Last Friday, Palestinian worshippers removed an iron barricade placed in front of Al-Rahma Gate (Bab Al-Rahma, the Gate of Mercy), one of the gates of Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, and reopened a prayer space which was closed by an Israeli military order in 2003. At the time of that closure, Jordan, the custodian of the Islamic holy sites in occupied Jerusalem, expressed its anger. However, although the Kingdom maintains good relations with Israel it was unable to have the order reversed. The same impotency affected the Palestinian Authority.
A grassroots Palestinian movement refused to accept this new reality and the area became a flashpoint for occasional clashes whenever worshippers tried to reopen the mosque. Most still believe that it was closed by Israel under false pretences in order to turn it into a Jewish synagogue.
According to the Israeli occupation authorities, Al-Rahma Gate was closed because it was used by Palestinians to manage "terrorist acts". Several Israel news platforms actually said that Palestinian use of Bab Al-Rahma undermines "antiquities from periods of Jewish presence in the area." This confirms the Palestinians' fears about Israel's Judaisation of the Noble Sanctuary of Al-Aqsa.
Part of Al-Aqsa Mosque
"Al-Rahma Gate is part of the Noble Sanctuary of Al-Aqsa," explained Sheikh Abdul Azeem Salhab, the chairman of Jerusalem Endowment Council. He told MEMO that its closure was regarded as Israeli interference in the affairs of Al-Aqsa Mosque. "It is unacceptable for the Israeli occupation to interfere in the affairs of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the rest of the Noble Sanctuary." Indeed, Salhab pointed out that the Israeli occupation authorities invent fake history in order to claim Jewish rights over historical, religious and archaeological sites in occupied Palestine.
Sheikh Dr Najeh Bkeerat is the deputy chairman of the Jerusalem Endowment Council: "The Israeli claim to Bab Al-Rahma is based on a false story which was mentioned in Jewish books. The 17th century Jewish narrative is that Al-Rahma Gate is the gate to the Temple through which the Messiah will enter." The specialist in old manuscripts and archaeological studies insisted that "historical facts prove that this Jewish claim is completely false."
When the Israelis closed Al-Rahma Gate in 2003, it was being used by Al-Aqsa's Heritage Department. The department worked to educate people about the history of the holy site through lectures and cultural activities. It is believed widely that the closure was ordered in an effort to curtail such activities. Sheikh Kamal Al-Khatib, who used to give lectures there, confirmed this but pointed out that the efforts to open a synagogue within the Noble Sanctuary were very serious.
Citing Israeli attempts to open a synagogue anywhere in the immediate vicinity of Al-Aqsa Mosque, Sheikh Al-Khatib said that the Palestinians had previously thwarted an Israeli plan to convert Al-Marwani Mosque, in the south-east corner of the Sanctuary Yards, into a synagogue. Over one weekend in 1998, worshippers carried out renovation work in the mosque and opened it for prayers.
"That's when the Israeli occupation authorities started to look for a new place for holding Jewish prayers," Al-Khatib told MEMO. "In 2003, they decided to take over the area of Al-Rahma Gate, which was a mosque and hosted the Heritage Department." They turned their attention to Al-Rahma Gate and issued the closure order.
"The Israelis set up a military base in front of the gatehouse, installed CCTV cameras and prevented the Palestinians from going anywhere near it," said Al-Khatib. "Hence, reopening it is viewed by all Palestinians as an unprecedented defeat for the Israeli occupation."
No legal ground for crackdown
Prior to the reopening of the historic gateway, the Israelis started to crack down on any Palestinians linked in any way to activities related to this area. Several reports said that more than 100 Jerusalemites were arrested and even displaced from the holy city for weeks or months, including Sheikhs Salhab and Bkeerat.
However, two days after the gate was reopened, the Israeli Central Court ruled that the police should stop chasing, arresting and deporting Palestinians in relation to Al-Rahma Gate. It also ruled that the control of the gate should be returned to the Islamic Endowment Department in Jerusalem, recognising that it is the body which has legitimate responsibility for the site.
"The judge of the [Israeli] Central Court ruled clearly that there had never been any legal order which required the closure of Al-Rahma Gate," noted lawyer Hamza Qutina. As such, he added, the entry of [Palestinian] worshippers there is legal and opening the site for Muslim prayers is legal. "The judge also ruled that the detention of hundreds of people over the past few days was arbitrary, repressive and absolutely illegal." Everyone arrested in relation to the incidents of Al-Rahma Gate should be released immediately, the court ordered.
Will the gate be reclosed?
Israel's Reshet Kan radio station reported on Monday evening that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had ordered the police to reclose Al-Rahma Gate and prevent Palestinians from going near it. This, said Al-Khatib, revealed Netanyahu's "real attitude".
"He was caught between a rock and a hard place trying to placate Israel's extreme right-wing while upholding his pledge to maintain security for all Israelis." If he opted for the former over the latter, suggested Sheikh Al-Khatib, it is almost certain that he would ignite a new uprising, which he does not want during the General Election campaign.
"The Israeli occupation authorities may reclose the gate and may close Al-Aqsa Mosque completely," warned Sheikh Bkeerat, "but we are able to reopen it and keep it open." When asked about the plans for such a task, he said: "We do not have plans for bloodshed. All we have is our legitimate right to perform our prayers inside our mosque. We will not compromise on this right."
According to Al-Khatib, though, there is a two-part plan to intensify the popular presence within the area and assign an established Imam for the mosque. "This was announced by the Endowment Department run by Jordan."
None of the scholars interviewed will be kept away from Al-Aqsa, they insist. "We will never give up in our defence of Al-Aqsa Mosque and all of its facilities," Sheikh Salhab told MEMO. "The Israelis can't sever our connection as easily as they seem to believe."
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.