Grand Mufti: Arrest of al-Aqsa guards ‘unacceptable’

Israeli police arrest Palestinian guards after they try to stop archaeologist from removing ancient stone from compound.

Palestinians Jerusalem Old City
An Israeli official is accused of trying to take a stone from a pillar in an underground section of the al-Qibli mosque [Reuters]

Jerusalem – The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem says Israel’s detention of Palestinian security guards working at the al-Aqsa compound is “unacceptable” and Israeli police are trying to change the status quo at the holy site. 

Israeli police detained several guards working at the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem earlier this week after they prevented an Israeli archaeologist from trying to remove a stone from the religious compound. 

“I believe the Israeli police are trying to impose a new reality and are trying to intimidate the al-Aqsa guards and to stop them from carrying out their duty,” Mufti Muhammad Hussein told Al Jazeera.

“That is unacceptable.”

The initial confrontation happened on Monday morning after the guards at al-Aqsa intervened when Yuval Baruch, employed by the Israeli Antiquities Authority and escorted by Israeli police, entered the compound and tried to take a stone from a pillar in an underground section of the al-Qibli mosque. 

A heated argument ensued when one of the guards allegedly noticed Baruch remove a small piece of stone from the pillar and place it in his pocket. Baruch has denied trying to remove it.

The antiquities employee was removed from the area by police, but later tried to re-enter the underground Marwani prayer hall. Al-Aqsa guards quickly refused him entry. 

Israeli police returned to the compound and arrested three guards, according to the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, a religious trust tasked with managing the al-Aqsa compound.

The police later raided the homes of four other guards and arrested them, before detaining another guard on Tuesday.

Six guards remained in Israeli police custody as of Tuesday night.

Qasem Kamal, Khalil Terhoni, Arafat Najeeb, Osama Siam, Samer Qabbani and Emad Abdeen were expected to appear before a judge in Jerusalem on Wednesday, the Waqf said. 

Israeli police told Al Jazeera in a brief statement only five people had been detained for “attacking police officers” and the incident was under investigation.

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Mufti Hussein demanded that Israel respect the status quo that has prevailed since before Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967.

While Jews and non-Muslims are allowed to visit the compound, non-Muslim worship is prohibited according to an agreement signed between Jordan and Israel shortly after Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967.

The agreement put Islamic Waqf in charge of the compound’s administration. 

The Mufti added that maintenance and renovation work at the compound are matters dealt with only by the Waqf and Israel has no right to intervene.

Tensions at al-Aqsa Mosque were a significant contributor to the wave of unrest that began in October 2015, after right-wing Israelis made frequent visits to the compound during the Jewish high holidays.

The al-Aqsa compound, also known as the Noble Sanctuary, is the third holiest site in Islam. Jews, who refer to the area as the Temple Mount, also see it as a venerated holy site and believe it sits where the First and Second Temples once stood. 

Sheikh Omar Keswani, a senior Waqf official, told Al Jazeera the Israeli authority had “no business” in the al-Aqsa compound, but that it frequently “breaks in with a police force”.

Israeli police routinely escort Jewish visitors around the compound, and they often facilitate the visits of right-wing Israeli politicians who have been charged with attempting to “change the status quo” at the holy site.

Right-wing activist and member of parliament, Yehuda Glick petitioned Israel’s high court on Tuesday to repeal a ban barring members of Israel’s parliament – or Knesset – into the compound.

Glick was shot and wounded in October 2014 in an assassination attempt.

He is a member of the Temple Mount Faithful, a group that calls for “liberating the Temple Mount from Arab occupation”.

The group advocates rebuilding a Jewish temple at the religiously important site, including the area containing the mosque.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday the prohibition on Knesset members and ministers visiting the al-Aqsa compound – in place since tensions erupted in December 2015 – would gradually be phased out over the course of three months, if security conditions permit it.

Source: Al Jazeera