When Muslims first prayed, they faced Al-Aqsa Mosque and Jerusalem rather than Makkah. When Prophet Mohammed (Peace be Upon Him) ascended to heaven, he did so from Al-Aqsa, not Makkah. Muslims believe the rock from which he ascended (Mi'raj) is the same rock in the basement of the Dome of the Rock Mosque in the Al-Aqsa compound. Muslims refer to the compound as the Holy Sanctuary and revere it as the third holiest mosque in Islam.
Those who can still make a special effort to visit Jerusalem, to sit and pray in Al-Aqsa's magical and quiet surroundings. They enjoy the Athan, the call to prayer which rings through the skies of Jerusalem five times a day, as it has for centuries. Muslim visitors enjoy the old city of Jerusalem, eat hummus, falafel and kunafa and take in centuries of history. They also visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a sacred site to Christians the world over. They also look from a distance at the Buraq Wall (the Western Wall), at which Jews pray and insert notes of prayer and wishes.
What they also experience is the full force of the military occupation that the whole city endures. Visitors quickly become aware of the presence of an occupying army, police and illegal settlers. They experience the Separation Wall – which separates Palestinian communities – and the checkpoints at which Palestinians are humiliated and from which many turned away unless they have permits from the occupier to cross into their capital city.
The gates of Al-Aqsa are manned by Israeli security forces that decide who enters and who does not. On one of my visits, one of the Israeli guards asked me to prove that I was a Muslim by reading verses from the Qur'an. I refused and pointed him to my grandfather's name, Mohammed. No one but a Palestinian can explain the pain of having to justify to a tool of the illegal occupier their right to freely enter one of their holy sites.
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Ask a Palestinian from Jerusalem about the daily grind of the occupation and what red lines Israel cannot cross – all would agree that the red line is Al-Aqsa Mosque. If any proof was needed of this, it came in the summer of 2017 when, following an attack on Israeli security forces at one of the mosque's entrances, Israel closed the mosque and installed security gates at the main entrance used by worshippers. Palestinians refused to accept any changes to their access to the mosque and protested through peaceful prayer for two full weeks, forcing the Israeli government to remove the gates and return the status quo that existed prior to the closure.
Israel tried to use the attack to change the status quo that has existed since the holy city and its sites were captured from Jordan in the Six Day War of 1967. The agreement made then, which was included in the peace treaty with Jordan, recognises Jordan's custodianship over the holy site and that the Waqf (Islamic endowment) will oversee the day-to-day running of the mosque. The agreement recognises the right of Muslims to pray at the mosque and for non-Muslims, including Jews, to visit but not pray. Non-Muslim visitors used to gain entry via a ticket from the Waqf, but this practice ended at the start of the Second Intifada.
While non-Jewish visitors comply with the guidelines of the Waqf, Jews make un-coordinated visits – protected by Israeli security forces – and have been doing so with increasing frequency and number. Some have even attempted to break the guidelines through unauthorised prayer or rituals. Palestinians see these as break-ins and a provocation. Figures reported for 2018 report a record number of 33,000 settler break-ins, up from 25,000 in 2017.
Report: 30,000 Israeli settlers stormed Al-Aqsa in 2018
Israeli politicians regularly take part in this provocation. The most provocative of these took place in 2001, when then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon broke into the site, protected by Israeli security forces. The visit helped spark the start of the Second Intifada.
While Israel claims there are no plans to change the status quo at Al-Aqsa, its repeated incursions into the compound and the desire by some extremist groups to impose full sovereignty over the site and replace the mosque with a Jewish temple continue to gather pace. Groups such as the Temple Mount Faithful and the Temple Institute have challenged the Israeli government's ban on allowing Jews to enter the compound.
An app that is part of an Israeli government-funded exhibition called the "The Western Wall Experience" makes the Dome of the Rock disappear and replaces it with an image of the Jewish Temple when the app is pointed towards the Al-Aqsa compound. This allows visitors to "to pose for a souvenir photograph" in an imagined landscape in which the Muslim holy sites have been destroyed.
Those intent on building the Jewish Temple on the site of Al-Aqsa have friends in high places, not only in Israel but in the US. US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman was pictured, smiling behind a poster showing the very same proposed replacement.
Meanwhile, employees of the Jordanian Waqf face intimidation, arrest and are banned from entering the site, as do men and women who take it upon themselves to be "protectors" of the holy site.
Their most recent confrontation with the Israeli security forces took place when the latter attempted to bar an Israeli police officer wearing a kippa (a Jewish head covering) from entering the mosque. Israeli forces laid siege to the Dome of Rock Mosque and confrontations took place for hours before the occupying forces withdrew.
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The Israeli government and extremist groups have been emboldened by a Trump Administration that claims to be developing the "Deal of the Century" to solve the conflict, but in reality whatever Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dictates will reign. Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital and his withdrawal from UNESCO because it dared to confirm Jerusalem's status as occupied and declared Israel's sovereignty as 'null and void' are two cases in point.
Israel is playing with fire in many of its policies in Jerusalem, but none more so than its attempts to change the status quo of Al-Aqsa Mosque. The Muslim holy site is in grave danger. This is not an exaggeration. Israel divided the Ibrahimi Mosque (Tomb of the Patriarchs) in Hebron, in the occupied West Bank, following the terrorist attack on Muslim worshippers in 1994. Its extremist leaders may be turning a longstanding political conflict into a religious one.
This comes on top of a lack of hope for a political resolution and could escalate violence. As Israel heads to elections this April, Netanyahu may launch an attack on the already-besieged Gaza Strip or Lebanon to boost his popularity. He may also choose to exert a stronger Israeli presence at the Al-Aqsa compound. After all, he did warn that Palestinian citizens of Israel were going to the polls 'in droves' at the last election to appeal to his supporters to go out and vote.
Those who want to see peace come to the Holy land must step up to the plate and make clear to Israel that it cannot claim to be a democracy which protects freedom of worship while plotting to change the character of the Palestinian people's holiest mosque.
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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.