Occupied East Jerusalem – Until a few weeks ago, most Israeli and Palestinian pundits dismissed the possibility of a Palestinian uprising in the near future.
However, a draft Israeli law granting Jews the right to pray at the al-Aqsa Mosque esplanade – one of the three most holy sites in Islam – is forcing some observers to reconsider their previous assessments.
The draft law, which is being discussed in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, would designate “time and space” for Jews wishing to pray there.
The haram al-sharif, or “noble sanctuary”, has been an exclusively Islamic shrine since the Arab conquest of Palestine in the 7th century AD. But the mosque was built upon the Temple Mount, itself one of Judaism’s most sacred sites.
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Since the Israeli army occupied Jerusalem in 1967, the site has borne witness to several provocative events. In 1969, an Australian Christian-Zionist named Denis Michael Rohan torched the mosque’s exquisite pulpit, which was put in place by Saladin upon retaking Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187. In 1982, Alan Goodman – a Jewish American Israeli soldier – fired an automatic rifle at Muslim worshippers in the Dome of the Rock, killing two and wounding 11.
And in 2000, then-Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount, accompanied by 1,000 policemen, asserting that the site would remain perpetually “in our hands” – an act that helped to spark the Second Intifada.
Muslims view any Jewish encroachment on the site as being at their expense and constituting an assault on their faith. Sheikh Muhammed Hussein is the head of the Supreme Muslim Council, which manages the site. “[The mosque] is part of our creed: It is expressly mentioned by name in the Holy Quran,” he said. “Thus, an Israeli aggression against the mosque and the haram al-sharif is tantamount to attacking the Kaaba in Mecca, the most sacred spot in Islam.”
He added: “I cannot imagine that Muslims around the world will remain idle as they see Jews desecrating their holy site. This issue transcends politics. It is greater than politics.”
Heart of Judaism
Israelis, too, claim the place as holy. Until a few years ago, the Chief Rabbinate in Israel strictly prohibited Jews from praying or even walking in the area known to Jews as the Temple Mount. Observant Jews would instead only pray at the outside wall. But in recent years, the Rabbinate seems to have somewhat relaxed its prohibitions in this regard, perhaps to appease Zionists who adopt a messianic ideology combining Judaism and political Zionism.
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However, spokespersons of the Chief Rabbinate vehemently deny any policy change regarding the prohibition on praying at the spot. Yefrach Toker, a spokesperson for Israel’s Chief Rabbi, David Lau, said the ruling forbidding Jews to pray at the Temple Mount “is still in effect”:
“The edict remains unchanged. I am giving you the official Jewish religious judgement.” Toker did not answer when asked why some Jews ignore the Rabbinate’s instructions forbidding them to pray and walk in the area. However, it is widely believed that most of the non-abiders are affiliated with politically inspired right wing factions, which do not always heed the Rabbinate’s rulings.
Zeev Maor, also a Rabbinate spokesperson, said that “according to halacha or Jewish religious law, no Jew may walk in the designated area”, due to ritual impurity and the need to avoid stepping on the holiest spot on the site, where the Ark of the Covenant was said to have been kept. “For thousands of years, the Temple Mount was the centre of Jewish religion,” he explained. “Hence, it is inconceivable that Jews would cede the place to non-Jews.”
Some Muslim religious leaders, however, dispute the site’s importance to Judaism. “Judaism survived thousands of years without the Temple and without Jerusalem,” argued Ikrema Sabri, an imam at the al-Aqsa Mosque. “This place has been an exclusive Muslim house of worship almost uninterruptedly for 14 centuries. We as Muslims cannot succumb to Jewish myths and whims.”
Both Palestinian and Israeli officials agree that the controversy over the site has the potential to spark an uncontrollable conflagration. “There is no doubt that this issue has the potential of provoking ordinary people like no other issue does,” said Ihab Bsiso, head of the Palestinian government press office in Ramallah.
“This is why I can say that the Israeli government is really, really playing with fire. Israel must rein in its pyromaniacs.”
An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, who didn’t want her name published because she was voicing her personal opinion, concurred: “I agree that this issue is very sensitive and could spark off a huge explosion. I believe that the draft law allowing Jews to pray at the holy site won’t pass. The government and the prime minister are aware of the potential disastrous ramifications of such a decision.”
But Hani al-Masri, a prominent Palestinian political analyst, is not sure that this is the case. “We are accustomed to seeing Israel embark on foolish acts that provoke our people,” he said. “I am sorry; I can not give the Netanyahu government the benefit of the doubt.”