Palestinians see any change in status quo a step towards partitioning holy site, building the Third Temple over Al-Aqsa.
Occupied East Jerusalem – Palestinian activist Hanady Halawani has lost count of the number of times she has been banned from visiting the holy Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Over a span of 15 years, she says she’s been arrested at least 24 times, much of the time due to her social media posts, in which she would update her followers on the latest developments unravelling at the flashpoint.
Her posts include videos of Israeli settlers performing prayers at the holy compound, in violation of the status quo. Other photos from the past summer show land and graves that have been dug up by Israeli authorities at the historic Bab al-Rahma cemetery, located just outside the compound’s eastern wall.
Protests over the summer last year by a small group of Palestinians were of no avail as the centuries-old graves of Muslim leaders reportedly lie in the way of a planned Israeli park.
Even when the site – known as Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) for Muslims and Temple Mount for Jews – may at times appear to be relatively calm, Halawani and other Palestinians know that this is an illusion.
They believe the fragile status quo is being gradually eroded as Israelis continue to take steps in asserting sovereignty over the site, with the goal of spatially and temporally partitioning the holy compound and eventually building the Third Temple over the ruins of Al-Aqsa, as propagated by the Temple Movement activists.
According to the status quo reaffirmed in 1967 between Israel and Jordan, the holy compound is administered by the Islamic Waqf endowment seated in Jordan. Non-Muslims can visit the site, but cannot pray there.
This coincided with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel’s declaration in 1967 that Jews are not allowed to the compound as it would desecrate the site’s holiness.
The latest unrest has broken out over the formerly abandoned building at Bab al-Rahma (Gate of Mercy or Golden Gate) in the Al-Aqsa compound.
For the first time in 16 years, Palestinians have reopened its gates, which had been closed under Israeli order, and hundreds have been praying at the site – their biggest achievement since forcing Israel to remove the unilaterally installed metal detectors from the compound in July 2017.
Israel closed Bab al-Rahma in 2003 alleging the site was being used by members of the outlawed Islamic Movement in Israel Northern Branch for political activities, an allegation denied by the Islamic Waqf.
Since reopening the building’s prayer hall, some 100 Palestinians have been reportedly arrested, including Sheikh Abdel-Azeem Salhab, head of the waqf, and his deputy after they joined Palestinians in prayer at the site.
After being arrested early in the morning last week from his home, Salhab was banned from Al-Aqsa for a week, which was an unprecedented move.
Halawani was also issued another ban following a house raid and arrest. Authorities claimed her presence at Al-Aqsa is dangerous and problematic.
“‘The most dangerous woman’ – that’s what they chose to call me to justify bringing a big army force to knock down the door of a defenceless woman. They searched every room in the house then beat me and forcefully dragged me on the floor before arresting me,” Halawani wrote on Instagram, adding that she’s been banned for another six months.
Reportedly days after the gate was reopened, an Israeli court ruled that several Palestinians arrested for praying at the site are not guilty of any crime as the structure no longer belongs to an alleged “terror organisation”, but to the waqf.
Bab al-Rahma’s closure for 16 years under the claim of a court order turned out to be false, Wafa news reported.
Battle over sovereignty
Despite the court’s recent ruling and with Muslim prayers currently being held inside the building, Israeli MKs have been pressuring Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reclose the gate and assert Israel’s sovereignty over the site.
Palestinian anxiety about the possibility of forced removal remains high, Israeli NGO Ir Amim noted in a press release on Thursday.
According to Ahmad Sub Laban, a field researcher with Ir Amim, the Islamic High Commission of the Waqf had decided to reopen Bab al-Rahma to assert their authority “in a move to show that this area is part of Al-Aqsa and that it’s under the Islamic Waqf’s responsibility”.
“All 144 dunums, everything [within the compound] [belongs to the Waqf],” Sub Laban said, adding that when the Israeli police returned to lock the gate again, Palestinians considered this as interfering with the status quo since the compound’s management is under the jurisdiction of the Jordanian Hashemite Kingdom and the waqf.
“As Muslims, we consider any kind of interference as an attempt to change the mosque and to divide it as part of the occupation,” Sub Laban said.
“For foreigners who come to visit the mosque, we welcome this but we don’t welcome anyone who comes to visit with the intention to change the situation at the mosque, damage it, divide it or take a part of it. It’s a holy area, it’s not going to be divided at all,” Sub Laban said.
Despite the “relative calm” at the site over the past year and a half, Israel has continued to take actions that compromise the management role of the waqf and contribute to the erosion of the status quo, Ir Amim wrote.
Over the past two years, the Israeli police have repeatedly restricted the waqf from carrying out maintenance in the compound and have installed a watchtower over Bab al-Rahma, defying waqf authorities.
Building the Third Temple
For years, Ir Amim has been issuing reports warning of the danger and growing prominence of Temple Movement activists.
Temple activists openly declare that ascension to the compound and praying at the site is central in their strategy of breaking the status quo, asserting Israeli control and serves as the first step in eventually building the Third Temple over Al-Aqsa.
The number of Jewish visitors to the compound has been breaking records over the past few years.
In the last Jewish year, 22,552 Jewish visitors ascended to the compound, which more than doubled compared with the number two years ago.
Ir Amim warned in 2017 that the Israeli police, who are supposed to prevent non-Muslim worship at the site, are now working in “close coordination” with temple activists and disregard Jewish worship that takes place, marking a “radical shift” in their relationship.
Activists have been seen praying at the Muslim cemetery and adjacent to Bab al-Rahma.
“Given the deepening ties between the movement and the right-wing Israeli political establishment, there are rising suspicions in the Palestinian community that the state intends to establish a synagogue at the site,” Ir Amim noted.
“As a result, there is increasing pressure among some Palestinians to consolidate the Muslim presence at Bab al-Rahma in order to curtail any potential plans.”
Restrictions for Palestinians
For Palestinians, maintaining a presence at the compound is necessary to ensure control over Al-Aqsa.
With the desecration of mosques and other holy sites after 1948 and the division of Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque to allow Jewish worship, Palestinians have progressively lost control over religious sites and national symbols, Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) reported in 2015.
While religious Jews are increasingly visiting the holy site, for Palestinians living in the occupied territories, visiting Al-Aqsa remains a dream as they are typically not allowed to visit.
“Of course the occupation is trying to restrict [access for Palestinians], have fewer [Palestinians] go there,” Halawani said.
“It’s not giving permits for people from the West Bank. The police are always at the doors [to Al-Aqsa] scaring people. They threaten people: ‘If you do what [Halawani’s] doing, you’re going to end up like her.'”
Halawani said it was when she started attracting large numbers of Palestinians to visit Al-Aqsa that she first caught the attention of Israeli authorities.
In 2011, she started a programme for women at the mosque teaching Quran recitation. In the beginning, 50 women attended. Two years later, the number had grown to 650, with women arriving from across the country, including from the Naqab (Negev) desert.
In the summertime, the numbers multiplied with around 1,000 children attending camp at the compound every day.
It led to her first ban in 2012 and the programme was disbanded.
“The idea of encouraging people to come to Al-Aqsa, to be there, that in itself [is seen] as a threat,” Halawani said.
With little being done about the eroding status quo and with Israeli MKs continuously calling for Israeli sovereignty over the site, Halawani is determined to at least inform others through social media about the dangers facing Al-Aqsa, even if it means another arrest or ban.
ICG explained in its analysis that “Jewish historical and religious sites in East Jerusalemhave become foci of Israeli control, attracting a Jewish presence that securitises Arab surroundings and embitters residents”.
“Many Palestinians believe their last stand is at Al-Aqsa, in a city already lost.”