Israeli Jews dress as Muslims to defy Al-Aqsa prayer ban

Sacred to Muslims and revered by Jews, the compound has long been a flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Rima Mustafa - Al-Jazeera)

Arwa Ibrahim & Rima Mustafa

Al-Jazeera  /  March 16, 2022

Right-wing Israeli Jews dress as Muslims to enter Al-Aqsa compound in efforts to change the status quo at Islam’s third holiest site.

Occupied East Jerusalem – Israeli Jewish activist Raphael Morris has a lot to do before his unauthorized visit to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem.

The 26-year-old swaps his orthodox Jewish clothes with a thobe – a traditional garment also called a dishdasha or jalabiya, worn by many Palestinian men, and his black kippa for a white prayer skullcap. Peering into a mirror, he slicks his long, dark side-locks back with hair gel to hide them under the cap, mumbling a few Arabic words to refresh his memory.

Morris is one of a small group of right-wing Israeli Jews who try to circumvent a ban on non-Muslims praying at Al-Aqsa Mosque compound by disguising themselves as Muslims and joining rows of worshippers during communal prayers.

Following Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, a delicate status quo was agreed with Jordan – the custodian of Islamic sites in the city – giving Muslims the sole right to pray at Al-Aqsa and Jews at the nearby Western Wall.

The Al-Aqsa compound or al-Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) is Islam’s third-holiest site. It encompasses Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, from where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.

Jews believe the Biblical Jewish temples once stood at the Noble Sanctuary, which they call Temple Mount.

Set up by Morris and his wife nine years ago, his organization, Returning to the Mount, encourages Jews to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque compound by sneaking in among Muslim worshippers.

They believe their actions will pave the way for “full Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount and building a Jewish temple over the Dome of the Rock,” said Morris, explaining that they also try to keep the Israeli public engaged with the issue by holding demonstrations and working to influence parliament and the media.

According to Morris, tens of Israeli Jews circumvent the ban on a daily basis at times, and the number of people contacting his organization to seek guidance on entering and praying at the site continues to rise.

The group members go as far as taking Arabic classes, learning enough of the language and verses from the Quran to talk their way through security checkpoints without getting caught by Israeli police or Palestinian security guards at the compound gates.

“There are tens of thousands of Muslims who pass through these gates every day. Our target is to blend in and not get caught,” Morris told Al Jazeera as he showed some of the “costumes” he wears to enter the site.

While the “professionals” among the group can stand side-by-side with Muslim worshippers by mimicking their movements, he explained, “the less experienced enter when it’s emptier”.

History of tensions

Sacred to Muslims and revered by Jews, the compound has long been a flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Non-Muslims are allowed to visit the compound but are prohibited from engaging in religious rituals there. Israeli authorities enforce this rule to prevent tensions, although no Israeli law prohibits Jewish prayer at the site.

Omar al-Kiswani, Al-Aqsa compound manager, told Al-Jazeera that until 2000, the Muslim Waqf, which administers the holy site, required non-Muslims to book tickets to enter the site as tourists.

But after right-wing Israeli politician Ariel Sharon stormed the complex along with hundreds of riot police, the situation became tenser.

“Sharon’s provocative visit challenged the status quo and encouraged other Israeli extremists to try to enter and pray at Al-Aqsa,” said Al-Kiswani.

“When their attempts to pressure the Israeli government to overturn the ban failed, they resorted to this – entering the mosque in disguise,” he said.

The storming of the compound by Sharon angered Muslims around the world and sparked the second Intifada, Intifadat al-Aqsa, a civil uprising in the occupied Palestinian territory.

Visits for non-Muslims have since been set at designated hours outside Muslim prayer times and authorized through a single gate – the Moroccan Gate – which Israeli authorities have blocked off to Muslims.

Israeli police and Palestinian security guards thwart most unauthorized attempts to enter the complex but, Al-Kiswani said, worshippers and people who call themselves the Mourabitoun – Palestinian volunteers stationed at the mosque to protect it against intruders – also play a role in reporting suspicious activity.

Al-Kiswani told Al-Jazeera that while the Israeli police were aware that a change to the status quo would threaten public peace and security, he feels the Israeli authorities are responsible for the transgressions at the site.

Ellie Levi, spokesman for the Israeli police, told Al-Jazeera the force works “to thwart attempts of unauthorized persons entering the Temple Mount area in violation of the rules”.

“Police officers operate outside all entrances to the Temple Mount around the clock and exceptional incidents are handled accordingly. We will not allow anyone to endanger public peace and security on the Temple Mount or anywhere else,” he said, referring to the compound by its Jewish name.

Trying to change the status quo?

Groups of Israeli settlers have, since 2003, frequently contravened the ban on prayer at the site under the protection of Israeli security forces.

Separate to Morris’ organization, a number of far-right Israeli Jews, most notably US-born rabbi and activist Yehuda Glick, have called for Jewish prayer at Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Last year, after Israeli authorities slapped a two-week ban on Israeli rabbi Aryeh Lippo for praying at the site, a Jerusalem court attempted to strike down the ban, sparking anger among Palestinians.

In a report last year, The New York Times claimed that the Israeli government was “quietly” allowing Jews to conduct prayers at the compound. It pointed to the case of Glick, who regularly enters the site and makes little effort to hide his rituals.

According to Israeli media, dozens of fringe movements have tried to change the status quo at the complex in recent years. Some try to construct ceremonial objects at the site, others focus on political lobbying and encouraging Jews to visit.

It reports that the frequency of Jewish visits has also increased, with more than 10,000 Jewish worshippers entering the site between September and November last year – an 80 percent increase compared to previous months.

In May last year, tensions rose in Jerusalem following the repeated storming of the compound by Israeli police during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, leaving hundreds of worshippers injured.

The events coincided with daily protests in support of Palestinian families facing forced displacement from their homes in the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

The Israeli crackdown in occupied East Jerusalem and its 11-day military assault on Gaza triggered unprecedented mass protests by Palestinians within Israel, in the occupied territory as well as in the diaspora.

At least 248 Palestinians, including 66 children were killed in Israel’s Gaza assault. At least 12 people, including two children, were also killed in Israel by rockets fired from Gaza.

Rebuilding the temple

Morris was recently handed a three-month ban by Israeli police, ordering him to stay clear of the Old City, but he vows to return.

He feels his visits draw “a new reality on the ground where Jews can enter the site at any hour and from any gate”, he told Al-Jazeera. “Even if I don’t go back, others [Jews] will.”

A poll conducted by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies in 2017 found that about 70 percent of Jewish Israelis believed Israel should gain sovereignty over the site, allowing Jews to pray and build a temple there.

“If you ask a random Jew whether they want to rebuild the temple, the answer will be yes,” said Morris, repeating his belief that the visits were the first step toward achieving that goal.

‘Ironic’ dualities

Palestinians have accused Israeli forces of cracking down on the Mourabitoun, banning dozens of Palestinian men and women from Al-Aqsa over their activism against unauthorized Israeli visits to the complex.

Among them is Hanadi Halawani, a Quran teacher at Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and PhD student at Birzeit University. Halawani has been arrested by Israeli security forces and banned from the site more than 60 times over her activism.

“What’s ironic is that I’m currently banned from the mosque for six months because Israeli authorities falsely accused me of violating a 2020 expulsion order.

“Meanwhile, settlers openly talk about entering the compound in disguise, and nothing’s done to punish them,” said Halawni.

Despite the ongoing restrictions that Halawani and dozens of other Mourabitoun face over their activism, she vows to carry on.

“It’s our duty as Muslims to protect Al-Aqsa from intruders,” she told Al-Jazeera. “Israeli settlers have no right to this place.”

Arwa Ibrahim is a journalist focusing on the Middle East and North Africa

Rima MustafaAl-Jazeera