest controversy began on February 6, when Israeli bulldozers moved to the Moroccan corner of Jerusalem’s old city, and began to demolish a ramp leading to the Meghrabi gate of the al-Aqsa sanctuary and two rooms that Palestinians consider part of the sanctuary.
Palestinian concern was so great that Palestinian prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, in the midst of complex political negotiations with president Mahmoud Abbas about power-sharing, issued a statement saying that he suspected Israel of trying to harm the Haram directly. Several days of protests and demonstrations followed in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the occupied territories, and clashes with Israeli occupation forces and police led to the Palestinians suffering hundreds of injuries and over 110 arrests, usually following terrifying night raids of Palestinian homes. Most of those arrested were reported to be between the ages of 15 and 20.
Israel denied that there was any threat to the buildings within al-Aqsa and justified the work on the basis that they were renovating and re-building the wooden ramp leading to the Meghribi gate, which was damaged by an earthquake in 2004 and later by stormy weather. They even went so far as to carry out the work with a live television broadcast which could be viewed on the Israeli Antiquities Authority website. They stated that the plan was simply to replace the wooden ascent to the compound with a concrete one. This, however, does not explain why the work was started without consultation with Palestinian managers of the compound, or why Israel is carrying out further ‘excavations’ (a euphemism for digging tunnels beneath the al-Aqsa sanctuary) before the repairs are begun. These are being continued, even though Israel suspended work on the ramp after the Palestinian protests.
Even commentators in Israel questioned the explanation for the work; an editorial in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper on February 7, quoted on the BBC News website, said: “Yesterday the Muslim world was united in hatred of Israel after seeing pictures of the Israeli bulldozer that turned up at Temple Mount at the foot of the golden mosque. Senior religious figures fromMorocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt poured scorn on Israel. The bridge in the eye of the storm is a negligible bridge used by scores of people a day at the most. So why build a new bridge?”
Palestinian suspicion of Israeli motives at the current time stems from a number of issues, including the fact that the Palestinians had earlier been denied permission to repair the damage to the ramp themselves. In addition, the Meghribi gate leads directly to the western wall of the al-Aqsa sanctuary. This is the wall that Jews refer to as the ‘Wailing Wall’, and this gate connects the al-Aqsa Sanctuary to the Jewish quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem (previously known as the Meghrabi quarter). There is no obvious need for a reinforced concrete pathway leading to the Meghrabi gate, hence Palestinian suspicions that it may be used to facilitate military access to the compound.
Many in the international media, most prominently Israel, have accused Palestinians and Muslims of over-reacting to this construction project, but the reasons for their concern can be found in the recent history of al-Aqsa. Since the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, there have been innumerable attacks against the al-Aqsa Sanctuary and Palestinians in the area. On the evening of 10 June 1967, just four days after Israel took control of East Jerusalem on 6 June, over 600 residents of the Moroccan Quarter, next to the al-Aqsa Sanctuary, were given two hours’ notice to vacate their homes. Those who refused were forcefully evicted as Israeli bulldozers worked through the night to flatten the area. Israel has subsequently annexed the city illegally, and claims it as its “eternal capital”, and there have since been numerous attempts to sequester the Palestinian control of the al-Aqsa compound in East Jerusalem. Many of these have led to the deaths of Palestinian worshippers in the Sanctuary at the time, as well as Palestinians protesting against the Israeli actions.
Many Israelis consider the site of the Haram al-Sharif as the ‘Temple Mount’ or Mount Moriah, which they believe was the site of a Jewish temple destroyed by the Romans in 70AD. They believe that the Haram was built on the ruins of this temple, and some are determined to reclaim the site in order to build their “third Temple”. However, most Israeli rabbis insist that the Torah does not allow any Jewish presence on the land until the coming of the Messiah, and that to enter the site would violate its sanctity according to Judaic law. Palestinians have spent the past 40 years trying to defend this holy site against desecration and the increasing threat of demolition from Israeli extremists.
In view of the sensitivity of the site, and the fear of the reaction should the Haram be destroyed, Israeli efforts have been largely covert. Excavations beneath the Sanctuary, in the name of archaeological investigations, began years ago. Tunnels were first discovered beneath the al-Aqsa Sanctuary in 1981, sparking widespread protests across the Palestinian territories as they were deemed to be driven by a desire by Israel to control the al-Aqsa sanctuary, which can only increase the risk to it. There was world-wide condemnation of Israel’s actions following the discovery of the tunnels, and while digging has been temporarily halted several times, they are invariably resumed under one or another guise. The extent of the excavations is now thought to have gravely affected the structural integrity of the entire al-Aqsa compound, to the extent that cracks have appeared in the walls of the al-Aqsa Masjid. The destruction of Islamic holy sites constitutes a violation of international humanitarian law and international law, especially the fourth Geneva Convention (1949), which prohibits the destruction of civilian properties.
The al-Aqsa sanctuary and Palestinian worshippers have also been subjected to more direct attacks, starting during the 1967 war and continuing to this day. In 1969 an entire wing of the al-Aqsa mosque building closest to the Moroccan corner was burnt down by an arson attack. A unique and invaluable pulpit dating back to the rule of Salah al-Din Ayyubi (Saladin), over 700 years ago, was completely destroyed. After the event, the Israelis allowed the perpetrator to walk free after receiving minimal psychiatric counselling.
The following are just some of the attacks that have been attempted or carried out against the al-Aqsa Sanctuary since the Israeli takeover in 1967:
1970: Members of the Temple Mount Faithful group, dedicated to demolishing Masjid al-Aqsa, forcibly entered the Holy Sanctuary, but were forced back by Muslims. Israeli forces then opened fire on the Palestinians, causing many casualties.
1976 The Israeli courts passed a law permitting Jews to pray in Masjid al-Aqsa. This was later revoked after Palestinian protests.
1979 Jewish extremists used guns pointed at worshippers to block access to the compound.
1980s Harassment and acts of sabotage against Palestinians and al-Aqsa escalated. The adhaan was prohibited on one occasion so that it would not interfere with a Jewish festival. On another occasion an Israeli helicopter deliberately hovered at low altitude over Masjid al-Aqsa, preventing worshippers inside from hearing the Jumu’ah Khutba. A parcel with a fake bomb and threat signed by Jewish extremists was discovered at one of the gates. Real explosives were also placed at the gates and armed Israelis were discovered trying to enter the compound. Other similar acts also took place. All of the perpetrators were either acquitted by the Israeli courts, or not even charged.
1981 Tunnels were discovered under the Masjid al-Aqsa sanctuary. By digging these tunnels, Israel has taken over control of all earth beneath the compound.
1982 An ex-Israeli army officer opened fire within the compound, killing two Muslims and seriously damaging the interior and exterior of the Dome of the Rock. The bullet holes are still there today.
1983 The Temple Mount Fund was established in Israel, Europe and America to raise funds for rebuilding the Jewish Temple on the site of Masjid al-Aqsa.
1988 Israeli troops stormed Masjid al-Aqsa, firing teargas at worshippers. Further tunnels were also discovered, sparking further unrest.
1990 Israeli troops opened fire on worshippers, killing 22 and wounding hundreds.
1996 Israelis reopened a tunnel under the compound, resulting in confrontations in which more than 70 Palestinians were killed by Israeli occupation forces.
1997 Extremist Israelis attempted to lay a 4.5-ton rock as a cornerstone for the foundations of their Temple. They were warded off by Palestinians.
2000 Ariel Sharon entered the al-Aqsa compound with a 1,000-strong ‘security force’ as a show of Israeli dominance over the area. This led to fierce clashes between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers and sparked off the second Intifada.
2004 Israeli troops stormed the al-Aqsa compound. Such episodes are now commonplace.
The threat to Haram al-Sharif has persisted since Israel was created in 1948, and intensified since the occupation of East Jerusalem began in 1967, and has become more and more disturbing with each passing day. The relentless and passionate response of the Palestinians after every threat to al-Aqsa Sanctuary should be echoed by all Muslims.
Rajnaara Akhtar is a researcher at Friends of Al-Aqsa, a UK based NGO concerned with upholding Palestinian human rights and defending the Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem; seewww.aqsa.org.uk. She is also a campaigner for the right of women to wear hijab