It was on February 25, 1994, that US-born Jewish extremist Baruch Goldstein stormed into the Ibrahimi Mosque in the Palestinian city of al-Khalil (Hebron) and opened fire. The aim was to kill as many people as he could.
At that moment, nearly 800 Muslim worshipers were kneeling down during the dawn prayer in Ramadan, the holiest month of the Muslim Calendar. He killed up to 30 people and wounded over 120. Exactly 20 years later, the Israeli army stormed al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest Muslim site, and opened fire. The timing was no accident.
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Al-Khalil, like the rest of the West Bank is facing the dual challenge of armed Jewish settlers and Israeli occupation soldiers; the latter enforcing the military occupation, while providing further protection to the settlers. The settlers, extremists from the illegal settlement of Kiryat Arba, often attack Palestinian residents of the town with complete impunity. Interestingly, many of Kiryat Arba settlers are Americans. Baruch Goldstein was one.
It was not enough that Israeli soldiers within the vicinity of the Ibrahimi Mosque allowed Goldstein – armed with a Galil rifle and other weapons – access to the mosque, but they opened fire on worshipers as they tried to flee the scene. Israeli soldiers killed 24 more and injured others. Goldstein, now a hero in the eyes of many in Israel, is often blamed solely for the massacre in al-Khalil. But in fact, it was a mutual effort between Goldstein and the Israeli army.
This symbiotic relationship between the army and settlers, which dates back to the early days of the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, continues. The Israeli government wants to entrench its occupation, not end it. The settlers, who play an important role in Israel’s colonial stratagem, are tirelessly on the lookout for more land, strategic hills and coveted holy places belonging to Muslims and Christians.
While Israeli bulldozers dig into Palestinian land during the day, leveling mounds of ground and destroying olive groves for settlement expansion, heavy machinery burrows beneath the Old City of al-Quds, Jerusalem at night. The Israelis are looking for evidence of what they believe to be ancient Jewish temples, presumably destroyed in 586BC and AD70.
The Noble Sanctuary, located in Jerusalem’s Old City is the home of al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. The site has been under constant threat, and actual attacks, acts of arson and military violence for nearly five decades. The few Muslim clergy – belonging to the Islamic Trust, which manages the area, along with the custodianship of Jordan – are mindful of the ever-lurking Israeli threat, which often times turns deadly.
While the danger of Al-Aqsa Mosque collapsing is very real, it is a representation of the mentality that rules Israel: one of annexation and military occupation.
It was no surprise that late Israeli leader Ariel Sharon chose that exact place to carry out his provocative “tour” of al-Aqsa compound in September 2000. Sharon invaded al-Aqsa as he was joined by over 1,000 police and army officers. The rightwing leader vowed to reclaim the Muslim site for Jews.
Many unarmed Palestinians, mostly worshipers died on that day, and thousands more in following months and years as the entirety of the occupied territories and Palestinian towns inside Israel exploded with unprecedented fury. Sharon, with the help of his right-wing and ultra-nationalist constituents was later elected prime minister of Israel.
That same dangerous combination – rightwing politicians allied with religious zealots – is at work once more. They are eyeing al-Aqsa for annexation, the same way the Israeli government is labouring to permanently annex large swathes of the occupied West Bank, in anticipation of any future settlement with the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas.
The Israeli Knesset (Parliament) chose the 20th anniversary of the Goldstein massacre of Palestinians in al-Khalil, to begin a debate concerning the status of al-Aqsa compound. Right-wingers – which constitute the bulk in the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – want the Israeli government to enforce its “sovereignty” over the Muslim site, which is administered by Jordan per the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty of 1994. Israeli MP Moshe Feiglin, is the man behind the move, but he is not alone.
Feiglin is a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, and has strong backing within the party, the government and the Knesset. His supporters include Yehuda Glick, an American-born fanatic.
Although Glick – chairman of the Temple Mount Heritage Fund – was banned by Israeli authorities in the past from entering the compound, he marched into the Muslim compound on Sunday, March 2, along with fellow extremists while escorted by Israeli police. Expectedly, Palestinian worshipers stood defiant, shouting Allahu Akbar (God is Great). Considering the debate in the Knesset, and the increasing joint provocations involving Israeli police and extremists, there is little doubt that the Israeli government has something sinister in mind.
Another major backer of Feiglin’s initiative is Miri Regev, also a far-right Likud member. Although Jewish worshipers have access to the Western Wall, where they conduct their prayers, Regev is demanding that the government establish separate prayer times for both Jews and Muslims in al-Aqsa Compound. The model she wishes to duplicate is no other than the Ibrahimi Mosque.
“We will reach a situation where the Temple Mount will be like the Cave of the Patriarchs, days for Jews and days for Muslims,” she said.
Of course, Regev made no mention of the fact that 20 years ago to the day, a Jewish extremist and Israeli troops killed and wounded hundreds of Palestinians kneeling for prayer.
For Regev, however, the issue is not entirely religious, but also strategic, or perhaps both. She understands well the significance of Jerusalem’s holy sites for both Muslims and Christians. For her, and many in the Knesset, any form of Palestinian sovereignty over their own land, no matter how symbolic is entirely unacceptable.
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Thus, it comes as no surprise that it was Regev who on December 29 sponsored a bill to annex illegal Jordan Valley settlements and lift restrictions on construction that is in violation of international law. The bill passed by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation by a vote of 8:3. Without a Jordan Valley, there can be no Palestinian border in the east.
And as Israel’s arbitrary border in the west continues to grow alongside the mammoth Israeli wall, and massive settlement blocs, whatever remains of Palestine exist as little dots in an ever changing map.
For Regev, and the other zealots that control Israeli politics, annexing the Jordan Valley, and “enforcing Israeli sovereignty” over al-Aqsa compound is one and the same: Denial of Palestinian rights to the last with or without an agreement with Abbas’ PA.
Saving al-Aqsa mosque
On the next day following the Israeli debate on the annexation of al-Aqsa, a thundering sound was heard around 3am in the Wadi Hilweh neighbourhood of Silwan, located south of the Old City of Jerusalem. Ma’an news agency reported that the residents of the neighbourhood heard the “sounds of heavy duty machines digging under their houses throughout the night”. Then, a large wall suddenly collapsed, while few houses sustained damage.
Strangely, no one seemed surprised, as Israeli machines have been digging underneath the Old City and al-Aqsa compound for a long time searching for any evidence of a temple that dates back several millennia. The underground network of tunnels is growing, as some of these tunnels connect Wadi Hilweh to the Western Wall to al-Aqsa.
While the danger of al-Aqsa Mosque collapsing is very real, it is a representation of the mentality that rules Israel: One of annexation and military occupation, with no regard whatsoever to Palestine’s holiest site, also revered by over 1.6 billion Muslims around the world.
Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. He is a PhD scholar at Exeter University, UK. His latest book is “My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story” (Pluto Press, London)