Despite Israel’s ultimatum to close the site by Monday, Waqf says Bab al-Rahma will remain open for Muslims to pray.
The Islamic authority that oversees Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem has rejected an Israeli court order to close a hall in the holy Al-Aqsa Mosque compound that has ignited tension between Palestinian worshippers and Israeli police in recent weeks.
Sheikh Abdel Azeem Salhab, head of the Waqf Council appointed by neighbouring Jordan, said on Tuesday that the structure, Bab al-Rahma, also known as the “Gate of Mercy”, would “remain open for Muslims to pray,” despite Israel’s ultimatum to close the site by next Monday.
“We will not respond to courts of the occupation regarding the issue of Bab al-Rahma and Al-Aqsa Mosque and it [does not have authority over the matter],” the council said in a statement after it convened for an emergency meeting on Tuesday.
Salhab demanded that Israel permit the Waqf to renovate the building and revoke orders banning dozens of Waqf officials, guards and worshippers from the sacred compound.
Israeli authorities banned 133 Palestinians from entering the Al-Aqsa Mosque in February, according to a report by the Jerusalem-based Wadi Hilweh Information Centre.
Among them was Salhab, who was banned from entering the holy compound for 40 days, an unprecedented move by Israeli authorities.
The deputy director Sheikh Najeh Bkerat was also issued a ban for four months.
Some 229 people were also arrested in February, according to the report.
Tensions have mounted in Jerusalem since Palestinians opened Bab al-Rahma last month, located in the compound by the eastern wall of the Old City. Prayers by Muslim worshippers have been taking place at the site since then.
Israel had sealed off the structure in 2003, claiming the building was being used for political activities by an outlawed group. The Waqf has recently challenged the closure, claiming that it has administrative authority over all structures within the compound.
Calls for a synagogue
Adding to the tension, activists from the Israeli right wing have called on the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to build a synagogue at Bab al-Rahma, according to The Jerusalem Post newspaper.
The daily reported on Tuesday that activists have urged the government to open “the synagogue for Jewish prayers”.
This came during a meeting attended by scores of right-wing activists on Sunday, the newspaper said.
At the end of the meeting, the activists called for Israelis to ascend to the holy compound en masse on Thursday “to strengthen the Jewish hold on the holy site”, according to the JewishPress news website.
For Muslims, Al-Aqsa represents the world’s third-holiest site after Mecca and Medina. Jews refer to the area as the “Temple Mount” claiming it was the site of two Jewish temples in ancient times.
Israel occupied East Jerusalem, where Al-Aqsa is located, during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. It annexed the entire city in 1980 in a move never recognized by the international community.