Playing with fire at Al-Aqsa

In the enlightened 21st century, Muslims and Jews should once more share this holy site.

The Noble Sanctuary, or Temple Mount, is a spiritual microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, writes Diab [Reuters]

The growing familiarity of clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinian protesters inside Al-Aqsa Mosque this week has not weakened the effect of the conflict on my Palestinian neighbours and friends in Jerusalem.

The picturesque, stone-lined alleyways of an already tense Old City are seething with anger and frustration, punctuated by Israeli surveillance helicopters that hang in the air. Even unreligious Palestinians who have never stepped foot inside churches or mosques are furious. They partly envisage their wider demise encapsulated by the struggle over the Noble Sanctuary, as they call it, or the Temple Mount, as it is known to Jews.

The symbolism of the confrontation around the holy site quickly triggered an international response. The three days of clashes provoked a stern warning from neighbouring Jordan, with which Israel has a peace accord. “Any more provocations in Jerusalem will affect the relationship between Jordan and Israel,” warned Jordan’s King Abdullah II. “Jordan will have no choice but to take action, unfortunately.”

Who provoked the clashes at Al-Aqsa?

“We call on the international community, including Arab countries and Muslim states, to intervene immediately before Israel succeeds in launching a global holy war,” said Hanan Ashrawi, the veteran Palestinian politician, activist, and academic.

This largely secular conflict is far from being a “holy war”, as I have argued before. But if Israel continues on a unilateral path on this issue, a religiously tinged, open conflict could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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The European Union and the United States also expressed their concerns about the escalating situation. “It is crucial that all parties demonstrate calm and restraint and full respect for the status quo of the holy sites,” said European Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic. The “status quo” in question is one that has governed the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount since Israel conquered Jerusalem in 1967, whereby the Islamic Waqf and Jordan have been managing the site and controlling access, with limited non-Muslim visits permitted, but worship banned.

Status quo

But it is concern over reports of the Israeli right’s intentions to tear up this status quo that has fuelled the latest round of clashes, just as they did in 2014. Back then, Jordan recalled its ambassador to Israel and threatened to review the peace treaty between the two countries, following a Knesset debate that was sponsored by the far-right parliamentarian Moshe Feiglin, on whether or not Israel should seize sovereignty of the holy site and allow Jewish worship there.

This jewel in the crown of Jerusalem’s Old City, with its gold-plated Dome of the Rock dominating the skyline, contains many of the elements which perpetuate the conflict.


Although relatively few Israelis actually visit the Temple Mount and have traditionally been content with the status quo, Zionists and Jewish extremists in recent years have managed to frame the issue as one of religious freedom. Even the lunatic fringe – such as Yehuda Glick, who, along with his followers, fantasises about constructing the Third Temple – is pursuing the path of civil liberties.

“We’re here to protest against the apartheid on the Temple Mount,” Glick said at a demonstration last Ramadan.

But what the religious freedom argument overlooks is that this issue is about far more than the right to worship, particularly in a situation where Israel regularly restricts Palestinian entry to Al-Aqsa. You could also say that the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount is simply a spiritual microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at large.

This jewel in the crown of Jerusalem’s Old City, with its gold-plated Dome of the Rock dominating the skyline, contains many of the elements that perpetuate the conflict and are writ spiritual: The site is symptomatic of control of, and sovereignty over, the land, asymmetrical power, national identity, movement restrictions, draconian laws; the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, not to mention the status of Jerusalem.

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Shared peace

Personally, I am in favour of Jews one day worshipping on their religion’s most sacred, hallowed ground. My view, though controversial, is not unprecedented. Following the surrender of Jerusalem to the Muslim armies, Omar Ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph, allowed Jews, who had been expelled by the Byzantines, back into Jerusalem. Omar ordered the cleaning of the Temple Mount, which had been used as a rubbish tip by the Byzantines, and, according to some historians, permitted Jews to worship there. The practise would continue for a century, into the Umayyad era.


One Jewish convert to Islam, Rabbi Ka’ab al-Ahbar, even located the foundation stone for the Muslim conquerors. It is also possible that Omar allowed the Jews to construct a synagogue on the mount and appointed a Jew as the first governor of Jerusalem, according to the 7th-century Armenian historian, Sebeos.

In the enlightened 21st century, it should be possible for Muslims and Jews to share this holy site and rediscover their many long centuries of a largely peaceful coexistence. One day, Jews and Muslims might both enjoy the Noble Sanctuary’s tranquil esplanade, which takes up about  one-sixth of the Old City’s surface area and is where families picnic and children play football. For that to happen, we require a resolution to the conflict. Without peace, it is impossible to think that that Palestinians and Israelis will ever find the goodwill and trust to compromise over this holiest of locations.

Khaled Diab is an award-winning Egyptian-Belgian journalist, writer and blogger. He is the author of Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land. He blogs at

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.