On 21 August, 1969, an extremist Australian Christian, Dennis Michael Rohan, attempted to set fire to Al-Aqsa Mosque; his action had the apparent blessing of the Israeli occupation forces. Some 48 years later, the Noble Sanctuary of Al-Aqsa remains under as great a threat as ever.
What: Arson attack
Where: Al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem
When: 21 August 1969
It was early on Thursday morning when the alarm was sounded. Palestinian guards in the Aqsa compound saw smoke rising from the south-east wing of the mosque and, upon closer inspection, saw a blaze inside the prayer hall.
Muslims and Christians alike rushed to the mosque to quell the flames, but Israeli occupation forces prevented their entry. After short but fierce clashes, they made their way into the Noble Sanctuary and started to tackle the fire. After the fire extinguishers failed to work, they looked for sources of water but found the pumps broken and the hoses cut. They banded together quickly to form a human chain and used buckets and other small containers to bring water to the building.
As fire trucks from the surrounding West Bank cities of Nablus, Ramallah, Al-Bireh, Bethlehem, Hebron, Jenin and Tulkarem arrived, the Israeli occupation forces also prevented them from reaching the scene, claiming that it was the Jerusalem Municipality's responsibility to handle the situation. The fire burned for hours with flames reaching the windows just below the dome, before the blaze was finally extinguished.
As the smoke cleared, the extent of the damage was made known. The fire had swept through some of the oldest parts of the mosque, most notably destroying the 900-year-old wood and ivory pulpit gifted by Salahuddin Al-Ayubi, as well as mosaic panels on the walls and ceilings; many areas within the mosque were left blackened and burnt.
As the news of the inferno spread, heated demonstrations took place throughout the city. The whole of occupied Jerusalem went on strike, a move that was emulated across the West Bank and even in the Israeli territories. In reaction, all access points to the mosque were blocked by Israeli security forces, such that Friday prayers the next day were not held in the compound for the first time.
A suspect was soon identified; Dennis Michael Rohan, an Australian Christian tourist, who was arrested on 23 August. Rohan was unafraid of revealing his motives for the crime; as "the Lord's emissary", he wanted to hasten the second coming of Jesus Christ which, in his view, could only be achieved by allowing the Jews to build a temple in place of Al-Aqsa Mosque, where it is claimed that the Temple of Solomon originally stood.
Whilst Rohan was declared to be insane and hospitalised in a mental institution, others were sceptical about him being the only culprit. On the 28 August, 24 Muslim-majority nations submitted a complaint to the UN Security Council in which Jordanian Ambassador to the UN, Mohamed El-Farra stated:
"According to news that originated from Israeli sources, the Australian suspect is a friend of Israel who was brought by the Jewish Agency to work for Israel. The Jewish Agency arranged for the Australian to work in a Kibbutz for some months, so that he could learn the Hebrew language and acquire more of the Zionist teaching… the life of this Australian in the Kibbutz and his dreams of building Solomon's temple casts doubt on the case and adds to the fears and worries of the Muslims about their holy shrines; it also throws light on who is the criminal and who is the accomplice."
The letter referred to numerous comments made in previous years by Israeli officials who vowed to establish the Temple of Solomon on the site of Al-Aqsa Mosque. The continuing Israeli aggression towards Palestinians was also addressed in light of the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem two years previously after the 1967 war.
The UN responded by condemning the attack and called on Israel to void all arrangements that would alter the status of Jerusalem. Israel ignored this resolution, as it has done with all such calls before and after.
The suspicions that Israel was actively involved in planning and facilitating the arson attempt have never been disproved. Many also see the normalisation of Zionist intimidation, including Israel's attempts to eradicate Palestinian heritage in the region, as the ultimate source of the mentality that led to this attack, and all others since.
What happened next?
This year, the anniversary of this event comes just weeks after Al-Aqsa was once again threatened and its sanctity violated. After a deadly shootout on 14 July, Israeli occupying forces closed the mosque for the first time since the 1969 arson attack, and had installed metal detectors and CCTV cameras in the compound when it reopened. This led to widespread protests as Israel was accused of violating the status quo by imposing such unnecessary security measures. Palestinian worshippers staged a sit-in outside the compound wall in protest, and clashes with the military over two weeks left six dead and thousands injured.
After 11 days of outrage and demonstrations, Israel relented and removed all of the offensive and intrusive measures. Palestinians rejoiced as they entered the mosque, but such an incident serves as a reminder of how aggression against Al-Aqsa has never ended. To this day, the mosque remains a symbol of the ongoing violations of the most basic rights of Palestinians, including their ability to worship freely.
Similarly, the inaction of fellow Arab states in response to such attacks has remained constant. They wrote letters of condemnation in 1969, yet nearly 50 years later Al-Aqsa is regularly stormed by Jewish settlers and armed security forces, worshippers are turned away at the gates and the foundations of the structure are being destroyed by tunnelling. Jordan paid for the reconstruction of the fire-damaged mosque, but whilst Al-Aqsa was under siege in July, the government in Amman prioritised the return of an Israeli gunman to Tel Aviv at the request of the US.
In remembering the arson attack on Al-Aqsa Mosque it is clear that the Noble Sanctuary faces the same threats as it did 48 years ago, perhaps even more so.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.