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For Palestinians, the closure of al-Aqsa reminds of past wounds

Palestinians fear Israel is attempting to partition al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem the way it had done with the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron
Mufti of Jerusalem Mohammed Hussein (front) leads a prayer in al-Aqsa mosque compound on 27 October, 2014 (AA)
Nadine Marroushi

Since the partitioning of the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, after a 1994 massacre during which at least 29 Palestinian worshippers were killed and dozens more injured by a rightwing Israeli settler, Palestinians have feared that the same fate might befall the al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem, a religious site for both Muslims and Jews.

The Noble Sanctuary, or al-Haram al-Sharif as Muslims refer to it, is a 35-acre site that includes the Dome of the Rock, one of the oldest works of Islamic architecture, and the al-Aqsa mosque, where the Prophet Mohamed is said to have ascended to heaven, according to Islam’s holy text, the Quran. Muslims consider the whole area of the sanctuary a mosque. It has been an exclusively Muslim prayer site for the last 1,300 years.  

Some Jews have been pushing for that to change, including Yehuda Glick, the right-wing Israeli activist, who was targeted and injured by a drive-by shooting in Jerusalem on Wednesday. Glick is part of a movement that has been pushing for the Israeli government to enforce its sovereignty over the site, which is administered by Jordan according to the Jordan-Israeli peace treaty of 1994, and give Jews permission to pray at the site. To date, non-Muslims can visit the site but are not allowed to pray there.

“Since 1994, and what happened at the Ibrahimi Mosque, they [the Israelis] have been trying to do the same to al-Aqsa,” the Imam of al-Aqsa mosque told Middle East Eye in a telephone interview today.

“We will not accept any project to divide it. Having failed in their attempts, Jewish groups have transferred the issue to the Knesset and Israeli courts. Al-Aqsa is tied to God through a divine decision. It is for Muslims only,” he said.

The Sanctuary, better known to Jews as Temple Mount, is believed to be the site of two ancient Jewish temples and the Foundation Stone, where God gathered dust to create Adam, the first man. Israeli-commissioned digging underneath the compound of al-Aqsa, and the creation of a network of tunnels searching for evidence of these temples that date back millennia, has also stoked Palestinian fears about the threat of the mosque collapsing.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said earlier this week that there are no plans to change “the status quo” on Temple Mount. His assurances came a day after Jordan warned that the peace treaty with Israel could be threatened by continued settlement construction and any changes in the status quo on the Mount, including allowing Jews to pray there.  

The al-Aqsa compound has been the site of repeated tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. According to Sheikh Sabry, the mosque was closed for a few days in 1990 when in October at least 17 Palestinians were killed by Israeli police, during the first Palestinian Intifada, or uprising against the Israeli occupation.

Palestinians were enraged when former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took a tour of al-Aqsa on 28 September 2000. Under heavy guard, he entered the mosque with a right-wing Likud party delegation to the sound of enraged demonstrators outside, according to the BBC. Hilary Andersson, the BBC’s correspondent at the time, observed that the visit was clearly intended to underline Jewish claims to the city and its holy sites.

The protests that erupted sparked the Second Intifada that lasted for the next five years.

Clashes erupted at the compound earlier this year between Israeli security forces and worshippers. Israeli said they fired stun grenades at the worshipers after Palestinians threw stones at security guards.  

Israel closed the compound for a few hours on Thursday after the police shot dead a Palestinian man suspected in the Glick shooting. The compound was re-opened in the evening to allow Muslim worshipers to enter the site on Friday, their holy day. Male worshippers at al-Aqsa will be restricted to those above the age of 50, due to fears of unrest, Israel said.  

Israeli’s closure of the compound, as it did today, is a move that sends a provocative message to Palestinians, who are reminded of past situations that were meant to be temporary and have turned permanent, says Israeli writer Meron Rapoport.  

“We have a precedent in Israel where a change that is meant to be temporary becomes permanent. Hebron is a perfect example of this. After the massacre by Baruch Goldstein in 1994, where 30 worshippers were slaughtered, the centre of Hebron was closed to Palestinians, even though an Israeli had committed the act. This was in order to separate Palestinians from Jews. The centre of the city has remained closed up until today, 20 years later. It was meant to be a temporary move, until quiet returned to the city, but it stayed like that for two decades. We have a habit here of making temporary into constants,” Rapoport told Middle East Eye.