Provocation? And if so, by whom?

The Jerusalem Post reported on Wednesday that there is a big “pilgrimage” being planned for Thursday by a “group of activists dedicated to bringing Jews to the Temple Mount” (known to Muslims as the Haram as-Sharif, where Al-Aqsa Mosque is located, in the Old City of East Jerusalem.

The JPost story said that these activists “were hoping to see hundreds of participants take part in a planned ‘mass pilgrimage’ to the mount scheduled for Thursday morning in honor of Hanukka, which celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple after it was recovered from Hellenist Greeks more than 2,000 years ago.  The pilgrimage, which will include guided tours of the area throughout the morning, will also be a litmus test for the shaky calm that has prevailed in Jerusalem ‘s Old City since October, when rumors of a ‘Jewish takeover’ of the mount sparked fierce clashes between Arab rioters and security forces in and around the sensitive holy site and in various neighborhoods of east Jerusalem. The rumors were fueled in part by calls at the time, from a number of Knesset members and prominent national-religious rabbis, that Jews ascend to the Temple Mount with increased vigor. Those calls were portrayed, in turn, by Palestinian clerics as nefarious plans to invade the site or build a synagogue there”.

Actually, as we have reported earlier here, the Palestinian fears relate to a gradual forced occupation of part of Al-Aqsa Mosque, or of the mosque esplanade, that will result in a “sharing” of the site similar to what has existed for more than 15 years at the very important Ibrahimi (Abraham) mosque in the West Bank city of Hebron, where Abraham and his wife Sarah and some of their descendants are buried. The “sharing” of the Ibrahimi Mosque — under Israeli military occupation and control — means that the site has become off-limits to Muslim worshippers for days at a time, notably during lengthy Jewish holidays.

The JPost article continues: “The mount, which was the location of both the First and Second Jewish Temples from 960 BCE until 70 AD, is also home to the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aksa Mosque, which is considered the third-holiest shrine in Islam. Nonetheless, a representative of the Organization for the Renewal of the Temple (ORT) – which is organizing Thursday’s event – told the Post on Tuesday there had been no indication the planned pilgrimage would cause renewed disturbances, even though tensions around the site are always high, and Tuesday was no exception. Members of the group who had gone up to the mount on Tuesday were reportedly accosted by a group of Arabs as they exited the site and headed into the Old City’s Muslim Quarter. Yosef Rabin, an ORT member, told the Post that the scuffle broke out after a number of Arabs standing nearby became enraged when his colleagues started to sing Hanukka songs and dance as they departed. ‘And that was completely legal’, Rabin said. ‘We were no longer on the mount itself, and the police officers who were with us said it was okay to begin singing. Police were quick to break up the fighting, Rabin added, but detained two of the group’s members. A police spokesman contacted on Tuesday evening was unable to immediately verify Rabin’s account. Nevertheless, Rabin said, the trip had been calm and quiet up until the fighting broke out, and he added that his group was pursuing its goal of promoting awareness of the mount ‘through legal means only’. ‘We do everything legally and in conjunction with the police’, Rabin said“…

Again, the problem is the matter of the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and the Old City of East Jerusalem, which was not brought under Israeli control at the time the Jewish state was created — and only came under Israeli control after the Israeli military conquest in the June 1967 Six-Day War.

Since then, Israel has extended its law and administration to the Old City and to the rest of East Jerusalem and also to other adjacent areas that it effectively annexed unilaterally into something Israel calls the “Greater Jerusalem Municipal area”. This effective annexation has been condemned and declared “null and void” but the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council, but Israel insists that “united Jerusalem” is the eternal capital of Israel (the Knesset passed such a law in 1980), and will never again be “divided” (the Palestinians say they hope it will be “shared”).

The facts on the ground show that Israel is unilaterally re-drawing the borders of this “Greater Jerusalem Municipal area” again, through the construction of The Wall in and around East Jerusalem. But there has not been any official proclamation to this effect, and the status of thousands of East Jerusalem Palestinians who are still, at least technically, permanent residents (though not citizens) of the State of Israel is increasingly unclear and precarious.

In today’s JPost article, Rabin explained that “Our focus is on bringing people to the Temple Mount, nothing else … And we’ve been making hundreds of phone calls, using lists we have, and sending out e-mails and Facebook messages to try and get as many people as possible to come … Little by little, we’re going to take back the mount’, he continued. ‘And it will be done without violence or force’.”

This JPost article can be read in full here.

According to a “sharing” arrangement made by Israel’s Minister of Defense in 1967, Moshe Dayan, the top of the Haram as-Sharif mosque esplanade was controlled by the Islamic Waqf (or Trust Foundation), while the Western Wall revered in Judaism as part of the supporting structure for the Second and possibly also the First Jewish Temples is controlled by Israel. [According to an Israeli guide who conducted a recent tour for journalists sponsored by the Israeli Government Press Office of the tunnels alongside a still-buried part of the Western Wall (only one-third is currently exposed), there has been no physical evidence, or remnants, or relics, yet found of the presence on that site of the First Jewish Temple. However, some Israelis fear that the secretive removal by Muslim authorities of earth excavated during a current extended renovation project to enlarge the sub-structure of the Al-Aqsa Mosque may have damaged or caused to disappear any possible Jewish remains…]

The Islamic Waqf (Trust) authorities, incidentally, are currently again appointed by Jordan (as they had been from 1948), following a period after the signing of the Oslo Accords starting in September 1993 between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), during which the Waqf officials were appointed solely by the Palestinian Authority.

The Western Wall and the Haram as-Sharif have been the sites of significant clashes during the past century between Muslims and Jews, two of three monotheistic religions that regard sites in the Old City of East Jerusalem as having extreme spiritual significance.

The Jerusalem Post reported a week ago what it said were details of the so-far unconfirmed offers made in the inconclusive “Annapolis” process of direct Israel-Palestinian negotiations that began under the George Bush administration in late November 2007 with the aim of creating a Palestinian state by the end of 2008 (or, at the very least, by the end of the Bush administration’s term in office in January 2009). Instead, the Israeli Defense Forces launched a massive military onslaught against what they said were Hamas targets in Gaza on 27 December 2008, in reaction to which the Palestinian leadership called off negotiations with Israel — which have still not resumed.

In any case, the JPost story last week said, “During Olmert’s tenure, then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni offered to establish a Palestinian state on 92.7 percent of the territories conquered in the Six Day War. The map presented to Palestinian negotiators did not include the Jordan Valley as part of the State of Israel … Channel 10 reported. In return for 7.3% that Israel would annex, it would offer the Palestinians 3% in land swaps. According to a Channel 10 analyst, there were already decisions on what land would be swapped in return to retaining settlement blocs … The Palestinians, according to the report, have for the first time ever presented the Israeli team with their own maps. The Palestinians were willing forego only 1.9% of the Judea and Samaria territories, but they were willing to accept that Gush Etziyon, Modi’in and several other settlement remain in Israeli hands. In Jerusalem, the Palestinians were willing to accept the neighborhoods of Ramot, Ramot Alon, Ramat Shlomo, Pisgat Ze’ev, Neve Ya’akov, Ma’alot Dafna, French Hill and Gilo, the southern neighborhood which has recently become a sticking point not with the Palestinians but with the United States after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced that Israel would build several hundred new housing units there. However, according to the report, the Palestinians themselves have agreed to forego areas where they now demand Israel implement a complete halt to construction.  Olmert reportedly offered the PA an even more generous offer than Livni, offering that Israel annex only 6.5% and swap 5.8% of lands, so the Palestinian state would constitute 99.3$ of the 1967 territories.  He  [Olmert]  additionally offered that five Arab states would be involved in governing Jerusalem, which would be divided based on its demographics“. This earlier JPost report is published here.

UPDATE:  Haaretz has now published an interview with Abbas in which he revealed details of the Israeli-Palestinian direct negotiations under the Annapolis process, from his perspective: “In one of the three-way meetings during the talks, former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice was present. I asked her for fications [sic – ?] regarding talks on the borders of the occupied lands. She said clearly that from the U.S. perspective this included the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley and the no-man’s-land [the Latrun area] … The next day, we started talking about maps. Olmert showed me one map and I brought back one of ours. He showed me a new map and I brought back a map of ours. And so it went. We agreed that 1.9 percent would be with you and Olmert demanded 6.5 percent. It was a negotiation, we didn’t complete it. As a shopper enters a store, that’s how we held the talks”.  The Haaretz interview, conducted and reported by Avi Issacharoff, also reports that “According to Abbas, a few days before Operation Cast Lead, he told then-U.S. president George W. Bush that despite extensive American efforts, the talks had not been completed. ‘He asked me if it would be all right if on January 3 we sent [chief negotiator] Saeb Erekat, and Israel would send an envoy to complete the talks. But a few days before the departure for Washington, Saeb called Shalom [Turgeman, Olmert’s political adviser] and said the situation did not allow it. Everything got stuck’.  Abbas said discussions were held on refugees and Jerusalem, but no agreements were reached. ‘But let’s say Olmert understood the way things stood. He also agreed to the approach that what was Arab would remain in Arab hands’, Abbas said, referring to areas of Jerusalem. ‘On the matter of the holy places, he proposed international monitors’, Abbas said. He said he had agreed to an international force in the West Bank and Gaza after an Israeli withdrawal, and that ‘both sides had agreed to the presence of a third party.  First I suggested NATO and Olmert said the Americans wouldn’t agree. Then I proposed the European Union and he explained that they couldn’t. Then we agreed to the presence of UNIFIL, led by the Americans. President Bush agreed to that, the Egyptians agreed and you agreed’.  Asked whether talks are currently underway between Abbas and Netanyahu’s team, he said the two leaders haven’t been talking, but ‘talks are constantly underway between the parties on security and economic cooperation’.”  This Haaretz article can be read in full here.

Tensions flare on mosque esplanade in Old City of East Jerusalem

Clashes are continuing on Sunday afternoon on the mosque esplanade where two mosques Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock are situated in the Old City of East Jerusalem.

In the morning, there were reports saying hat Jewish worshippers protected by Israeli police (armed of course) had entered the mosque esplanade — which is called the Temple Mount in Israel — in advance of the very serious Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and annual repentance.

Palestinians had been on alert since Thursday, when Al-Quds newspaper published a report saying (at least according to an SMS summary): “Extremist Jews plan to break into al-Aqsa Mosque on Sunday, similar incident occurs in Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron”.

Apparently, Palestinians present on the mosque esplanade began throwing stones at the group that turned up Sunday morning.

Clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police then spread out of the mosque compound and into the streets of the Old City.

There were injuries both to Palestinians and to the Israeli police.

Continue reading Tensions flare on mosque esplanade in Old City of East Jerusalem

Palestinian Police deploy up to Qalandia checkpoint for first Friday in Ramadan

For the first time in years, or perhaps ever, Palestinian traffic policemen were allowed to deploy up to the concrete barriers at the entry to the main Qalandia checkpoint today,
which Israeli officials refer to as a “border crossing”, on the road between Jerusalem and Ramallah.

It was a real departure on the first Friday in Ramadan 2009, as thousands of Palestinian men and women and children endured heat and serial military checks in order to be able to go to pray during this special month at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of East Jerusalem.

(The lunar calendar used by Muslims means that the month of Ramadan starts about 11 days earlier every year. Roughly every 36 years, Ramadan rotates through the hottest and longest days of summer.)

One sunny Palestinian traffic policeman helping pedestrians cross through the constant flow of cars and vans said that the deployment had been done in coordination with the Israeli military, and that for now the Palestinian deployment would be just for Fridays during Ramadan, at least for now. “We hope we can come every Friday, and then every day, and that we can also go into Jerusalem to pray”. He said that he is now 34 years old, and according to current Israeli policy, he will not be free to pray in Jerusalem for another 16 years. He said he came from the Old City of Nablus, and that he was one of between 20-24 Palestinian traffic policemen selected for the special task. “Ukhti” (My sister), he called to beckon one woman to cross the street.

“We are here”, he explained, “but without guns”. However, he said, they did not really need guns, because “many people tell us it’s a great day, and it’s good, that they finally see us on the street here. Some drivers even stopped in surprise”, he reported.

Another Palestinian traffic policeman said that there were about 15 Palestinian policemen on duty at Qalandia. Palestinian security cars were lined up and parked just at the entrance into the Qalandia perimeter — an extremely rare sight.

Precisely because there has been no civilian traffic control allowed anywhere near the Israeli military, Qalandia checkpoint has, until now, been the the site of frequent traffic snarls and intimidating traffic congestion where cars have to fight to advance every single centimeter.
The aggressive young beggars that operate in the areas where cars waiting to pass through Qalandia add another layer of misery and stress for the trapped motorists.

For the four Fridays in Ramadan, vehicular traffic has been banned from just after midnight until 3 pm in the afternoon.

Palestinian mini-vans and buses were surprisingly organized, and dispatchers with neon-green vests and megaphones urged the stream of Palestinians onto transport into Jerusalem. The prayer-goers would face at least one other military check at Damascus Gate in the Old City Wall. It was later reported that five Palestinians were arrested, a few for “carrying knives” and one for being from Gaza but not having a permit.

This year, like last year, only men over 50 years old, and only women over 45 years old, are eligible for entry into Jerusalem for the Friday prayers during Ramadan, a holy month which commemorates the revelation of the Qur’an. For the entire month of Ramadan, adults fast completely (and do not even drink water) from two hours before sunrise until sundown. The idea is to give the body a rest, and to develop solidarity with the poor who are often not able to eat and drink as they need.

Men between 45 and 50 may apply for special permits issued for the four Fridays in Ramadan, and women between 30 and 45 were also eligible to apply — but UN officials said that all the Palestinians all had to be married to qualify for the special permits. Apparently, children under 12 could accompany their parents.

Despite the noticeably better Israeli organization implemented by the Israeli military authorities at Qalandia, there were far fewer Palestinians trying to pass through Qalandia today than during the first Friday of Ramadan last year. “Where are the thousands of Palestinians who cannot get into Jerusalem and who ususally come to protest?”, asked one woman from the Israeli organization Machsom Watch. One Palestinian policeman said that it was only the first Friday of Ramadan, and predicted that the numbers would increase in the coming weeks. However, a UN official noted that the fourth Friday of Ramadan this year coincides with a major Jewish holiday, and predicted that Palestinian traffic into Jerusalem from the occupied West Bank would be reduced to a trickle.

According to a tally from the observers with the Ecumenical Accompaniers program (EAPPI) of the World Council of Churches, just over 16,000 Palestinians passed through Qalandia going into Jerusalem between 0600 and 1130 in the morning.  Last year, EAPPI said that 36,000 Palestinians passed through Qalandia in more-or-less the same time period, between 0600 and 1200.

Israeli officials later reported that 90,000 Muslims were at the Friday prayers (the exact same figure as last year) up on the Haram as-Sharif plateau on which Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are both built. Palestinians from East Jerusalem, who are legal residents of Israel, and Israel’s own Arab/Palestinian citizens had free access to Al-Aqsa. (The Haram as-Sharif plateau has a reported capacity of 300,000).

IDF imposes general closure of West Bank, Israeli police on high alert in East Jerusalem, as Gaza attacks continue

The IDF announced this morning that it had imposed a general closure on the West Bank, effective from midnight on Thursday until midnight on Saturday — after the Jewish sabbath/shabat. Israeli police and Border Police are on high alert in East Jerusalem for Friday prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Haram as-Sharif in the Old City, as IDF attacks continue in Gaza, and rocket and other “projectile” firing continues from Gaza onto adjacent Israeli areas.

The closure information — sent to journalists at 0826 am on Friday 9 January, Jerusalem time — says that “Following a decision by the Minister of Defense and in accordance with state assessments, the Judea and Samaria Region [i.e., the West Bank] will be under a general closure beginning midnight, January 8th. The closure will be lifted on midnight, January 10th, 2008″.

In a somewhat — but not too — amusing linguistic error, the closure order also states that “Various humanitarian, medical and other exceptional cases will be permitted to cross throughout the closure, subjugated to the district coordinator and liaison”.

Helicopters are flying overhead in East Jerusalem — and the white surveillance blimp is almost certainly back (but I cannot see it from the room where I am working) — about an hour before the Friday prayers are scheduled to begin.

The American Consulate in Jerusalem has sent a warning to U.S. citizens that “The Israeli National Police are reporting the possibility of a large demonstration Friday, January 9, 2009, in the Old City and other possible demonstrations throughout East Jerusalem in protest of the ongoing situation in Gaza. There is expected to be a heavy police presence in and around the Old City throughout the day … Access restrictions to the Haram Al-Sharif/Temple Mount and a heavy police presence may spark disturbances at entry points, to include the Damascus, Herod’s and Lion’s gates, in addition to random security checkpoints set up throughout the areas leading to the Old City. Heightened awareness should continue to be practiced when approaching established and random security checkpoints throughout the Jerusalem area, where crowds and the possibility of spontaneous disturbances may occur”.

The UN Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire, adopted just before dawn here in the region, has had no impact on the IDF’s Operation Cast Lead, but the Israeli government security cabinet (Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Deputy PM + Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni) are to meet today to consider either expanding the current ground operation — or not.

Over the past two weeks — at the launch of the operation against Gaza targets on 27 December, and at the decision to start the ground invasion on 3 January — followed a similar pattern, with the decisions being taken late on Friday by the Security Cabinet, and implemented by the IDF on Saturday.

The Israeli negotiators — primarily the IDF’s Amos Gilad — returned from Cairo on Thursday night, hours before the UNSC vote. Their Egyptian interlocuters — primarily intelligence chief Omar Suleiman — would have briefed them on the latest Hamas stand.

The IDF has proposed another three-hour “humanitarian respite”, however — this time between noon and 3pm, reportedly to allow for Friday prayers in Gaza (!), which are supposed to be performed in group assemblies (in a mosque, if it is not bombed-out), and to allow for an earlier finish prior to the Jewish shabat.

What all the effort and longing is all about — Al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock on the first Friday in Ramadan

With many thanks to a contributor who wishes to remain anonymous, here are some photos taken at Friday noon and evening prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque (where, if there are large numbers, only the men will pray) and the Dome of The Rock (ususally reserved for women), on the Haram as-Sharif mosque esplanade in the Old City of East Jerusalem.

The first picture shows the Sabil water fountain outside Al-Aqsa Mosque, the next shows people leaving Al-Aqsa after the main Friday prayer, the following five pictures are views of the Dome of the Rock; and the last is Al-Aqsa itself, on Friday night.

First Friday in Ramadan - Al-Aqsa Mosque - noon prayers

The First Friday of Ramadan - people leaving Al-Aqsa Mosque after main Friday prayer

First Friday in Ramadan - Dome of the Rock - evening prayers and crescent moon

First Friday in Ramadan - Dome of the Rock - evening prayers

First Friday in Ramadan - women praying at the Dome of the Rock - 5 Sept 08

First Friday in Ramadan - Dome of the Rock at night - 5 Sept 08

First Friday in Ramadan - Al-Aqsa Mosque at night - 5 Sept 08

Israeli revised plan for rebuilding Mughrabi Gate ramp may be approved soon

Green door of Mughrabi Gate to Haram as-Sharif - 12 June 2008

“Tensions may be heating up again about Israeli reconstruction plans for a damaged ramp leading from the Western Wall Plaza in the Old City of Jerusalem, where Jewish worshippers pray at Judaism’s most sacred and revered site, up to the Mughrabi Gate entrance to the Haram as-Sharif mosque esplanade, the third holiest site of Islam. A revised Israeli design to rebuild the ramp is expected to receive Israeli government approval imminently…”

Ramp under repair leading from Western Wall Plaza in Jerusalem up to Mughrabi Gate entrance to Haram as-Sharif - 12 June 2008

Read the full post here .