The storming of al-Aqsa: What do Palestinians fear most?

The storming of al-Aqsa: What do Palestinians fear most?
The far-right Israeli government has its sights set on Palestine's sacred al-Aqsa Mosque
4 min read
22 May, 2023
Israel's far-right cabinet holds meeting under al-Aqsa Mosque compound [Getty]

Israel’s far-right Minister of National Security has controversially stormed Jerusalem’s sacred al-Aqsa Mosque compound, drawing widespread condemnation from Palestinians, Arab leaders and the US. 

Itamar Ben-Gvir, a settler who belongs to the fascist Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Strength”) party was accompanied by at least 30 Israeli soldiers as he rushed into the complex. Outside, hundreds of Israeli settlers stormed the courtyards in an apparent attempt to occupy it, clashing with Palestinian youths trying to defend it. 

The Israeli minister’s actions come after months of tension that last week exploded around Israel’s so-called “Flag Day” march, which has become a beacon for the Israeli far-right. 

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This is not the first time that Israeli politicians have breached the al-Aqsa Mosque compound, also known as Haram al-Sharif, which is the second most holiest site in Islam. In 2000, after a long period of tension amidst worsening conditions for Palestinians and failed peace proposals, then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, surrounded by hundreds of Israeli riot police, visited al-Aqsa. This was the spark that lit the Second Intifada.

However, the context of Ben-Gvir’s actions are even more extreme than those of Sharon’s over two decades ago. Israel is expanding settlements into large areas of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, while what used to be considered fringe far-right groups now comprise the Israeli government in key roles. 

The al-Aqsa Mosque, while obviously revered by Muslims, is one of the last remaining symbols of Palestinian national defiance and resistance to the Israeli occupation, regardless of religion. Israel claims that al-Aqsa is the site of the historic “Temple Mount” and it is widely referred to as such throughout Israeli society, both secular and religious. 

However, fascists such as Ben-Gvir, whose party follows the far-right Jewish supremacist philosophy of the late Meir Kahane, believe in the “Judaisation” of every inch of Palestinian land Israel now occupies. This means the mass expulsion of Palestinians and the eradication of Palestinian culture and heritage.  The conquest of al-Aqsa is thus a major target for Israeli nationalists such as many of those in the current government. 

Under the status quo, Jews and other non-Muslims can visit al-Aqsa but are forbidden from prayer, but this is changing.  In recent times, Jewish visitors have been openly defying the ban and using their mobile phones to read prayers. To Palestinians, the very real fear is an Israeli takeover of al-Aqsa, a fear that is justified by the actions of government officials like Ben-Gvir, who read prayers aloud from his phone in direct defiance of the ban. 

However, this has ramifications far beyond religion.  

Palestinian Christian analyst and commentator for The New Arab Lamis Andoni remarked that Ben-Gvir’s actions were “an act of provocation”, designed to “deny the Palestinian identity of al-Aqsa”, which is of course sacred to Muslims but is also a “a powerful symbol of Palestinian identity regardless of faith.” As Andoni further notes, Ben-Gvir’s actions do not just affect Muslims but all Palestinians, with the move being a “green light” to expand Israel’s eating up of illegally occupied Palestinian land even further.  Andoni further said that the attempt by Israel to "Judaise" al-Aqsa would be considered by Israel to be the most "victorious attack" on Palestinian self-determination.

On the same day as Ben-Gvir's actions, these fears were further backed up when the Israeli cabinet, led by prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, blatantly held a cabinet meeting under the Al-Buraq Wall in the al-Aqsa compound on the same day as Ben-Gvir’s provocation. Netanyahu was quoted as saying, "Time and again … I have been forced to repel international pressure on the part of those who would divide Jerusalem.” Coming just after the meeting of the Arab League, and in light increased cleansing of East Jerusalem and the Abraham Accords, Netanyahu’s intentions seem to be to test the Arab and wider world’s commitment to defending al-Aqsa from his own commitment to its eventual “Judaisation”.

Though Ben-Gvir’s actions were indeed denounced by Jordan, the UAE, Egypt and even the US, which is welcome, Palestinians fear that words are not enough.  As Andoni puts it, “It is good that the Arab League and America condemn Israel’s encroachment on al-Aqsa, but until … [especially] the US puts serious pressure on Israel, it will be emboldened to take al-Aqsa just as it has taken the rest of Palestine.”