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Worshipers detained at Al-Aqsa amidst heated sovereignty debate

By Jan Walraven - March 09, 2014
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [al-Aqsa] [Jerusalem]

Photo by Lazar Simeonov.


Eight Palestinian men were detained by Israeli forces at the Al-Aqsa mosque on Friday 7 March. Leaving the compound, the young men were arrested because they breached a recent police decision. The decision to restrict access to the mosque for male worshipers under the age of 50 was based on "intelligence of plans for unrest," Israeli police spokeswoman Luba Samri explained. Protesting the decree, large groups of worshipers prayed in the streets of East-Jerusalem at police checkpoints. 

The decision came after a controversial debate on Israeli sovereignty over the Al-Aqsa compound in the Knesset on 25 February, and furious reactions from Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world. The debate surrounding Jerusalem and its holy sites is an essential part of the current peace talks.

Sovereignty, access and international meddling

As these renewed US-backed peace talks slowly reach their April deadline, both sides are shifting even more attention to the core issues. One of the main topics for discussion is the third holiest site in Sunni Islam and the holiest site in Judaism. Known by Muslims as Al-Haram Al-Sharif, the site in the Old City of Jerusalem includes the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. In Judaism, the site is called the Temple Mount, the place where the King Herod's Temple once stood before it was destroyed during Roman times. The Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, is situated at the foot of the Temple Mount. Next to the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, the fate of Jerusalem and its holy sites is on of the main obstacles to reaching a framework agreement by the end of April, a context which is supposed to form the basis of a final-status agreement.

The site is located in East-Jerusalem, which Palestinians, backed by the international community, view as the capital of a future independent Palestinian state. Since 1967 however, East-Jerusalem has been illegally occupied by Israel, which in 1980 formally declared Jerusalem its indivisible capital. The international community considers this annexation to be illegal. As a result of the occupation, only Palestinians with a blue Jerusalem ID or a special temporary Israeli-issued permit are able to enter East-Jerusalem and its holy sites. These permits are notoriously difficult to obtain.

Governance rights over the site have been claimed, and partly implemented by a tangle of countries and organizations. Since 1187, Al-Haram As-Sharif is officially governed by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, an Islamic trust headed by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and funded by the Jordanian government. The Waqf has complete authority over the site, managing everything from administration to preservation. In the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, the former acknowledged the "present special role" of the latter in "Muslim Holy shrines in Jerusalem.” 

In an agreement signed with King Abdullah II of Jordan on 31 March of last year, Palestinian president Abbas repeated that King Abdullah II is the custodian of Jerusalem's Muslim holy sites. Both men further stressed their joint efforts to defend Jerusalem from "Israel's judaization attempts.”

Next to that, the Israeli Supreme Court has defended Jewish praying rights at the site, but restricted visiting hours, allowing the Israeli police to interdict any form of religious activity if it could lead to disrupting public order. 

Dr. Yousef Nasthash confirmed in an interview with the Palestine Monitor that the continuing dispute focuses on sovereignty. "Israel questions the Waqf's authority over the site and interferes constantly in our internal affairs. They are clearly not respecting what is outlined in the peace treaty with Jordan," the administrative officer at the Islamic Waqf adds. 

The Waqf views Israel as an occupation force and, according to Nasthash, only communicates with the Israeli police. "The Israelis are constantly interfering at the site under the guise of 'security reasons'," Nasthash said.

The sovereignty dispute is linked with access and freedom of worship in the Old City, spiced up with regular violent clashes, international wrangling and religious meddling, making it an incredibly delicate issue to confront. 

Rising tension

After the renewal of the peace talks in July 2013, it didn't take long before the fate of Jerusalem and its holy sites came into the international spotlights once again. On 27 October, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed to "describe importance to the unity of Jerusalem," according to The Jerusalem Post, proving the unwavering Israeli position on the "indivisibility" of Jerusalem. 

On 10 January the Israeli daily Arutz Sheva reported that Netanyahu had told senior government officials he would not agree to any division of Jerusalem in framework agreements, nor sign any agreement that allows the establishment of a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, citing anonymous U.S. and Israeli officials, claimed on 28 January that American Secretary of State John Kerry, who is overseeing the talks, will nonetheless propose a shared capital in Jerusalem.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas commented on the issue at an event with Israeli students on 16 February, Haaretz reported. Abbas stated that the Palestinian Authority was not planning to share sovereignty over the Al-Aqsa Mosque, but would allow freedom of worship for Jews in the Western Wall Plaza, adding that he saw no reason to re-divide Jerusalem.

Israeli minister of economy, also responsible for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs, Naftali Bennett reacted to Abbas' comments the day after, during his speech at the opening of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. According to The Jerusalem Post, Bennett stated that Israel is gradually applying more and more sovereignty in East-Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount, by "improving its services to Israeli Arabs" living there.

In recent months there has been a rise in tension on and around the Temple Mount. In most cases worshipers protest against visits by groups of Jewish Israelis, sometimes resulting in clashes with the Israeli police.

"Worshipers are only reacting to right wing provocations," Nasthash explained. He further stated that all these visits take place without any coordination with the Waqf, adding that they "welcome any visitor, as long as they respect the holiness of the site and the feelings of Muslims."

Most notorious are the visits by groups of Israelis led by Yehuda Glick, chairman of the Temple Mount Heritage Foundation. The organization wants to "encourage Jews to enter the Temple Mount as prescribed by Jewish law" and is doing so by organizing tours and "educational activities" at the Temple Mount. At the site, non-Muslim visitors are allowed, but non-Muslim prayer is not. One of the most famous Jewish visits to the Temple Mount came in 2000, when then Israeli prime minster Ariel Sharon entered the compound, sparking the Second Intifada.

In 1967, Israeli Chief Rabbis forbade any Jew to enter the Temple Mount on religious grounds, but now some political and religious leaders are advocating access for Jews nevertheless. One of the Foundation's projects is called 'Freedom for Jews on the Temple Mount,” which has two main goals. The first is to "increase Jewish presence so that we are viewed as a natural part of the Temple Mount's environment, and not strangers or visitors. The second goal is to implement the fundamental rights of Jews at the Temple Mount itself," as Arutz Sheva reported

Regular visits by newly recruited Israeli soldiers to the Temple Mount are also triggering violent clashes with Palestinians. These Israeli visitors are always escorted by Israeli police officers. 

At different times clashes also occur between the Israeli police and Palestinian worshipers, mostly due to restricted access for the latter or after raids by the former. 

Knesset and Arab League discuss fate of Old City

The dispute surrounding the Temple Mount came to a new head prior to, during and after a debate about Israeli sovereignty over the site in the Knesset on 25 February. The debate was held in the evening, but clashes between Palestinians protesting and Israeli forces already occurred before. The debate centered around a bill, proposed by MK Moshe Feiglin (Likud), that focused on freedom of religion and tied it to Israeli sovereignty over the Al-Aqsa compound. Feiglin is notorious for paying regular visits to the Temple Mount, before Prime Minister Netanyahu banned him from the area in April 2013. On 19 February 2014 the ban was lifted.Feiglin called on the government of Israel "to apply the full sovereignty of the State of Israel in the entire Temple Mount" and "to allow free access to any Jew to the Temple Mount through any gate, and allow them to pray," according to Ynet, the English language Israeli news website of Yedioth Ahronoth,  

Meretz MK Zehava Galon countered Feiglin by stating that there's a difference between the right and exercising the right. Speaking to Haaretz, Galon denounced the timing of the initiative, as well as Feiglin's intentions, as she believes Feiglin wants the peace talks to fail.

In response to the Knesset debate, the PA, with Egyptian support, called upon an emergency meeting of the Arab League to discuss the matter, The Times of Israel reported

On Wednesday 26 February, the permanent country representatives discussed the possibility of filing a complaint with the UN, condemning the "continuing Israeli violations of the Al-Aqsa compound" and calling upon "the EU, major powers, and UNESCO to take responsibility in Jerusalem and to protect Islamic and Christian holy sites from Israeli threats," Ma'an News Agency reported

The Knesset debate also spurred a reaction from 47 Jordanian MPs, demanding the Jordanian government  cancel its peace treaty with Israel. 

On Wednesday 26 February acting Jordanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Momani reacted to the events, stating that "Israel's actions regarding Al-Aqsa are putting the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel on the line". 

"The Hashemite custodianship of the holy sites in Jerusalem is not an Israeli grant, but a historic responsibility of the Hashemites," added Momani in an interview with The Jordan Times.

No peace without solution for Jerusalem 

For centuries Jerusalem has been the cause for at times very violent strife, and it looks like it will always be the subject of heated debates and the scene of occasional violent outbursts. A final peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, which includes an accord on how to govern "the eternal city," should be the first step towards calming down tempers. How soon will be in part dependent on the reactions to American Secretary of State John Kerry's framework proposal. 

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