How Israeli extremists are exploiting the Gaza war to upend Al-Aqsa's status quo

Illustration - In-depth - Aqsa/Israeli extremists
5 min read
20 December, 2023

On 7 December - the first night of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah - about 100 to 150 Jewish ultranationalists headed towards the Muslim Quarter in the Old City of East Jerusalem.

Israeli police stopped the protest just as it reached the Old City gates for its inflammatory chants and signs reading, “Eject the Waqf,” referencing the Jordanian Islamic authority, and “A D9 [bulldozer] on the Temple Mount is the true victory,” suggesting Al-Aqsa Mosque should be demolished.

Despite the march being prevented, Amy Cohen, international relations director at Jerusalem-focused NGO Ir Amim questioned why it was even authorised in the first place.

"Al-Aqsa is now a main target for the Israeli political system. They feel by removing this symbol altogether from Palestinian collective consciousness, they can deny Palestinians the leverage, to have a thing to fight for"

“Obviously one can easily realise what their intent is,” Cohen told The New Arab. “But it's another example of how these groups exploit the circumstances in order to further push for a change of the status quo and for imposing Jewish dominance over the Mount.”

The march was organised by a new Temple Mount extremist group, Sons of Mount Moriah, created three months ago by an individual named David Ben Moriah. Mount Moriah is one of the Jewish biblical names for the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif.

Baruch Marzel, former faction secretary for Jewish supremacist Meir Kahane’s Kach party, also helped organise the rally. Activists from the Jewish Truth, a Kahanist organisation Marzel chairs, also participated in the provocative event.  

Other participating groups include Returning to the Mount and Beyadenu - Returning to the Temple Mount.

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Temple Mount movement 'defining Israel'

Once considered a fringe movement, Temple Mount activists advocate for removing the Jordanian Waqf’s authority over Haram al-Sharif, full Jewish control of the compound, and a reversal of the status quo mandating only Muslims can pray at the religious site.

Some within this umbrella group also promote the construction of a Third Jewish Temple at Haram al-Sharif, implying the demolition of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

The movement’s popularity has grown considerably over the decades as the liberal Zionist camp disintegrated within the Israeli political establishment and the right wing, with the rise of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, took over. Ultimately Israeli politics has culminated in today’s most ring-wing coalition government in the state’s history.

Visits by Israeli ultranationalists to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound have increased dramatically in recent years. [Getty]

And now with Temple Mount activists - like National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir who heads the police - part of Israel’s government, the movement has become mainstream, and according to Palestinian journalist Ramzy Baroud, has transitioned from society’s margins to part of the national political discourse.

“They are actually now the police, they are the security, they are the ministers, they are the government, they define Israel,” Baroud said.

And this is why Al-Aqsa has become so central to the current Israel-Hamas war, Baroud explained. Hamas called its 7 October attack “Al-Aqsa Flood” and continues to use the holy site in its wartime rhetoric. Whether Muslim or Christian, Al-Aqsa is seen as a cultural unifier for Palestinians.

“Al-Aqsa is now a main target for the Israeli political system,” Baroud said. “They feel by removing this symbol altogether from Palestinian collective consciousness, they can deny Palestinians the leverage, to have a thing to fight for.”

"They are actually now the police, they are the security, they are the ministers, they are the government, they define Israel"

Banning Muslims from Al-Aqsa

Since the beginning of the war, Temple Mount groups like Beyadenu have called for the Israeli government to bar Palestinian Muslims from the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Dr Abdallah Marouf, an Islamic history professor at Istanbul 29 Mayis University and ex-media official at Al-Aqsa, says this indicates the movement’s recent ideological shift.

“Before the war, they used to advocate for Al-Aqsa Mosque to be a shared holy site for the Muslims and the Jews and to have equal rights inside the mosque. However, now they are not even doing this,” Marouf said.

“What we have come to is that Al-Aqsa Mosque is now being opened freely for these extremist groups in order to perform their prayers and the Muslims are not allowed in their mosque anymore.”

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According to Ir Amim, Israeli forces have banned Muslims, except for Old City residents above the age of 50, from visiting the holy site since 7 October for “security reasons.” Some 50,000 worshippers usually attend Friday noon prayers at Al-Aqsa, but now this number has dwindled to a few thousand in the last two months.

“Every clash, every hostility is another means for [Temple Mount extremists] to accomplish their goals,” Cohen said, noting how these far-right groups often use regional tensions to pressure the government to impose entry restrictions on Muslims while increasing Jewish visits to the Al-Aqsa compound.

For Marouf, this discrimination at Al-Aqsa demonstrates how the Temple Mount movement is distorting the status quo.

Palestinians have long feared permanent changes to the fragile status quo of the holy site. [Getty]

“[Police] allow the fanatic groups to perform all their religious rituals inside the mosque, especially in order to do special prayers for the Israeli army, for success in the Gaza war, and that is actually something that tells us how they are now dealing with Al-Aqsa Mosque as a Jewish holy site rather than a Muslim [site],” Marouf said.  

Jewish extremists often storm mosques during Jewish holidays to pray or perform rituals, such as Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron and more recently in Jenin when Israeli soldiers recited Jewish prayers on a mosque’s loudspeaker. While these activists often cite religious freedom as their motive, Baroud suggests there is a much more sinister role at play.

“Once you pray inside Al-Aqsa, it automatically becomes - in their mind - a Jewish house of worship,” Baroud said. “This overriding idea in Israel that if they are able to convert mosques into temples, they are able to redeem their collective identity at the expense of Palestinians’.”

Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist covering Palestine and Israel. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The National, and Gulf News.

Follow her on Twitter: @jess_buxbaum

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