Middle East Monitor / October 18, 2019
Not a day goes by without another Israeli attack on various aspects of Palestinian life, be it through home demolitions, land confiscations, the abduction of youngsters in the night or attacks on their holy places. A good source of factual information about Israel’s attacks is the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
OCHA’s most recent protection of civilians report shows that in the period 1-14 October, two Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces, 509 were injured, 12 Palestinian structures were demolished, and 191 “search and arrest” operations were carried out in the occupied West Bank. This is what the occupation looks and feels like for Palestinians during what was a relatively quiet period.
Although OCHA does not document Israeli attacks on Palestinian holy sites specifically, two of these have been under attack for many years. The Ibrahimi Mosque is in Hebron and is also known as the Tomb of the Patriarchs; it sits in the centre of the city which has been taken over by the Israeli occupation authorities, which now control access to the mosque. The local Palestinians resisted attempts by illegal settlers planted in the city after the 1967 war to control the mosque. The occupation authorities, though, took actual control of the site after a Jewish terrorist-settler massacred 29 Muslim worshippers on 25 February 1994 before he was overpowered and killed.
The Israeli authorities then closed the mosque and divided it into an area for Muslims and another for Jews. On the days of Jewish or Muslim festivals, the authorities only allow Jews or Muslims to pray in the mosque.
The division of the mosque was a unilateral act by Israel, which also regularly bans the Muslim call for prayer, following complaints from illegal settlers that it disturbs them. On average, Israel bans the call around 50 times per month.
Israel controls access to the mosque through checkpoints that also restrict their movement of Palestinians between the different parts of the city and allows the settlers to terrorise the indigenous population at will. It is usually necessary for children to be accompanied by international observers simply to go to and from school.
The occupation authorities have essentially used the Ibrahimi Mosque as a test bed for the big prize, Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Israel seized control of the Noble Sanctuary when it captured East Jerusalem in 1967 and the Israeli flag flew for a short time over the holy site. The mosque was set alight in 1969, reportedly by an Australian tourist; the damage included the complete destruction of a 1,000-year old pulpit.
Palestinian fears about a full Israeli takeover of Al-Aqsa are entirely justified. They remember the closure imposed by Israel following an attack on security forces at one of the mosque’s entrances, and that the state installed security gates at the main gate used by worshippers. Palestinians refused to accept any changes to their access rights and protested through peaceful prayer for two full weeks, forcing the Netanyahu government to remove the gates.
This was a blatant attempt by Israel to change the status quo that has existed since Jerusalem and its holy sites were occupied in 1967. The agreement made then, which was included in the peace treaty with Jordan, recognises the Hashemite Kingdom’s custodianship over the Noble Sanctuary; the Jordanian Ministry of Religious Endowments still oversees the day-to-day running of the mosque. The agreement recognises the right of Muslims to pray at the mosque and for non-Muslims, including Jews, to visit but not to pray. Non-Muslim visitors used to gain entry via a ticket from the ministry, but this practice ended at the start of the second intifada in 2000.
While non-Jewish visitors comply with the guidelines issued by the ministry, there has been an increasing trend in recent years of dozens of Jewish settlers making uncoordinated visits to the mosque site, protected by Israeli security forces. The numbers involved and the threats to pray there increase when such incursions coincide with Jewish religious festivals. Figures for 2018 show a record number of 33,000 settler incursions, up from 25,000 in 2017.
Israeli politicians regularly take part in such provocation, most infamously in 2000 when former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon entered the site protected by Israeli security forces. The resultant protests by Palestinians sparked the Second Intifada (2000-2005).
Israel used to claim that there are no plans to change the status quo at Al-Aqsa. However, this has now given way to senior Israeli leaders suggesting that there is a need to do exactly that in order to allow Jews to pray at the Muslim holy site.
For example, Israel’s Minister for Strategic Affairs, Gilad Erdan, suggested recently that the status of the holy mosque should be changed to allow Jews to pray there. “I think there is in an injustice in the status quo that has existed since ’67,” he told Israel’s Radio 90. “We need to work to change it so in the future Jews, with the help of God, can pray at the Temple Mount.”
Erdan clarified that this should not be done unilaterally; “This needs to be achieved by diplomatic agreements and not by force.” Nevertheless, his remarks drew an immediate rebuke from the Jordanian Foreign Ministry, which warned that any changes to the status quo could have severe consequences.
There has been an increase in Jewish settlers attempting to pray within the Noble Sanctuary, which raises tensions with Palestinians and Jordanian officials. The call by Jewish extremist groups to mark the recent Yom Kippur holiday there is further evidence of the desires of Israel to increase the number of Jewish “visitors” to Al-Aqsa.
In January, an app that is part of an Israeli government-funded exhibition called the “The Western Wall Experience” makes the Dome of the Rock Mosque disappear and replaces it with an image of a Jewish temple when pointed towards the mosque compound. This allows visitors to “to pose for a souvenir photograph” in an imagined landscape where the Muslim holy sites have been destroyed.
Those intent on building the Jewish Temple on the site of Al-Aqsa have friends in high places, not only in Israel but also in Washington. US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman has been pictured, smiling beside a poster showing that proposed replacement.
At a time when Israel is seeking to form “non-aggression pacts” with some Gulf States, its aggression against Al-Aqsa Mosque is being ramped up. The Zionist state could better spend its efforts and energy coming to a just peace deal with the Palestinians. Such a deal should end the occupation of Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Western Wall. It should also confirm that Jews pray at the Western Wall, Christians pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Muslims pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque. The sites should be open to organised visits for those of all faiths and none which do not set out to create tension.
The deal should also bring to an end to Israel’s excavations and tunnelling under the Noble Sanctuary. Furthermore, both the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron and Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem should be returned to Palestinian sovereignty and control.
Israel’s first and most important “non-aggression pact” should be with its closest neighbours, the Palestinians. Once that is secured and other illegally-occupied Arab land is returned, there would be no need to sign pacts with non-neighbouring Arab states.
Kamel Hawwash is a British Palestinian engineering academic based at the University of Birmingham; he is a commentator on Middle East affairs, Vice Chair of the British Palestinian Policy Council (BPPC) and a member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC).