Thirteen years ago former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to the compound of the third holiest site in Islam, Al-Aqsa Mosque, sparked the Second Intifada. The intifada, which raged on for 5 years, claimed thousands of innocent lives. Today, Israeli claims to the holy site, in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City, continues to make Al-Aqsa one of the most politically explosive places in the world.
In the midst of Palestine and Israel peace talks, orchestrated by US Secretary of State John Kerry, in the hope of bringing an end to the decades of conflict, Jewish claims to Al-Aqsa are increasing.
Israeli Jews claim the mosque lies on the site of Temple Mount, the most holy site in Judaism, however many Rabbi’s, including Israel’s chief rabbinate, believe that entering Al-Aqsa is a violation of Jewish law, and that the Temple can only be rebuilt and sacrifices resumed when the Jewish messiah returns.
In previous years Al-Aqsa incursions were led by a group of zealot Zionists, but today an increasing number of mainstream Jews are descending upon the holy site, which is currently administered by the Islamic Wakf.
On Monday 16 September, in an unprecedented move, Israel’s Knesset passed a law allowing “Jews to worship on the Temple Mount” and voted in favor of letting them use the site throughout the Jewish Sukkot holiday. Fears are that Israel is planning on dividing the Mosque between Jews and Muslims, as was done with the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, West Bank.
Incursions into the Mosque are now common place, with organized tours conducted under heavy guard of Israeli soldiers. Last week a group of 300 ‘rightist’s’ entered the Mosque, followed by a further 100 the following day. Meanwhile Muslim worshippers are being subjected to further access restrictions. Over the Jewish holiday, only men over 50 and carrying Jerusalem ID’s were permitted entrance.
During a recent visit to the site, Israel’s right wing Housing and Construction Minister, Uri Ariel, reportedly said he would continue trying to strengthen Israel’s sovereignty over the site. “The Temple Mount is the holiest place for the Jewish people, and must be open for prayer at every hour to every Jew,” he said.
“The Temple Mount is ours, and it cannot be argued about or negotiated,” Ariel emphasized.
“We reject these religious visits,” said Sheikh Ekrima Sa’eed Sabri, who oversees Muslim affairs in Jerusalem, “Our duty is to warn,” he added. “If they want to make peace in this region, they should stay away from Al Aqsa.”
The Palestinian Authorities ministry of foreign affairs has condemned Israeli violations at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, urging the Arab League and UN to hold an emergency session.”This is an invitation to a religious war in the region, and official encouragement urging the extremist Jewish groups to storm al-Aqsa Mosque and ruin it,” the ministry said.
Clashes, which have left many activists injured and arrested, have erupted in Jerusalem and across the West Bank in defiance of recent moves by Israel. Across the globe the fight to defend Al-Aqsa has lit fires, in what is seen as part of Israel’s sustained attempt to Judaize Jerusalem.
“I will not allow extremists to disrupt the peace – especially during the holidays,” Israel’s Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said. “Any person, or organization seeking to do so will be arrested by the Israeli Police, like the seven individuals who were arrested [Wednesday] morning, that prevented many Muslims from coming to the Temple Mount to disrupt the visits of Jewish worshippers and tourists.”
In the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan, East Jerusalem, residents face the harsh reality of Israel’s “Judaisation” project. They have been fighting a losing battle against the long running project to rid Jerusalem of its Palestinian population.
Silwan is the site of the “City of David,” an archeological attraction tempting scores of tourists and pilgrims every year. Visitors travel from across the globe to marvel at the artifacts and caves, admiring the picturesque views.
The Wadi Hilweh Information Center, Silwan, said the Palestinian residents were, in contrast, living under the “third occupation.” According to the center, 65% of Palestinian owned homes in Silwan have demolition orders ,with lack of building permits predominantly cited as the justification, yet only 20 such permits have been issued since 1967and permission to build extra floor has to travel though a total of 11 Israeli ministries. Currently a plan is underway to create “green zones” in the area which will displace 1,200 residents.
“What can I do? I cannot get a permit to legally build my house, there are not enough schools for my children, of course I have to move. It is connected to Israel’s efforts to empty the neighborhood of its Palestinian residents,” said a worker from the information center, who is also a resident.
Another resident, who owns a shop directly above the Silwan pools, a site where Jesus is believed to have cured a blind man, commented, “It’s a very difficult situation, to live facing discrimination, racism. We don’t believe in hate, yet every day we face it.”
“I want to tell you a story, when my father was young; he had a brother who had such a high fever. Nothing could cure him, he was close to death. My father carried him to the water (Silwan Pool) and put him in it, he prayed hard for his brother. Now that my father is dead and his brother is 80.”
“You see, I have stories about this pool of my grandfather, my father, myself, handed down through time. To stay in my shop is very hard, tourists are stopped from entering by settlers, excavation underneath has meant I have had to change my door numerous times. But I have to stay, its important.”
The example of Silwan is a window showing Israel’s “demographic war against Palestinians in the Holy City,” extending from the religious sites to residential homes, systematically denying rights in pursuit of a political agenda.
Jewish claims to Al-Aqsa Mosque are seen as part of this sustained and strengthening campaign to rid Jerusalem of any Arab identity. While this has been the case for some years, intensified claims to Al-Aqsa risk pushing the conflict to boiling point, and as tensions simmer surrounding the return to negotiations, clashes around the most politically explosive site on earth risk exploding.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.