After weeks of tensions and provocations – and predictions of trouble today – Israeli police enter Al-Aqsa Mosque COMPOUND

Tensions — and provocations — have risen for weeks.

Jordanian intervention recently defused a days-long sit-in by Muslims who heeded an earlier call, during the recent Jewish holidays, to come to defend Al-Aqsa against a reported call by Jewish settlers for their faithful to come to pray inside Al-Aqsa.  A group of about 200 Palestinians slept and prayed inside, while Israeli forces threatened to arrest them when they came outside.  Then, agreement was reached, and those inside departed quietly.

Today, after yet another call for the Muslim faithful to come to protect the Al-Aqsa Mosque, next to the Dome of the Rock on the mosque plateau known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, the third most sacred site in Islam, the situation appears to be blowing up.

For days, it has been reported that preparations were being made (on both sides) in advance of a demonstration that was supposedly planned by Israeli “far-right extremists” to take place at Al-Aqsa on Sunday.

The feeling that there is incitement and provocation is inescapable — from elements on both sides.

The Old City of Jerusalem did not become part of the State of Israel when it was proclaimed in mid-May 1948 — instead, Jordanian troops advanced as British troops withdrew in a unilateral termination of the Mandate they had persuaded the League of Nations to award them following World War I. The Jewish Quarter of the Old City was evacuated.

A UN General Assembly decision (Resolution 181 of 29 November 1947) to partition the British Mandate into two states (one Jewish and one Arab) — and with Jerusalem having an international status — was adopted by what was the international community at the time, despite opposition by Arab states within the United Nations and by Palestinians on the ground. In the fighting that accompanied the British and Israeli moves, Jewish forces seized quite a bit more territory than specified in UNGA Resolution 181 — but the Old City of East Jerusalem did not fall under Israeli control.

[Until the Israeli conquest in the June 1967 war, the only Jewish presence that was maintained in East Jerusalem after 14 May 1948 was on Mount Scopus, in a UN-supervised demilitarized zone.]

The Palestinian decision to declare a state, in 1988, on territory occupied in June 1967 — including the entire Old City of East Jerusalem. In July 2000, a proposal was tabled, during the negotiations brokered by former U.S. President Bill Clinton between Israel’s then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at Camp David in late July 2000, and in later months in Taba, for a division (sharing) of the Old City that would have given Israel control over the Jewish (and Armenian) Quarter of the Old City, and the Western Wall. This went beyond maintaining the “status quo” that has been in place since proposed by Israel’s then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan in 1967 (Muslim authorities administering the Haram as-Sharif/Temple Mount mosque plateau, while the Western Wall is Israel’s). The Palestinian leader did not agree to the proposal (nor did he agree to the proposal concerning the disposal of the refugee problem).
In the wake of the failure of the Camp David negotiations, which was blamed on the Palestinian side, Ehud Olmert [correction: it was Ehud Barak] permitted a provocative visit to the Haram as-Sharif/Temple Mount two months later by Ariel Sharon, accompanied by a large armed escort of Israeli forces. Palestinian protests were forcefully repressed, and the Second Palestinian intifada got underway.

Palestinian Muslim officials in East Jerusalem rather grudgingly accept visits by Jews as well as by other tourists, but they say they are adamantly opposed to allowing Jews to pray anywhere on the mosque plateau. They fear that the introduction of Jewish prayer on the esplanade will mean that Jewish worshippers will be inevitably be given greater and greater privileged access, under armed guard, that will curtail Muslim access. Eventually, they say, Muslim worshippers will be banned altogether, just as they are at the also very important Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron — the second most sacred site in Judaism, but also holy to Muslims who revere Abraham. Abraham and his wife Sarah are believed to be buried there, as well as Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah, among others.

The Rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinovitz, said to journalists last Thursday, during a tour organized by the Israeli Government Press Office of the tunnels that Israel has dug alongside and underneath the Western Wall, that the site was the “spiritual center of the Jewish nations, where the roots of the Jewish nation lie, and which is in the heart of every Jew around the world”. He insisted that “we are not digging under the Temple Mount area — everything is always done outside the Temple Mount area, and without a doubt we would not be inside. According to Halacha (Jewish law) we are not allowed to go in this holy area, as we are today not pure enough. Even some extremist rabbis hold the opposite view, but admit that we are not allowed to change this. I’m sorry there are people who speak in the name of God, but who lie”.

Rabbi Rabinovitz said that “everything here is open and everyone who wants to check is welcome … We don’t deserve to be punished for our search of history”.

Asked about the Palestinian fears that Jewish visits to Al-Aqsa would eventually result in a ban of Muslims on Jewish holidays and so forth, Rabbi Rabinovitz replied that “Up until the [Baruch] Goldstein tragedy [n.b., Goldstein shot 29 Palestinians to death and wounded many others in his attack on the Ibrahimi Mosque during the dawn prayer in Ramadan on 24 February 1994, and was then overwhelmed and beaten to death by the survivors], access at the Ibrahimi Mosque was not restructed, and I hope it would not be the situation there or here. But, up until 1967, Jews were not allowed to pray there at all … and up until 1948, Jews were allowed only to go up to near the top of the stairs [but not to enter inside the sanctuary…]”.

The Agence France Presse (AFP) reported today that “Police deployed extra forces early on Sunday after calls for demonstrations around the holy site that has been the scene of clashes for several months. The Palestinian calls for protests came amid rumours that right wing Jewish activists were planning to gather at the compound, site of the holiest place in Judaism and third-holiest in Islam, radio reports said. The rumours began after an extreme right Jewish group, the Organisation for the Defence of Human Rights on the Temple Mount, urged Jews to gather at the mosque compound and the adjacent Western Wall, Judaism’s top pilgrimage site … Two weeks of tensions over the compound exploded into violence on September 27, when Palestinians hurled rocks at visitors they suspected of being right wing Jewish extremists. Police, who responded with stun grenades, said the group was made up of French tourists”. This AFP report can be read in full here.

Haaretz later reported that “Early Sunday morning, police were patrolling near the Temple Mount, in the Old City of Jerusalem, when the youths began to hurl stones at them. Officers subsequently stormed the compound and arrested 12 people on suspicion of disorderly conduct”. This Haaretz report is posted here.

Even later, the Jerusalem Post reported that “Police said the disturbances began when officers were accompanying a group of tourists up to the mount. According to police, several Muslim youngsters were caught on video preparing to cause trouble; gathering rocks to throw and pouring oil onto the ground to hinder the access of security forces and the visitors … The already high alert level in the capital had come in response to what police said were previous calls by both Jewish and Islamic religious leaders to ascend the Temple Mount. Muslim worshipers were called to Jerusalem Sunday mostly by east Jerusalem Muslim clerics and their counterparts from the northern branch of the Islamic Movement. While the police spokesman declined to specify where the Jewish calls had originated, Sunday had been publicized as the day to commemorate the visit by Maimonides to the Temple Mount 843 years ago. In the past, Jews have ascended the mount to mark the anniversary, 6 Heshvan. However, there was no Jewish presence at the site on Sunday”. This JPost report can be read in full here.

Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock have been the site of continuous Muslim veneration and prayer for some 1,500 years. Inside the Dome of the Rock is a large stone on which, it is believed, the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven on a one-night visit…

The Mosque plateau overlooks the Western (or “Wailing”) Wall, the most sacred site in Judaism at the present day, the only visible remnant of what was once the complex of the Second and even the First Jewish Temples — where the Holy of Holies was located over 3,000 years ago, until the second destruction in 70 A.D.

The Western Wall is part of the support system that holds up, or retains, the mosque plateau.

Though there were long periods when it was impossible for Jewish pilgrimage to the site (most recently, from 1948, when Jordanian troops advanced across the West Bank and into the Old City of Jerusalem in the fighting that surrounded the proclamation of the state of Israel, until Israeli troops conquered the territory during the June 1967 war), it has never ceased to be the focus of Jewish prayer.

Both my mobile phones are beeping non-stop with SMSs from Israeli and Palestinian notification services about the breaking developments.   The Israeli SMS service said that Palestinians were throwing rocks and pouring oil [a report from AP explained that this was to make the police slip].  It updated at 08h21 with an SMS saying that a molotov cocktail was thrown “at policeman who entered temple [sic]”. The Israeli forces used stun grenades. Once. Then, stun grenades were used a second time, two hours later, when SMS-Israel reported that “police once again storm temple mount with stun grenades after riots resume”. [Haaretz later reported that the Israeli forces also used water cannons.]

Al-Jazeera television has been doing continuous phone interviews with Muslim dignitaries and witnesses in or near Al-Aqsa, whose voices are tight with tension as they cry that the Israeli forces are inside the mosque. There are all kinds of Israeli forces, they reported — including Special Forces. 

CORRECTION: It later appeared that the Israeli forces did NOT enter Al-Aqsa mosque itself, but were just at the door. Al-Jazeera video from inside the mosque shows forces pushing at the large green closed door, and young men inside pushing back. In a later interview with BBC World Television, Israeli Police spokesperson Mickey Rosenfeld said that no Israeli policeman entered Al-Aqsa at any point today, and he added that it is the policy of the police department never to enter the mosque itself.

During the recent sit-in that was defused peacefully with Jordanian intervention, no Israeli forces actually entered the mosque.

UPDATE: Al-Jazeera has just begun showing live photos of the mosque plateau (taken from a high position on the Mount of Olives across a valley to the east) showing absolute calm on the esplanada, at least outside — there are only Israeli border police (blue uniforms, for the most part) in the courtyard outside.  NO Palestinians at all are visible, unlike during the most recent sit-in.  The Israelis are all looking quite relaxed, and are not deployed in any battle position.  Some are talking on mobile phones…  Earlier Al-Jazeera photos showed the olive-green-uniformed Israeli Border Police with what appear to be officers in blue uniforms manning barricades at all entrances to the Old City.  All Al-Jazeera photos show impeccable, calm and respectful behavior on all sides.

UPDATE TWO: 30 minutes later, the Al-Jazeera video is showing a few of what look like Palestinian worshippers milling calmly around the door to Al-Aqsa, but there is black smoke rising from one area on the eastern-edge of the plateau.  The Al-Jazeera correspondents are talking of “about 25 shebab (young men)” who are apparently still inside the mosque.  About a dozen were arrested earlier, an Israeli SMS reports, and the next SMS says the “Temple Mount” has been closed while “prayer is going on as usual at the Kotel  (Western Wall)”.  Al-Jazeera says that ten people were injured and about 15 were detained.  A later message from the Jerusalem Media and Commuications Center (JMCC) says that five of the Al-Aqsa security personnel have been arrested, and that tight security has been imposed around “hundreds of worshippers” inside the mosque.
LATER: A later SMS said that Hatem Abdel Qader, former Palestinian Authority Minister for Jerusalem Affairs who resigned after a few weeks in office earlier this year, has been arrested at the site for “incitement”.

UPDATE THREE: Israeli SMS says that there are reports of police roadblocks in northern Israel, Wadi Ara area (i.e., a Palestinian-Arab area in Israel) to “prevent Israeli Arabs from coming to Jerusalem to protest on Temple Mount”…

UPDATE FOUR: About two hours later, “riots” (the Israeli terminology for what is happening) resume…
At 11h00 (Jerusalem time) Al-Jazeera airs film from inside Al-Aqsa mosque. Teen-age to middle-age men are throwing rocks from inside at Israeli forces outside (olive green uniforms gear, in phalanx position facing the mosque, holding transparent plexiglass body-length shields to protect themselves). Some younger teen-age boys with other middle-age men are inside the mosque closing and bolting huge green doors as small explosions are going on around them inside the mosque — smaller than the ususal smoke or tear gas. I thought this was footage from earlier in the morning, but a live shot with Jevara Budeiri shows some groups of Israeli forces holding the plexiglass shields lining both sides of the entrance to the doorway. A moment earlier, one group of Israeli forces with plexiglass shelds appeared to run inside…

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