Jerusalem tensions persist

Tensions continue — among Palestinians, at least — after disturbances the mosque esplanade in the Old City of East Jerusalem on Sunday, despite the imposed calm for the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur observed this year from Sunday night through Monday night.

There were minor disturbances reported in several East Jerusalem neighborhoods and in Bethlehem.

UPDATE: TV reports showed young — very young, perhaps underage — Palestinian men in handcuffs being processed by Israeli authorities after about 50 persons were reportedly detained in and around East Jerusalem’s Old City in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

Palestinian negotiator Sa’eb Erekat — who has recently been elected as a member of the Fatah Central Committee and subsequently of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee — issued a statement condemning what he said was the determination of Israeli settlers “to destroy Jerusalem as it once was, an open and multicultural city, and home to the world’s three great monotheistic faiths… Israel’s actions are both illegal and are designed to make Jerusalem a ‘united city’ for Israeli settlers only, while Israel continues to target the city’s Christian and Muslim population”.

Erekat was particularly critical of “Providing a police escort for settlers who are against peace at all costs, and whose presence is deliberately designed to provoke a reaction”. His statements were reported by Ma’an News Agency here and here.

In Ramallah on Monday, a press conference was convened at the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Information, where East Jerusalem Fatah activist Hatem Abdel Qader (Eid) told journalists that he had protested to the BBC Arabic service correspondent over the BBC’s portrayal of Sunday’s events as a clash between religious Jews and Muslims. Abdel Qader — who had arrived at the mosque esplanade at the time but was presented with a police order banning him from the site — said that about 20 “settlers” entered, under the protection of Israeli forces, from the Bab al-Maghariba (Moroccan Gate) which is accessed from a ramp rising from the plaza in front of the Western Wall. After just a couple of minutes, according to Abdel Qader, the “settlers” left, and the Israeli forces then attacked Palestinians who had gathered for prayers.

Also speaking at Monday’s press conference in Ramallah were the chief Islamic Judge appointed by the Palestinian Authority, Sheikh Taysiir Tamimi, and the Palestinian Authority Deputy Minister of Information, Mutawakkel Taha.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Atallah Hanna, was also scheduled to attend the press conference in Ramallah, but was unable to make it due to the Israeli closure of roads between East and West Jerusalem for Yom Kippur. Instead, as Ma’an News Agency reported, he issued a statement saying that “as Christian Palestinians and Jerusalemites, cannot keep watching with our hands folded in the face of what happened today … Today it is Al-Aqsa; tomorrow it will be the Church of the Holy Sepulcher’.”

Sheikh Tamimi called for a demonstration in defense of Al-Aqsa mosque to take place following next Friday’s prayers.

(Palestinians from the West Bank are subject to restrictions and have great difficulty in passing through Israeli checkpoints in order to travel to Jerusalem to pray at Al-Aqsa mosques, and it is currently almost impossible for Palestinians from Gaza to reach Jerusalem.)

Mutawakkel Taha told journalists that a commission of inquiry established after disturbances during the British Mandate had determined that the Western Wall belonged to the Islamic Waqf. He said it did not belong to the Jews.

Israel officials have complained about Palestinian statements that appear to deny the Jewish attachment to the Western Wall.

Both Taha and Abdel Qader spoke about Israeli excavations under the Haram As-Sharif, and Taha complained about the recent construction of a Jewish synagogue in one of the tunnels that run alongside and under the Western Wall.

This underground synagogue was also mentioned in a leaked report, dated December 2008, and written by the European heads of delegation in East Jerusalem and in Ramallah, which stated: “Links between settlement expansion and the excavation of ‘archaeological tunnels’ in sensitive areas are of particular concern. These private or quasi-private entities have obtained sovereign responsibilities for excavation activities in several religiously sensitive areas of the Holy Basin, including at the Mughrabi Gate, under the Damascus Gate, around the Western Wall and in Silwan. These privatised, and often opaque, practices risk undermining the archaeological status quo in and around the Old City, as well as contributing to increasing distrust and tensions between the religious communities in the city. Those ongoing projects are oblivious to Christian and Muslim holy sites. Although they do not directly harm those holy sites, they threaten their viability, integrity and the public domain in their immediate vicinity. UNESCO has continuously encouraged Israel to abide by international declarations on the protection of World Heritage under occupation.[xvii] In this manner, archaeology is becoming an ideologically motivated tool of national and religious struggle carried out in a manner that modifies the identity and character of the city and threatens to undermine its stability. In January 2008 excavations commenced towards the construction of a synagogue in the Western Wall tunnel, seven meters under the Muslim quarter, at the level of the Roman era road. It is immediately adjacent to the Haram Al Sharif/Temple Mount. The Israeli Antiquities Authorities are deeply involved in its planning and construction. In 2008 the building of The Ohel Yitzhak synagogue started on the Western Wall Plaza, in the immediate vicinity of the Haram Al Sharif/Temple Mount. A tunnel already being dug will connect this synagogue to the Western Wall tunnel”.

The EU report also stated that “Incursions into the Haram Al Sharif on the Temple Mount by radical settler groups have increased in 2008. Particularly during the Jewish high holiday season, settlers paraded on the Haram compound on a frequent basis, sometimes with protection from Israeli security forces, in what appeared to be a show of strength, sometimes leading to clashes with Palestinians”. And, the EU report said, “Israel effectively exercises a veto on who enters the compound. Cameras have been placed at the entrance of the other gates to the Haram Al-Sharif, pointing inwards towards the compound, and Israeli Security personnel are stationed at the entrance to all of the gates determining who is granted access. In addition, by their control of the Mughrabi gate, Israel imposes an unregulated influx of tourists on the Haram without prior negotiation with the Waqf, the Jordanian Islamic authority with jurisdiction over the compound”.

Indeed, as Hatem Abdel Qader noted in today’s press conference, the clash on Sunday was sparked by the visit of religious Jews accompanied by Israeli armed forces who arrived via the controversially-reconstructed ramp rising from the Western Wall plaza up to the Moroccan (Mughrabi) gate — the only entrance to the mosque esplanade that is designated for non-Muslim visitors (including Jews). The EU Heads of Mission report noted that “In 2005 Israel announced the construction of a new ramp at the Mughrabi gate, ostensibly to improve access for tourists but strong and wide enough to support security vehicles. Work began, despite the protests of the Waqf. The Israeli regional planning board decided in July 2008 to amend the initial project in order to retain all historical strata or archaeological remains lying under the planned new ramp – including remains of the modern Mughrabi quarter – and not to build a synagogue in that place, as initially planned. However, the planning procedure is still ongoing, and one might fear that -– even if the current policy is being retained – the Western Wall prayer area might be extended in the vicinity of the new ramp, instead of highlighting the Muslim remains. The Islamic authority also fear that a hidden agenda of the Western Wall Heritage Fund might change the pattern of movement through the Mughrabi gate and increase the access of Israelis on the Haram Al Sharif/Temple Mount without prior coordination with the Waqf”.

In the wake of the June 1967 war, Israel’s then Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan agreed that the Waqf (Islamic Trust) would retain authority on the mosque esplanade, while Israeli authorities would control the Western Wall.

The Mughrabi quarter was a densely-populated neighborhood that was cleared and almost totally razed by Israel after its conquest of the Old City in the June 1967 war. Its nearly 1,000 inhabitants were suddenly evicted, and many were rehoused in the Shuafat Refugee Camp constructed by UNRWA. Shuafat Refugee Camp used to be known as the only official Palestinian refugee camp in Jerusalem. Now, it has been cut off from Jerusalem by the Israeli extension of The Wall in the East Jerusalem area, and residents with Jerusalem permits have to enter and exit daily through two prison-like checkpoints.

The issue of Jewish worship on the mosque esplanade is also a matter of Jewish theologically controversy: the Rabbis of the Western Wall have continuously opposed Jewish visits to the Haram as-Sharif, on the grounds that uncertainty about where the Jewish Temple once stood might lead to violation of particularly sacred spots such as the Inner Sanctum, Holy of Holies, or altar of sacrifice. According to this theological view, there is a particular prohibition against Jewish prayer on this site.

However, in recent years, rabbis connected to the national religious movement closely allied with the settler movement have taken a contrary position, and urged Jewish visits. There is also a Jewish group advocating the rebuilding of the Temple on the mosque esplanade itself.

In today’s press conference, the three Palestinian speakers expressed fears that Sunday’s “break-in” was a direct attempt to change the status quo — and to partition Al-Aqsa mosque (and perhaps the Dome of the Rock as well) between Muslim and Jewish worshippers, as has happened to the very important Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron, where Abraham and his wife Sarah are among those believed to have been buried.

In February 1994, at dawn prayers during Ramadan, American-Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein entered the Ibrahimi mosque and gunned down Palestinians at prayer, killing over twenty. He was himself beaten to death in reprisal, and his grave at the Kiryat Arba settlement overlooking Hebron is now a site of some religious-nationalist pilgrimage.

Israeli armed forces maintains tight control over entry to the Ibrahimi mosque, which is now effectively partitioned. Because the final days of Ramadan and the beginning of the Eid holiday this year coincided with the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashona), the Ibrahimi mosque was reportedly closed to Muslim worshippers in order to allow secured Jewish access.

The EU Heads of Mission report noted that “Israel ’s actions in and around Jerusalem constitute one of the most acute challenges to Israeli-Palestinian peace making”. And the report said that “The EU opposes measures that would prejudice the outcome of Permanent Status Negotiations, consigned to the third phase of the Road Map, such as actions aimed at changing the status of East Jerusalem”.

There had been prior publicity about the intended visit, on the eve of Yom Kippur. A small number of Palestinians had come to defend Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock, two mosques on the Haram as-Sharif mosque compound, which Jews call the Temple Mount (it is believed to have been the site of the second and parhaps also the first Jewish Temples). The Western Wall (also called the Wailing Wall) is believed to be all that remains — on the surface, at least — of the Jewish temple(s).

Hatem Abdel Qader told journalists on Monday that Palestinians had found messages (publicity, flyers, posters) all over Israel (and in West Bank settlements?) calling on Jews to come to join the “break-in” on the Temple Mount in the days preceeding Sunday’s disturbances.

Abdel Qader was for over a year the adviser on Jerusalem Affairs for the Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and who then served for a brief time as Minister for Jerusalem Affairs before resigning in early July in a move that has not yet been fully explained. The reported explanation: the resignation was an act of protest because of the lack of Palestinian Authority support for Palestinians in East Jerusalem. But Abdel Qader’s resignation may also have been a move of convenience, as Israel has been cracking down on any activities that it says are connected with the Palestinian Authority in Jerusalem, and Abdel Qader himself has been repeatedly detained and called in for questioning.

Tensions in East Jerusalem have risen markedly in the past year, as Israeli expulsions of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem, demolition orders affecting Palestinian housing, and permits for the construction of housing for Jewish families have increased. This trend has, if anything, accelerated since Israel’s military offensive against Gaza last winter — despite protests by European and American diplomats and governments.

The disturbances at the mosque esplanade last Sunday, 27 September, came nine years almost to the day of the provocative visit of Ariel Sharon to the site, accompanied by a big contingent of Israeli military forces, on 28 September 2000 – which is marked as the date of the beginning of the second Palestinian intifada. Despite the marked calm of recent months, there is expert debate about whether or not that second intifada has ever ended.

On Sunday, Israeli media reported that Israeli police used stun grenades and tear gas to repel the stone-throwers, and that 18 were wounded in the “riots”, although Jewish worshippers were able to pray later at the Western Wall without interruption. Palestinian media reported that rubber-coated steel bullets and high-velocity tear gas cannisters were fired at the Palestinians on the site, with three seriously wounded and more than a dozen others injured. And, the Palestinian Commission on Human Rights noted, the Israeli forces “closed the gates of the al-Aqsa Mosque and Jerusalem fence, and did not allow Palestinian civilians to enter the old town or the al-Aqsa Mosque”.

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