World’s most dangerous flashpoint: Israeli forces repeatedly invade sacred Al-Aqsa Mosque, beat, expel worshipers, on behalf of Jewish extremists

Juan Cole

Informed Comment  /  April 6, 2023

Ann Arbor – The Israeli newspaper Arab 48 reports that both on Wednesday and Thursday mornings, Israeli security forces invaded the Al-Aqsa Mosque complex, the third holiest shrine in the Muslim world and expelled Palestinians who had been conducting an all-night retreat (i`tikaf) there for the holy fasting month of Ramadan. Video emerged from the Wednesday assault showing troops viciously assaulting worshipers. The BBC and other Western press actually called these barbaric beatings by armed occupation troops “clashes,” and said they were over a “disputed” religious site. But there is no dispute in international law about Al-Aqsa Mosque. It is governed by an endowment deed that is overseen by the Jordanian government. No responsible person in a position of power disputes this.

The Jordanian parliament condemned the Israeli storming of Al-Aqsa as an act of “state terrorism.”

Both inside Israel and in the Palestinian West Bank, Palestinians held rallies and marches to protest the attacks.

Israeli officials falsely characterize these retreats at Al-Aqsa as the faithful “barricading” themselves in the mosque, which makes an act of humble piety sound like a military maneuver. As usual, they accuse Palestinians of being terrorists, having weapons, etc. There is no evidence for this propaganda, and lots of evidence against it. When the Israeli troops made their incursion, all the helpless Palestinians could do was set off some fireworks to try to stop it.

The reason the Israelis don’t want Palestinian worshipers to carry out overnight retreats at Al-Aqsa is that they want to let militant Israeli cultists into the Muslim complex at dawn every day for the next week. So they are expelling Muslims from a mosque for the sake of far right, extremist Jews who are horning in on this Muslim holy site.

All of this is shameful in international law, but it is also very, very dangerous. In fact, the Israeli encroachments on the sacred Al-Aqsa mosque are some of the more dangerous actions now being taken in the world.

On February 22, 2006, Al-Qaeda or some similar group blew up the golden-domed Askariyya Shrine in Samarra, Iraq. The shrine is sacred to followers of the Shiite branch of Islam, since it is associated with the Twelfth Imam and his father, Hasan al-Askari. For Shiites the Twelfth Islam is a bit like Jesus for Christians, a holy figure who was transported into another, spiritual dimension from which he will one day return to institute apocalyptic changes on earth before the Judgment Day. The explosion that brought down the golden dome of the shrine killed no one. But it set off an orgy of Sunni-Shiite violence that kicked off a civil war in Iraq through 2006-2007. Some months as many as 3,000 people were killed.

Peter Galbraith, a former US ambassador to Croatia who was advising the Iraqi Kurds in that era, observed that it was the most deadly act of terrorism in history that killed no one. All the deaths ensued afterwards because of this assault on a spiritually meaningful, iconic building and the way it fed into sectarian feelings. I fear most US personnel in Iraq at the time did not know the significance of the Askariyyah Shrine, which they tended to call a “mosque.” A mosque is a place of worship analogous to a church or synagogue; a shrine is a holy place, often dominated by the tomb of a saint, that one visits for blessings.

There are a handful of really important shrines in the world. There is the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome. There is the church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. There is the Maha Bodhi Buddhist Temple at Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India. Also, say, the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa in Tokyo. For Hinduism, you have, e.g., the Vishwanath Temple at Varanasi (Benares) in India.

The three most important shrines in Islam are the Kaaba in Mecca, the Prophet Muhammad’s tomb in Medina, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque Complex atop what Jews call the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque complex is in big trouble, and that makes 1.8 billion Muslims deeply unhappy, even angry.

Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad ascended to the edges of paradise from that spot (in 617 CE ?).

Muslim armies negotiated the surrender of Jerusalem in 636 or 637. At that time, the Temple Mount had been abandoned for hundreds of years, under Roman rule, and Jews had by law been banned from Jerusalem. It was the Muslims who gradually let the Jews back into the city after half a millennium. In 705 the Muslim empire erected the Al-Aqsa Mosque, as Islam had begun to emerge as a religion in its own right. Because of its association in people’s minds with the ascension of the Prophet, it was considered a holy site. Muslims often stopped off there to worship on their way to Mecca on pilgrimage, all through the succeeding centuries. Except for a brief period during the medieval crusades, Muslim states ruled Jerusalem until World War I, when the British defeated the Ottoman Empire and established the Mandate of Palestine, which in 1939 London promised would become the independent state of Palestine for Palestinians by 1949.

Instead, the 600,000 Jews the British admitted to their Mandate or colony of Palestine, against the wishes of its 1.4 million Palestinian inhabitants, engaged in a struggle both against the departing British and against neighboring Arab states such as Jordan and Egypt to establish a Jewish state, in which they succeeded in May 1948. Some 740,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed and forever exiled from their homes and farms in what became Israel. Some live in refugee camps to this day.

In 1967 Israel seized East Jerusalem, with its solidly Palestinian population, and so put the Al-Aqsa Mosque under Israeli military occupation. It is occupied the way the 400,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem and environs are occupied.

Far right wing and millenarian Jewish movements would very much like to tear down the Al-Aqsa Mosque and build the Third Temple on the Temple Mount. There is, by the way, no archeological evidence that the place so called was the site of Solomon’s temple. It is just a folk belief. There are many disputes about where exactly the Second Temple stood, but Israeli archeologists have concluded that the Al-Aqsa Mosque does not stand within the area of the ancient Temple.

Nevertheless, far right wing Jews of the sort now being coddled and enabled by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu have a plan for the Al-Aqsa Mosque complex. They would like to take over part of it for regular Jewish worship. But that would mean frequently barring Muslims from worshiping at Al-Aqsa, for Jewish “security.” Of course, as noted above, some would like to demolish the Al-Aqsa entirely.

The thing that stands in the way of these plans is that the holy places in Jerusalem are governed by a kind of compact among religious groups called the “Status Quo,” which Israel had agreed to observe.

The UN reported last year,

“The Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine said that a few days ago, Israeli occupying forces stormed the Aqsa Mosque compound/Haram al-Sharif, shooting at worshipers and desecrating the mosque with military boots and violence. He pointed out that 200 Palestinians, including women and children were wounded and 400 arrested, yet Israel claims it is upholding the historic status quo.

Not only does Israel use security to justify killing Palestinian children on their way to school, it labels Palestinian worshippers as terrorists, he continued. Jewish extremists and settlers are not merely visiting Haram al‑Sharif, but are seeking a takeover. Israel has no authority over Haram al‑Sharif where the historic and legal status quo must be upheld, he said, adding that the occupying Power is also targeting the Palestinian identity of the city.”

By the way, the extremists have also been attacking Christian churches and sites and would clearly like to drive the other religions out of Jerusalem. Their supporters are now in the Israeli cabinet.

Juan Cole is the founder and chief editor of Informed Comment; he is Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History at the University of Michigan; he is author of, among many other books, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace amid the Clash of Empires and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam