October 16, 2009

Hardly any respite - While some calm has returned to the compound of Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Muslim holy site is still under grave threat

By KHALED AMAYREH - October 16, 2009

An uneasy calm is descending over East Jerusalem after thousands of Israeli troops lifted a tight siege lasting two weeks on Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, one of Islam's holiest sanctuaries.

The site witnessed violent disturbances two weeks ago when Israeli paramilitary police stormed the Haram Al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) in an effort to arrest Palestinians who had repulsed an attempt by a group of Jewish fanatics who were trying to arrogate "prayer rights" at the Islamic shrine.

Dozens of Palestinians were injured, some quite seriously.

Following the incident, hundreds of Muslims from Jerusalem and also from Arab towns and villages in Israel decided to maintain a constant presence at the mosque in order to repulse new attempts by Jewish extremists to seize a foothold at Al-Aqsa compound. On many occasions, Israeli police forces threatened to storm the Noble Sanctuary if the sit- in didn't end. Meanwhile, they maintained a constant presence outside the compound. But on Sunday, the Israeli government decided to lift the siege, effectively allowing participants in the sit-in to leave peacefully.

The deal apparently was part of a behind-the-scenes understanding between Israel and Jordan whereby Israel agreed to reinstitute the status quo ante at the site and to refrain from provoking Muslim sensibilities. According to the Jordanian- Israeli Peace Treaty, Jordan retained the role of custodian of Al-Aqsa Mosque. Jordan had harshly criticised Israel for the "standoff", and unconfirmed reports indicated that the Jordanian government threatened to expel the Israeli ambassador from Amman if the provocations continued.

Indeed, King Abdullah II warned in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz last week that the irresponsible Israeli behaviour with regard to Al-Aqsa Mosque could spark off a huge conflagration in the region and "destroy everything". Jordan and other Muslim countries witnessed large anti-Israel protests following Friday congregational prayers.

In addition to Jordan, several Muslim countries also filed protests with Israel, warning the Israeli government that any attempt at a gradual Jewish takeover of Islam's third holiest site would be viewed as crossing an ultimate red line by Muslims, and would also put an end to any semblance of peacemaking efforts in the region. The protests prompted Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to publicly deny that Israel was harbouring hostile intentions with regard to Al-Aqsa Mosque.

"Last week extremist figures tried to undermine Israel's stability. This is an extremist minority that spread lies about Israel digging under the Temple Mount [Haram Al-Sharif]. This is a lie," he said.

Another Israeli official, Trade and Labour Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer warned that Israeli Arabs were beginning to "link up" with Hamas against Israel. "A certain alliance is forming between Israeli Arabs, specifically the Islamic Movement, and Hamas," Ben-Eliezer told Israeli state-run radio, adding that Israel would eventually pay a heavy price if this was permitted to continue. Muslim leaders in Jerusalem and the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories scoffed at these statements, calling them "brash lies".

"Israel is trying to tell the Muslim world that this is a confrontation with Hamas. This is a lie, because Al-Aqsa Mosque belongs to the entire Muslim umma (nation) and Israel is trying to demolish the mosque or at least arrogate part of it in order to build a temple for Jews," said Sheikh Raed Salah, head of the Islamic Movement in Israel.

Salah was arrested briefly last week on charges of "incitement against the state" and of "making contacts with a terrorist organisation" -- an allusion to Hamas. Both Salah and his deputy, Sheikh Kamal Khatib, have also been barred from entering Jerusalem for 30 days. Israel has accused Salah and other Muslim leaders of carrying out "subversive activities" and "orchestrating" claims about an Israeli conspiracy against Al-Aqsa Mosque.

The restoration of calm at Al-Aqsa Mosque seems to vindicate the view of Muslim leaders that the main source of tension was Jewish provocations, particularly the repeated attempts by messianic Jewish fanatics to enter the mosque -- not as ordinary tourists, but as provocateurs and trouble- makers. Sheikh Ikrema Sabri, a chief imam and preacher at Al-Aqsa Mosque, said Muslims in Jerusalem and the rest of Palestine would never stop resisting and protesting efforts by Jewish intruders to establish a foothold or gain "prayer rights" at the Muslim shrine.

The current relative calm is unlikely to last for long, however, given the determination of messianic Jewish groups that are bent on demolishing Islamic holy places in Jerusalem in order to build a Jewish temple on their ruins. Some of these groups, such as the Temple of Faithful, believe that Jews won't attain redemption until Al-Aqsa Mosque is destroyed and a Jewish temple is erected in its place. According to extremist Jewish doctrine, the ensuing violence that would see the death of a huge number of people would expedite the appearance of a Jewish Messiah, or Redeemer, who would bring about salvation for Jews and rule the world from Jerusalem.

Messianic Jewish groups, which exert a lot of influence on the Israeli government and parliament, and even the army, seem to show little deference to any government decision to maintain status quo ante arrangements at Al-Aqsa Mosque esplanade where the Muslim Waqf (religious endowments authority) has been managing the holy site since 1967. A few days ago, a number of Jewish intruders disguised as foreign tourists entered the mosque despite tacit Israeli assurances to the contrary. Similar attempts, coordinated or uncoordinated with the government, are expected in the coming days and weeks.

Moreover, it seems that the current right-wing Israeli government fully identifies with the declared and undeclared goals of the extremists, despite any public stand to the contrary. Indeed, not a single member of the current government has criticised -- let alone denounced -- the fanatics for their repeated provocations.

This week, Sheikh Salah alluded to Israeli government collusion with messianic fanatics. He said nothing short of a full liberation of Al-Aqsa Mosque from the Israeli occupation would shield the Muslim sanctuary from harm. "The Israeli government is the prime mover of all plots against Al-Aqsa Mosque. The important thing is not what they say to the media, but what they do at, around and especially beneath Al-Aqsa Mosque."


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