Middle East Eye / April 11, 2023
I have been arrested dozens of times and repeatedly banned from Al-Aqsa – all because of my work to strengthen Palestinians’ connection to the holy site.
I have almost stopped counting the number of times Israel has arrested and interrogated me, or issued travel bans – all because of my attachment to, and presence at, the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Current events are the result of years of intensive Israeli planning to divide the mosque, convert it into a Jewish site and expel Muslims, similar to what happened at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron.
My relationship with Al-Aqsa Mosque began to strengthen two decades ago, when I lived in the Wadi al-Joz neighbourhood of occupied East Jerusalem, less than a kilometre from the mosque where I prayed daily.
My goal was greater than just praying at Al-Aqsa. I aimed to defend it and protect it from the settlers who are constantly storming the mosque complex and violating its sanctity. To allow me to spend longer periods of time at the mosque, I decided I had to get a job inside.
A certificate for teaching the Quran was like a card that facilitated my daily presence at Al-Aqsa. Since 2011, I have worked on a project to teach the Quran to worshippers ranging in age from 12 to 80 years.
In 2012, the eye of the Israeli occupation began to watch and chase me, because of my permanent presence at Al-Aqsa and the respect worshippers had for me. I was considered influential, gathering people in the mosque and increasing their attachment to it.
From then until now, I have received a series of punitive orders from Israeli authorities, banning me from travelling and from attending Al-Aqsa, including during the holy month of Ramadan. I have received a cumulative total of two years of house arrest and banishment from the Old City, been summoned for dozens of interrogations, and been arrested 67 times.
Israeli authorities have raided my home, terrorised my children, prevented me from entering the occupied West Bank, and confiscated my phones and computers, among other violations – all because of my devotion to Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Since I was a little girl, I have viewed Al-Aqsa Mosque as a place for prayer, meditation and reading the Quran. It is a quiet and peaceful place where no worshipper raises their voice.
In addition to prayer, it is a place for relaxation; worshippers go to Al-Aqsa and forget their problems at the gates, experiencing the splendour of the site.
But Israel’s drive to take over Al-Aqsa, which began 23 years ago during the Second Intifada and has gradually escalated, makes us all feel oppressed and restricted.
In September 2000, then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon stormed Al-Aqsa complex. Worshippers became angry, and the ensuing violence sparked a five-year uprising that killed thousands of people.
Since then, settlers have been regularly storming the mosque, guarded by Israeli police. They perform Jewish religious rituals and call explicitly to demolish Al-Aqsa and build a Third Temple in its place.
I have twice witnessed raids similar to the one that took place last week at the mosque. Soldiers have treated worshippers brutally, scenes that I cannot forget – and such scenes are repeated annually during the month of Ramadan. Would the international reaction be as tepid if such violations occurred at a place of worship elsewhere in the world? Would other states still remain silent?
It is a painful and helpless feeling to know that I am a daughter of Jerusalem – and yet, I cannot enter the mosque. What separates me from Al-Aqsa is a wall and an unjust Israeli decision against me.
What really breaks my heart is that this mosque, which Israeli soldiers have defiled with their boots and bullets, is the same place where the Prophet Muhammad once prayed.
Challenging the occupation
For me, Al-Aqsa Mosque is paradise – but this experience is distorted by the repeated Israeli incursions into the holy site, whether by soldiers or settlers.
Israel’s policy of banishing worshippers from Al-Aqsa has led to the direct targeting of many activists, influencers and even mosque guards. This policy has affected women in particular, as their presence during Israeli incursions constitutes an obstacle for settlers.
The Israeli practice of issuing bans usually escalates before the start of the holy month of Ramadan, when Itikaf entails staying overnight in the mosque to pray. Israel’s brutal repression aims to prevent this type of Muslim worship and to ensure a calm atmosphere for settlers the next morning, during their incursions into the mosque.
Each of the many times I have been banished from Al-Aqsa, I and other banished women have contemplated how we could challenge such unjust decisions. We ultimately decided to pray at the closest point to the mosque that we could access, which is on al-Mujahideen Road. For several years, we have done so, and today it is known that anyone banished from Al-Aqsa can join us at this spot.
During the month of Ramadan, we were not satisfied to only pray on that road. We also began to have Iftar collectively, so people could visit, gather around us and learn why we were eating in the street. The goal is to spread the word about our cause to as many people as possible.
In this way, we are challenging the occupation’s decision to keep us away from Al-Aqsa.
Hanady Halawani is a Palestinian activist who lives in Jerusalem