Born and bred in Jerusalem’s Old City, Latifa Abdellatif is on a self-defined mission: To protect Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.
The 25-year-old Palestinian is a member of a group of women who spend most of their time huddled inside the Noble Sanctuary – which houses these two Islamic sites – praying, learning the Quran, and, as she puts it, standing up to Israeli extremists who “storm” the premises.
The Jews call the esplanade the Temple Mount and consider it their holiest site, and Muslims refer to it as the Noble Sanctuary, or al-Haram al-Sharif.
The site, also known as the Cave of the Patriarchs, was effectively partitioned after an Israeli settler killed 29 Palestinians during Friday prayers in 1994.
Abdellatif’s actions, which include patrolling the compound and shouting religious oaths at Jews visiting the site, are practised by a group called the Mourabitat – female defenders or sentinels of the sanctuary. Male equivalents, known as Mourabitoun, essentially work the same way: disrupting visits by ultranationalist Jewish religious groups and politicians who have been increasingly defying the order that bars non-Muslims from praying at the compound.
The interrogator said my charge was being present at Al-Aqsa every day, which constituted a threat to public security.
Her activities, she said, have made her no stranger to interrogation by the Israeli police, nor to verbal and physical assault from Israeli authorities. Last December, Abdellatif was even banished from the Noble Sanctuary for three months. “I was interrogated for six hours back then,” Abdellatif said. “The interrogator said my charge was ‘being present at Al-Aqsa every day’, which constituted a threat to public security.”
Last year, Israeli authorities began debating the legality of the organisations, and on September 8, they officially outlawed them. Moshe Ya’alon, the country’s defence minister, signed a regulation declaring the Mourabitat and Mourabitoun to be illegal groups, leaving Palestinians like Abdellatif subject to trial.
The move also allows for the prosecution of those who finance the groups’ activities.
According to a statement from the minister’s office: “The[ir] activities … are a main factor in creating the tension and violence on the Temple Mount in particular and in Jerusalem in general.”
“They engage in inciteful and dangerous activity against tourists, visitors, and worshippers at the site, which leads to violence and is liable to injure human life,” the statement said.
But some members of the Mourabitoun said they would defy the new order and continue to monitor Jewish groups who enter the compound under Israeli police protection.
“By outlawing our group, they are trying to scare us from doing our job to protect these houses of God,” said Illiya, who did not want to give her last name for fear of arrest. “Our purpose is not to wreak havoc. We just want to make sure that our holy sites are not taken over.”
Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967 and later gave Jordan administrative jurisdiction over the sanctuary, while retaining control of security and access to the site.
“They are linked to – and frequently guided by – hostile Islamic organisations,” said the statement by Ya’alon’s office, with the intention to “change the existing reality and arrangements at the site and infringe on freedom of worship”.
The groups, however, say they are comprised of volunteers who work on their own initiative.
Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib, head of the Islamic Waqf, which runs the affairs of Al-Aqsa Mosque, said the Israeli move to outlaw the groups was “totally unacceptable”.
“The Israeli authorities have no right to interfere in Al-Aqsa’s affairs,” al-Khatib said. “No one can prevent Muslims from reaching their holy sites, and access to the mosque is the right of every Muslim.”
Tensions around Al-Aqsa have been high since Sunday when Israeli forces met Palestinians in the compound with tear gas and stun grenades. The soldiers carried out a surprise raid against Palestinian men who had barricaded themselves inside the mosque.
This came as more Jewish Israelis, including a right-wing minister, entered the area in advance of the Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah, celebrations.
But a statement from the Palestinian president’s office said Mahmoud Abbas condemned the move as an “attack by the occupier’s military and police against Al-Aqsa Mosque and [an] aggression against the faithful who were there”.
Abdellatif said very similar clashes had erupted last July – on another Jewish holiday – and that these clashes are bound to reoccur should authorities continue to impose restrictions on the movement of Palestinians, while giving more right-wing Jewish groups access to the site.
“Israeli authorities think that if they hit us [the Mourabitat], or ban us from the compound, then we will ultimately stay at home,” she said. “But these actions only make us more determined to come back and stand up for what’s right.”