Israel ‘campaigns to change the status quo at al-Aqsa’

Growing incursions into al-Aqsa Mosque by Jewish extremist groups could lead to bloodshed, observers warn.

al-Aqsa mosque
Recent years have seen a marked increase in the number of Jewish visitors to the compound [Getty Images]

After a summer of simmering tensions at al-Aqsa Mosque compound, a familiar flash point in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem could boil over once again, analysts warn. 

“Through their unilateral attempts to change the internationally recognised status quo, the nationalist-religious Temple Mount activists and the Israeli government that supports them pose several dangers at the local, regional and international levels,” Nur Arafeh, a policy fellow with Al-Shabaka: the Palestinian policy network, told Al Jazeera.

Jewish extremist groups, who refer to the site as the Temple Mount, have repeatedly called for the Israeli government to exercise control over al-Aqsa Mosque compound. Their increased incursions into the mosque compound have triggered Palestinian protests across the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.  Although formally banned from praying there, Israeli activists enjoy police escort when they venture into the compound. 

According to Arafeh, the “growing incursions into al-Aqsa compound” have the potential “to trigger widespread violence and bloodshed [similar to] late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the compound in 2000, which led to the second Intifada.”

INTERACTIVE: Inside al-Aqsa

Contrary to the claims that his government has no intention of altering things, members of the Likud party and the government have been campaigning to change the status quo in the al-Aqsa compound.

by Nur Arafeh, policy fellow at al-Shabaka

In the past six months, there have been several points of friction. In April, a number of Palestinian worshippers were injured by Israeli forces, as some 1,000 Jewish visitors entered the compound during Passover.

A more serious escalation occurred during Ramadan in June, when Israeli authorities were accused by Waqf officials of “preventing worshippers from bringing into the mosque special foods used for breaking the daily fast during the holiday.”

The situation was exacerbated when Israel initially reversed a long-standing ban on the entry of non-Muslims during the last 10 days of Ramadan. Visits by Israeli settlers and other groups sparked confrontations that saw dozens of Palestinians injured in the compound.

Since then, Israeli police have arrested Waqf employees in a number of separate incidents, while just last week, Israeli occupation authorities banned a senior Fatah official from entering the compound for six months.

At the end of August –  a month when some 2,000 Jewish Israelis visited the compound, including 400 on one day, a record – Waqf head Sheikh Azzam Al-Khatib renewed warnings that Israel was trying to impose a new status quo on the ground.

Mustafa Abu Sway, holder of the integral chair for the study of Imam Al-Ghazali’s work at the Holy Al-Aqsa Mosque and Al-Quds University, told Al Jazeera that there has been a definite increase in Israeli restrictions on the work of the Waqf. “Muslim worshippers are systematically harassed at all gates,” he said. “There is a blacklist of some 62 Muslim women who are prevented from entering the mosque, and an unknown number of men who suffer from the same policy.”

The Waqf was recently prevented from doing maintenance work inside the Dome of the Rock, Abu Sway noted. “The list goes on and on,” he added.

Raw Footage: Israeli settlers walking through al-Aqsa Mosque compound

Earlier this year, an International Crisis Group report confirmed – contrary to the rhetoric of the Netanyahu government at the time – that the primary trigger for unrest in Jerusalem last September was the Israeli occupation authorities’ violations of a 2014 agreement with Jordan.

Specifically, Israel reinstated “age and gender limitations on access for Muslim worshippers”, in addition to banning “non-profits organising Islamic activists [mourabitoun] at the site”.

Recent years have seen both a marked increase in the number of Jewish visitors to the compound – the 2014-15 figures were almost double that of 2009 – and an increase in the instances of access restrictions for Muslim worshippers. Thus, as Israeli NGO Emek Shaveh put it last year, “the feeling among Palestinians that Israel is changing the status quo in the area, is backed up by police data”.

“Netanyahu’s claims of Palestinian incitement are disingenuous,” Arafeh told Al Jazeera. “Contrary to the claims that his government has no intention of altering things, members of the Likud Party and the government have been campaigning to change the status quo in the al-Aqsa compound.”

In addition, she added, “there is plenty of evidence that groups enjoying government support plan to destroy the mosque and build a Temple in its place” – right-wing Israeli Jews whose ties with Israeli officials are “strong and deepening”.

READ MORE: Why Israel wants a religious war over al-Aqsa

Israel’s Minister of Culture, Miri Regev, has chaired more than a dozen debates on the subject of allowing Jews to pray in the compound, a change to the status quo backed by dozens of MKs in May 2014. Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, meanwhile, has previously called for a Third Temple to be built.

Inside Story – Can Netanyahu change al-Aqsa status quo?

In April, a Likud parliamentarian attended an event in Jerusalem where speakers called for the destruction of al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, and the construction of a Temple.

This was reportedly the first time a sitting member of Knesset had taken part in the annual event.

With a three-week Jewish holiday period on the horizon, which last year saw mass access restrictions imposed by Israeli occupation authorities on Palestinian worshippers, observers are concerned that recent developments could set the stage for new confrontations.

“Over the last several weeks there has been an inflammation of dormant tensions and violence in Jerusalem, and in response, cases of collective punishment against Palestinians in East Jerusalem”, Betty Herschman, director of international relations  and advocacy at Ir Amim, told Al Jazeera.

“Given this context,” she continued, “and the established correlation between use of collective restrictions on Muslim access to the Haram al-Sharif and upticks in violence in East Jerusalem, it is particularly critical that security authorities refrain from applying collective restrictions during the upcoming Jewish high holidays.”

For Abu Sway, meanwhile, there’s only one way to guarantee Muslims’ rights at al-Aqsa Mosque compound: “Nothing short of the end of the Israeli occupation.”

Source: Al Jazeera