Has the struggle for occupied Jerusalem finally revealed its religious character? The recent claim by Israel's Attorney General, Yehuda Weinstein, that Al-Asqa Mosque is part of Israeli territory has drawn unprecedented condemnation from across the Islamic world. His assertion that Islam's third holiest mosque should be subject to Israeli law, including antiquities laws and laws regarding building and planning was seen as an obscene provocation. This twist marks a dangerous escalation by the Netanyahu government in an atmosphere already charged with rage and tension.
Weinstein's inflammatory statement is significant because it came from the nerve centre of the Israeli establishment. It complements similar views advocated not only by the Prime Minister, but also by members of parliament. All three organs of the state - legislative, executive and judiciary – are now in full accord on the question of Al-Aqsa. All are driven by the same motivation and objective, which is to complete the Judaisation of Jerusalem.
Surely, Weinstein's remarks did not emerge from a vacuum, nor were they coincidental. During the 2000 Camp David peace talks, Ehud Barak, the then Israeli Prime Minister and his Palestinian counterpart, Yasser Arafat, discussed for the first time the status of occupied east Jerusalem and its holy sites. Arafat famously rejected the Clinton proposal to divide the city so that Israel would have sovereignty in the area below the Aqsa sanctuary (Haram al Sharif) while the Muslims would have sovereignty over what is above. The talks collapsed and very soon after the Aqsa Intifada erupted.
On the face of it, Weinstein's remarks betray an Israeli attempt to exploit regional uncertainties. The Israelis believe that the neighbouring Arab states - Egypt, Syria and Jordan - are so preoccupied with their domestic political challenges that they have no time for Al-Quds and Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Shaykh Kamal Khateeb, the deputy head of the Islamic movement in Israel, explained the context of Weinstein's claim, noting that it only confirms what has been asserted previously by the occupation municipality; that Al-Aqsa Mosque is just a public place and not a religious sanctuary. Also, that it is not part of the 144,000 square metres which form the area of the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), suggesting that the Dome of the Rock and Qibly mosques are the only religious sites.
Israel's obvious aim is to test the waters to see the public reaction and then proceed in accord with its customary stealth approach in such matters. Palestinians have long maintained that Israel's ultimate objective is to demolish Al-Aqsa Mosque and build upon its ruins the so-called Third Temple. Everything they witness on the ground suggests that Israel is moving in this direction.
But they were not the only ones appalled by Israel's latest provocation. In an unusually swift response Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), an umbrella body of 57 states, condemned the Israeli affront. He called on Muslim ambassadors to UNESCO to act immediately to stop Israeli aggression against the sacred Islamic and world heritage sites in occupied Jerusalem.
Weinstein's comment comes only weeks after UNESCO had granted the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem the status of an endangered world heritage site. Moreover, the UN body also granted funds for the necessary repairs to the fourth-century sanctuary, which was built over the grotto where according to Christian tradition, Jesus was born.
In normal circumstances legal professionals are more circumspect with their public pronouncements. But then again, this is Israel and international law has practically no value in the eyes of its officials, especially when it does not serve their partisan interests. While Israel has the right to legislate its own laws, it must also conform to international standards.
The issue of Jerusalem mirrors other parts of occupied Palestine for which The Hague Conventions (1899 and 1907), the 1949 Geneva Convention as well as the 1954 Hague Convention call for the protection of religious property during armed conflicts.
In the region, the Israeli claim has caused alarm in Jordan. The semi-official Ad-Dustour newspaper, in an editorial on 18 July, described the development as a breach of the 1994 Wadi Araba Treaty, which grants Jordan a special custodial role over "the Muslim Holy shrines in Jerusalem" (Article 9).
By declaring that Al-Aqsa is part of Israeli territory, observers believe that the Netanyahu government has taken a calculated decision to accelerate the process of Judaisation to a new and dangerous level. Abdul Qadir al-Hussayni, a former PLO minister for Jerusalem affairs, shares this view. He described Weinstein's remarks is an attempt to give legal cover for more municipal and settler attacks against Al-Aqsa and other holy sites.
Although the PLO has condemned the Israeli move, this was viewed with scepticism because of its questionable record. Critics point to the willingness of the PLO executive committee member and negotiator Saeb Erekat to show flexibility and make unprecedented concessions on the final status of the Haram al-Sharif during the Annapolis talks. A leaked document revealed that on 30 June 2008 he told the Israeli Foreign Minister, Tsipi Livni, "We are offering you the biggest Yerushalayim in history."
When the dust of this controversy settles one fact will remain unchanged; East Jerusalem is occupied territory and not disputed territory. Israel may occupy Jerusalem and its religious sites for some time yet, but it will not be able to occupy the hearts of the world's Muslim population who believe that Al-Aqsa Mosque is an integral part of their faith. Damage to Al-Aqsa would therefore be no less consequential than damage to the Holy Mosque in Makkah. For this reason, if no other, the world must act immediately to end Israel's illegal activities in and around Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Noble Sanctuary which surrounds it.