Amid pandemic, Israel expands control over Al-Khalil-Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque

For activist Aref Jaber, the Ibrahimi mosque case is “not about religion, it’s not about Muslims versus Jews. At the end of the day, this boils down to a political issue.” (Akram al-Waraa - MEE)

Akram al-Waara

Middle East Eye  /  June 3, 2020

The recent expropriation of land near the flashpoint mosque comes amid ever increasing restrictions on Palestinian movement in the area, seen as part of Israeli annexation efforts.

In the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic, Palestinian residents of the Old City of Al-Khalil-Hebron, in the southern occupied West Bank, found themselves fighting another battle that, for them, holds far higher stakes than the spread of Covid-19.

On 13 May, the Israeli military issued an expropriation order allowing construction to begin on an elevator project that would make a portion of the ancient Ibrahimi Mosque wheelchair accessible.

“On the surface, making holy sites accessible to people with disabilities seems like a fine idea,” Aref Jaber, a local Palestinian activist and resident of the Old City, told Middle East Eye. “But in reality, this is just another dubious way for the Israeli government and settlers to steal more of our land and take it for themselves.”

The new elevator project, Jaber said, would swallow up more space of the already restricted Muslim side of the compound.

The Ibrahimi compound – known to Israelis as the Cave of the Patriarchs – was split into a mosque and synagogue following the 1994 massacre of dozens of Palestinian worshipers at the hands of Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein.

Former Israeli Defence Minister Naftali Bennett, who authorised the plan, also instructed the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Israeli military body ruling over the West Bank, “to take all action necessary” to expropriate additional land around the sanctuary for the use of the accessibility project.

“On top of taking more of our land and holy space, this elevator would only serve the Israeli settlers on the other side of the sanctuary,” Jaber said.

“This is not about an elevator,” he continued. “It’s about stealing more land, bringing in more settlers, and kicking out more Palestinians. That’s what it’s always about with Israel.”

A domino effect

When Israel announced plans for the elevator, condemnation from Palestinian leaders and activists was swift.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) denounced it as a crime, with the Ministry of Religious Affairs calling it a “provocative and malicious” project intended to further Israel’s domination over the holy site.

PA Minister of Civilian Affairs Hussein al-Sheikh called the decision a “continuation of the annexation project” in the West Bank and Jerusalem, while the foreign ministry condemned it as an effort to “change Arab and Islamic features and the identity of the Palestinian region, and to create new realities that fall within the framework of a widespread Judaisation process”.

For Palestinians, one of the main issues with the plan was the fact that the Israeli military was bypassing the Palestinian municipality of Hebron, which – under the 1997 Hebron Agreement between Israel and the PA – has the final say and oversight on such projects.

When the municipality objected to the plan, Israel decided to move forward anyway, placing the project under the control of COGAT.

With Bennett granting full control over the project to COGAT, arming it with the power to seize as much land and resources that it needs for the project, what little say Palestinians did have over the site was gone.

Despite assurances from COGAT that Palestinians would have 60 days to appeal the decision, and that the project “will not change the prayer arrangement nor the status quo” at the site, locals say the changes on the ground began almost immediately after the decision was made.

“Suddenly, they stopped allowing journalists and cameras inside the mosque, and telling us we weren’t allowed to film inside the sanctuary,” Jaber told MEE.

When the PA officially ended the emergency coronavirus lockdown in the West Bank and ordered the reopening of all the mosques at the end of May, Jaber and other residents of the Old City rushed to the doors of the mosque, only to find Israeli soldiers blocking their entry.

Days later, Israeli authorities prevented the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee (HRC) from continuing an ongoing restoration project in the sanctuary, saying it didn’t have the proper permits to work in the area.

Just 24 hours later, Israeli soldiers stationed in the area prevented worshippers from announcing the call to prayer over the mosque loudspeaker.

“For more than 30 years, Israeli settlers have been trying to take over the Ibrahimi Mosque and the Old City,” Hifthi Abu Sneineh, 60, the imam of the mosque told MEE.

From the moment that 29 Palestinians were massacred in the mosque more than 25 years ago, Abu Sneineh said, the Israeli government has been slowly chipping away at Palestinian influence over the site, which as the believed burial place of prophet Abraham, is the second holiest place in Judaism.

“Immediately following the massacre, they divided the mosque into two parts, giving more than 60 percent of the site to Jews for a synagogue,” he said. “Then, over the years, they started building checkpoints around the mosque, expanding settlements, and making life as hard as they could for Palestinian worshippers.”

Ironically, Abu Sneineh said, the elevator that is meant to make life easier for Jewish visitors with disabilities, is only making life harder for Palestinians.

“This is their goal: to make life harder for Palestinians, and make life easier for the settlers. To restrict Palestinian worship, promote Jewish visitation, and forever change the history and Islamic character of this place.”

Taking advantage of a pandemic

Unchecked Israeli control over such an extensive project, coupled with ongoing settlement construction and expansion in the area, has stirred fear within the local Palestinian community, leaving them wondering what might happen next.

For Jaber, the encroachment on the mosque is an affront to all Palestinians living in the Old City.

“It’s not about religion, it’s not about Muslims versus Jews,” he said. “At the end of the day, this boils down to a political issue.

“Israel is a settler-colonial state, using measures like this one to advance their annexation plans, with the full backing of the United States,” he added.

It is no coincidence, Jaber said, that the new projects in the Old City coincide with Israel’s plans to annex large swaths of the West Bank as early as July.

“The elevator, the settlements, the new mall they are building for the settlers here, it’s all part of the Trump peace plan and the Israeli annexation plan,” he said. “These projects are a culmination of the plans that Israel has been working on for decades.”

Over the years, Jaber noted, Israel has succeeded in pushing out Palestinians from the Old City through a number of tactics, including heavy restrictions on movement, construction, and increasing the presence of violent settlers in the area.

“In Hebron you can see clearly the apartheid system that Israel has built,” he said, adding that of the original 30,000 Palestinian families living in the Old City, only 500 remain.

“They don’t let Palestinians fix their houses, they don’t let us bring in furniture through the checkpoints, we get stopped and searched randomly just because soldiers feel like it, and we have to pass through dozens of militarised checkpoints and gates just to reach our homes and holy places,” he said.

But Israeli settlers in the Old City, he continued, “can build whatever they want, fix up the houses that they stole from us, build shopping malls, and build elevators to make their lives easier.”

Both Jaber and Abu Sneineh expressed frustration over the belief that Israeli authorities “took advantage” of the coronavirus pandemic to further its colonial projects in the occupied territory.

“During the coronavirus lockdown, everything was shut down, so the Israelis used this as a time for them to steal more land from Palestinians, because there was nothing people could do about it,” Abu Sneineh said.

According to Jaber, “one of the most effective tools that we have used as peaceful activists to maintain our presence in the city is by organising prayers at the Ibrahimi mosque,” referring to a weeks-long campaign pre-Covid-19 that drew thousands of worshippers for morning prayers.

Now, the soldiers only let in a few dozen worshippers at a time, Jaber said, “under the guise of health concerns because of the coronavirus”.

“We know that they don’t care about our health, because they kill us everywhere we go,” he said.  “They just use this as an excuse to not let people in, and take more control.”

Akram al-Waara is a Palestinian freelance video journalist based out of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank