Having been destroyed and rebuilt several times throughout history the Al-Aqsa mosque is the third holiest site in Islam. It is believed to be the place where Prophet Mohammed was transported during the Night Journey and ascended to heaven, known in Arabic as Al-Isra w’al Mi’raj, and was the first Qibla, the site to which all Muslims face when praying, before God directed Mohammed to face the Ka’aba in Mecca instead.
For Jews, the Temple Mount is the holiest site in the religion. It is believed to be where the two original temples stood. Whilst it has been difficult to prove the first temple wascertainly here, it is widely accepted that Solomon’s Temple was located on the site. The site is surrounded by a wall around all sides, but the Western Wall, on the Southern side is still revered as the most sacred site in Judaism outside of the Temple Mount itself.
The Temple Mount contains not only the Al-Aqsa mosque, but also the Dome of the Rock, which is frequently mistaken for the mosque. The Dome of the Rock contains the Foundation Stone, which is of great religious significance for Jews, Muslims and Christians alike, believed to lead down to the Well of Souls and the Ark of the Covenant.
In the words of Simon Montefiore, from his book Jerusalem; The Biography,
“Jerusalem is the universal city, the capital of two peoples, the shrine of three faiths; it is the prize of empires, the site of Judgement Day and the battlefield of today’s clash of civilisations… and is the only city to exist twice – in heaven and on earth.”
For this reason, ownership of the Al-Aqsa mosque has been a contentious issue throughout the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Whilst the Palestinians maintain custodianship of the site through the Islamic waqf who have governed the geographic site since Muslims re-conquered Jerusalem in 1187; Israel today claims sovereignty over the mosque and the entire Temple Mount. It is the most contested piece of real estate in history, and we would not be aggrandizing facts if we state that people have been dying for control over it for many many centuries.
Muslim residents in Israel and Palestinians living in east Jerusalem are normally allowed to enter and pray at Al-Aqsa without too many restrictions. However the Israeli authorities do occasionally prevent certain groups of people from worshiping at the holy site at different times, most notably; young, unmarried men or anyone from Gaza and the West Bank.
A rabbinical consensus and Knesset legal ruling declared in 2005 that the 1967 declaration forbidding Jews to pray or even enter the Temple Mount, is still binding. This is down to the fact that the location of the Holiest of Holies, whilst presumed to be under the Foundation Stone, is not exact, and Jews do not wish to risk accidentally stepping on the site whereby the presence of God exists on earth. However, there are a small but growing number of far right wing extremist Orthodox Jews and illegal settlers who believe they have the right to enter the land to pray and live in or around it.
Since the 50 day war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza this summer, there has been a sharp rise in the number of clashes outside of Al-Aqsa between extremist Israeli settlers and Palestinian Muslims. For over a month, Israeli authorities have been barring Muslims in Jerusalem from worshiping at the mosque, slowly easing restrictions here and there whenever possible. Since early October, the Israeli government has deployed over 1000 police officers and 350 soldiers to erect roadblocks and barricades around the old city in Jerusalem to prohibit the entrance of all Muslim men under 50 into the site, whilst concurrently tacitly allowing over 1300 Jewish settlers to enter.
The confrontations outside Al-Aqsa have been described by President of the Palestinian Authority; Mahmoud Abbas, as “tantamount to a declaration of war” and an attempt to desecrate the Muslim Holy site, and he has begun legal proceedings against the settlers. However, Israeli Foreign Minister; Avigdor Lieberman, has labelled Abbas an anti-Semite for wanting to prevent the settlers from gaining access and has warned that the President of the PA is inciting deep political tensions to start a holy war, likening him to the leadership of IS.
The trigger for this latest round of violence was the shooting of a 32 year old Palestinian man, suspected of attempting to kill a far right Jewish activist. The source of the latest conflict in the eyes of the Palestinians is the Elad Group; who has been given the green light to develop the area around the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque into a visitors centre and to build new settlements. As previously mentioned, although currently forbidden to Jews, changes in the Israeli political environment, which has seen a major shift to the hawkish right in recent years, has seen a change in attitude to the development of the land around Al-Aqsa and the Temple Mount.
For the Palestinians and many Muslims worldwide, these plans serve as a prelude for Israel to divide and control the land surrounding Al-Aqsa. Arab MK; Masoud Ghanayim is quoted in Felesteen, a daily Palestinian newspaper, saying;
“The developments are part of a larger plan of Judaisation of Jerusalem”
This view seems to be supported by Daniel Seidemann, a legal expert in Israeli policies, who says that the Israeli government is increasing its efforts to Hebronise Jerusalem. This is a reference to what happened in Hebron, when settlers were given rights over the Palestinians. The subsequent violence that followed resulted in the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre, wherein 30 Muslims were gunned down during morning prayer in the holy month of Ramadan when Israeli military doctor Baruch Goldstein stormed the mosque and opened fire.
For Israel, the priority remains to de-escalate the situation. Following the visit of US Secretary of State John Kerry, the authorities have lifted the age ban for worshipers at Al-Aqsa. Prime Minister Netenyahu has repeatedly maintained that there are no plans to change the status-quo however these reassurances have failed to calm the Palestinians who say that the government’s continuous expansion of settlements means these are just empty words.
No other place on earth invokes the same desire for absolute custodianship than Al-Aqsa and the Old City in Jerusalem. An irony lost on many, seeing that the shrines and holy sites so fervidly fought over are actually all stolen or ‘borrowed’ from former religions. If, as we are to believe, the Knesset is planning to vote on a draft law proposing to partition the land of the Temple Mount and Al-Aqsa, we can only assume that we will not see an end to the recently renewed violence for a long while yet, and many more lives will be lost on both sides for the purpose of political and religious one-upmanship.