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In Jerusalem, Ramadan sees heightened tensions at Al-Aqsa Mosque compound

The Jewish holiday of Passover and the Muslim month of Ramadan have witnessed an increase in actions by Israel's religious extremists seeking to gain control over the holy site
A man reads the Quran as Palestinians gather during the second Friday prayers of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, outside the Dome of the Rock at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, Islam's third holiest site, in Jerusalem's Old City, on 23 April, 2021 (AFP)
By Aseel Jundi in occupied East Jerusalem

The month of April has been heated in Jerusalem once again, with the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound at the centre of tensions.

During the Jewish holiday of Passover, which took place between 27 March and 4 April, the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound witnessed a number of incidents viewed as attempts to breach the status quo on the site.

The third holiest site in Islam,  the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound is believed by Jews to be standing where the Second Jewish Temple once stood. A number of far-right Israeli groups have called over the years for the destruction of the Al-Aqsa compound to make way for a Third Jewish Temple.

After the 1967 war, Israel and Jordan, the custodian of the Al-Aqsa compound, agreed that while Jews are allowed access to the site, they are not allowed to pray there. However, a growing far-right Jewish movement has been calling for Israel to take control of Al-Aqsa, arguing that it should be an exclusively Jewish holy site.

Now, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Israeli settlers have continued to affirm their presence on the site also known as al-Haram al-Sharif, with Palestinians worried that attempts to expand Israeli sovereignty over the site will only increase as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's political fate becomes increasingly tied to the religious far-right.

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Heated Passover and Ramadan holidays

Since 2010, a group known as the New Sanhedrin, which is supported by the far-right Temple Institute, has sought to carry out the ritual Passover sacrifice as close as possible to Al-Aqsa. 

In 2018, Israeli authorities allowed the group to perform the sacrifice in the Umayyad palace, adjacent to the southern wall of the Al-Aqsa compound.

On 4 March, Temple Mount groups sent an official letter to Netanyahu, requesting permission to perform this year's Passover slaughter inside the mosque compound, while reminding the embattled premier of the importance of his political alliance with the religious far right ahead of elections that took place on 23 March.

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Meanwhile, far-right Jewish settlers performed prayers in the Al-Aqsa compound during the entire week of Passover. Under the protection of Israeli police, large groups of worshippers prayed and loudly read the Torah, despite such prayers contravening Israel's agreement with Jordan.

Ramadan, which began on 12 April, a little over a week after the end of Passover, has not led to any respite.

As Israel marked its national holiday on 14 April, Israeli police stormed the Al-Aqsa compound as Muslim worshippers were performing tarawih evening prayers, removed the doors of the minarets, and cut the wires of the minaret's loudspeakers.

Three days later, on the first Friday of Ramadan, police forcibly expelled Palestinian worshipers seeking to spend the night praying at Al-Aqsa. Palestinians from the occupied West Bank seeking to pray at Al-Aqsa were stopped at Israeli checkpoints on their way to East Jerusalem.

Israeli forces also prevented vehicles from driving close to the Old City of Jerusalem, forcing Palestinians to walk long distances to reach Al-Aqsa. Inside the Old City, Israeli military police installed various metal barriers and inspected the identities of worshippers.

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For Ekrima Sabri, the imam of Al-Aqsa, the month of Ramadan is often accompanied by an increase in Israel restrictions and repression of Palestinians seeking to pray at the holy site.

"What happened in the past week in terms of cutting wires to loudspeakers, the increased [settler] incursions, and preventing tens of thousands of Muslims at Qalandia and Bethlehem military checkpoints from reaching Al-Aqsa on Friday confirm that [the occupation] does not want hundreds of thousands of Muslims to gather in Al-Aqsa."

Meanwhile, Jewish-Israeli hard-liners have continued to enter the compound during Ramadan under police protection to pray. Ella bin Juffair, a member of the Women of the Temple group, vowed on Facebook that she would continue praying inside the compound, adding that she would mention in her prayers all those who wrote their names in the comments.

More recently still, hundreds of far-right and anti-Palestinian activists took to the streets in Jerusalem's Old City on Thursday chanting "Death to Arabs" as they protested down the city centre. The march, led by far-right Israeli group Lehava, was organised as a call to "restore Jewish dignity" in Jerusalem.  

Israeli political considerations

According to  Ziyad Ibhais, a Jerusalem affairs researcher, the escalation of tensions in recent weeks around Al-Aqsa comes amid growing efforts from the Israeli government to take control of the compound and erase its Muslim identity in favour of the aims of Third Temple activists. 

In late 2019, Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan confirmed that the government was heading in this direction.

"The situation in Jerusalem is heading towards regaining [Israeli] sovereignty and control over the place," he said at the time. "I hope this happens soon. When we reach this stage, we will work and push for changing the historical status quo in Jerusalem in light of respecting the international interests for Israel."

"What has happened since 2019 is that imposing [Jewish] worships in Al-Aqsa has become a central agenda that Erdan clearly announced that year, as well as Benjamin Netanyahu," Ibhais told Middle East Eye. "This was scheduled to be the agenda of the Temple groups in 2020, but the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted it.

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"But it is now returning to be implemented in 2021 since the epidemic's precautionary restrictions have been lifted," he added.

The Third Temple movement's influence on Israeli politics, however, dates back long before 2019.

In 2015, prayers by far-right religious activists, including then-agricultural minister Uri Ariel, during the holiday of Rosh Hashana in violation of the status quo sparked protests among Palestinians, which were violently repressed. The incident sparked a year-long spate of violence across Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

In 2017, Israeli authorities sought to install metal detectors at the gates to Al-Aqsa after two Israeli policemen were shot dead at one of the entrances to the compound by three Palestinian citizens of Israel, stoking large-scale Palestinian demonstrations in the Old City of Jerusalem.

The presidency of staunch Israel supporter Donald Trump in the US between 2017 and January 2021, his controversial so-called "deal of the century," and the Palestinian Authority's contested security coordination with Israel have all contributed to foster a climate in which Israel has felt emboldened to change the situation on the ground at Al-Aqsa, Ibhais argued.

For Ibhais, the moves come as Third Temple activists have increased their political influence in the Israeli parliament and the government, as Israel has witnessed four elections in the span of two years. 

"Benjamin Netanyahu's alliance with the Religious Zionist Party, which was formed under his auspices, confirms that Netanyahu sees in these groups his salvation in order to stay in power and to escape corruption trials awaiting him," he noted.

With Netanyahu's political survival dependent on his far-right religious allies, the fate of Al-Aqsa hangs in the balance as the premier seeks to form a coalition government.

"The struggle for Al-Aqsa is a struggle for sovereignty and administration," Najeh Bikrat, deputy director general of the Jerusalem Endowments, told MEE. "The occupation wants to have a sacred right in Al-Aqsa through continuous attempts to climb, attack and weaken the Jordanian role on one hand, and by preventing Palestinians by all means from accessing the mosque through policies of isolation, fragmentation, and instant monitoring of everything that is happening in and around Al-Aqsa."

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