The Palestinian issue is going through a very sensitive phase, represented by what is happening within the occupied city of Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque, where Israeli-installed barriers have been challenged by local Muslims seeking access to the Noble Sanctuary during the month of Ramadan. Moreover, Israel is trying to expel the residents of the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood and replace them with illegal settlers. Clashes have erupted and are ongoing, between the indigenous residents of the Palestinian neighbourhood and the settlers, who are supported by the Israeli occupation forces.
A call has also been made for extremist Zionist groups to storm into Al-Aqsa Mosque on Monday, 28 Ramadan. Those behind the plot expect thousands of extremists to heed the call, despite the sanctity of this mosque for the Palestinians and, indeed, Muslims all over the world.
I spoke with the former Media and Public Relations Officer at Al-Aqsa Mosque, Dr Abdullah Maarouf, who is now Professor of Islamic History at Istanbul 29 May University. We discussed what is happening in Jerusalem.
Ahmed Hweidi: Can you explain what is happening in occupied Jerusalem, in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood and Al-Aqsa Mosque?
Dr Abdullah Maarouf: We are seeing a Zionist attempt to create a new reality in the holy city, including the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque. The project has been delayed by 50 years according to the vision of the Israeli occupation authorities, which believe that Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Israel. They said in 2018 that Israel is a Jewish state, so the authorities are trying to change the demography by expelling the indigenous Palestinian population and bringing in Jewish settlers. More than one area of the city is affected.
Israel has been trying to impose its control over Sheikh Jarrah for a long time. It is part of what the usurpers call the “Holy Basin”, a term used by Israel to refer to the area including the Old City and Al-Aqsa Mosque, as well as Silwan, the Mount of Olives and Ras Al-Amud, Sheikh Jarrah and Al-Sawan neighbourhoods. Sheikh Jarrah holds great importance for the Israeli Judaisation project. The occupation has placed it high on its list of priorities.
The residents of Sheikh Jarrah are already refugees. They went there when their towns and lands were occupied in 1948, and were settled in the neighbourhood in 1956 by an agreement between the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and the Jordanian government. They had to surrender their asylum cards because the land was administered by the Jordanian government. The agreement stipulated that ownership would pass to the refugees after three years; documents proving their ownership were given to them, but only after the 1967 Six Day War due to the bureaucracy in place at that time.
With Israel occupying the land from June 1967 onwards, the occupation authorities found a loophole and saw an opportunity to expel the population from the area. Forged documents have been produced “proving” that settler groups own the land.
Israeli courts do not recognise the right of the people of Sheikh Jarrah to their homes and land, which demonstrates that the legal system is part of the problem, because the court plays a supportive role in the project to control the “Holy Basin”. It is a major issue, perhaps more political than legal. Nevertheless, it needs to be taken to the International Criminal Court.The Jordanian government is the guarantor for the residents as the entity which handed the land over to the Palestinians living there. The Palestinian Authority has no authority in the city of Jerusalem; Jordan is the guarantor under the Oslo Agreement, so it must bear the responsibility of taking the case to the ICC, because we are witnessing a war crime whereby residents of an entire neighbourhood under military occupation are being displaced by the occupying entity which is moving its own population into the neighbourhood; this is a war crime. I am sure that you have seen the video on social media in which a settler is telling a Palestinian woman, “If I don’t steal your house, someone else will steal it.”
What’s more, this year 28 Ramadan falls on what is called “Jerusalem Day” in the Hebrew calendar, so it is important for Israelis. It is the day when they commemorate the occupation of Jerusalem in 1967. Extremist settler groups and the so-called “Temple” organisations are planning a mass trespass at the Noble Sanctuary of Al-Aqsa Mosque by thousands of settlers. They intend to pray publicly in the grounds of the blessed Al-Aqsa, in breach of international norms and conventions, and even the agreements between Israel and Jordan, as well as the [US Secretary of State John] Kerry understandings of 2015.
Such extremist groups want to change the status quo in Al-Aqsa Mosque, and to change the general image of their violent incursions by establishing the “right” of Jews to pray inside the mosque. They stormed Al-Aqsa in Ramadan 2019 in a symbolic move without prayers, and again two months later on Eid Al-Adha, which coincided with a Jewish commemoration of “the burning of the temple”. The Jewish prayers inside Al-Aqsa Mosque are planned to be held in the presence of very high-profile figures headed by the rabbis of the extremist West Bank settlements, and some former ministers, as well as the followers of the late terrorist Rabbi Meir Kahane. Together they represent the most extreme components of Israeli society.
AH: What is Israel hoping to achieve from this? And why now?
Dr AM: It aims to exploit what it sees as a golden opportunity represented by the rise of the extreme right in the recent Israeli election, in which it won seven seats in parliament, and the wave of Arab normalisation with the settler-colonial state. The normalisation countries stand not only with the Israeli government, but also with the extreme right-wing in Israel; they are happy to buy products from the illegal Israeli settlements. These countries have also hosted far-right settlement figures but have said and done nothing in defence of Al-Aqsa Mosque and Jerusalem.
AH: What are the implications of these events on the Palestinian issue in general and Jerusalem in particular?
Dr AM: With regard to the Palestinian issue in general, it is now going through a very critical period with nothing on the horizon to solve it. This matter is more apparent in the city of Jerusalem, where the Palestinians in the city stand alone in front of the racism and extremism of the Israeli far right. The potential is there for a major disaster for the Palestinian people. Community leaders, religious scholars, journalists, writers and many others have spoken about this; all have said that Jerusalem and Palestine are on the brink of blowing up into something very serious indeed. This is what the Zionist occupation pushes with its foolishness and arrogance, which does not take into account the excessive sensitivity of the city of Jerusalem in the Islamic and Arab world. We must also consider the effect of the cancellation of the Palestinian election scheduled for this month and the ongoing political division.
AH: How do you see the Arab and international position and its interaction with these events, either officially or at a popular level?
Dr AM: The official Arab position is still not what is hoped for; there is nobody standing with the Palestinian people. Instead, some Arab countries stand with the Israeli occupation. They sent messages of congratulations to Israel on the anniversary of the 1948 Nakba, Israel’s so-called “Independence Day”. That sends a clear message about the new political alignments that now dominate some Arab capitals.
As for the ordinary people, their interaction is clear and very well known. I believe that the issue of Jerusalem is still a central and sensitive matter for all Arabs and Muslims. We have to remember, though, that they have suffered from the counter-revolutionary repercussions of the great events in the Arab world ten years ago, which weakens their ability to give the kind of support that we saw with the Aqsa Intifada 20 years ago.
AH: What do you see for the future of Jerusalem and its people?
Dr AM: I expect a major escalation and confrontation, and it may not be limited to the city of Jerusalem, but that will be the starting point. We have actually become accustomed to there being peaks and troughs in the clashes between Jerusalemites and the Israeli occupation forces. We are now on one of the highs, with escalation almost impossible to avoid. Whatever happens, I believe that Israel and its occupation will be the biggest loser, because it is afraid even of saying “Palestinian Intifada”. If another intifada is sparked off, it will be a very big problem for Israel.
In addition, the Israeli political class is much divided, and it cannot direct its own affairs towards de-escalation with the Jerusalemites. The rise of the extreme right is the cause of this, in my opinion. The escalation may be in stages or all at once; this depends primarily on the nature of the action and the response.
I think that we will also face a major Israeli retreat in the years ahead, because Jerusalem has become a pain in the side of the occupation, with the people in the city being the only Palestinians who have their own distinct identity, and there are no barriers between them and Israel itself. The retreat may well be an Israeli withdrawal from Jerusalem; how and when I do not know. I do believe, however, that it is not very far away.