Shutting Palestinians out of al-Aqsa is a major error

Shutting Palestinians out of al-Aqsa is a major error
5 min read
18 Jul, 2017
Comment: For Palestinians, the introduction of restrictions on the people of Jerusalem praying in their own mosque is an unacceptable constraint, writes Daoud Kuttab.
Jordan retains custodianship over the holy site [AFP]
When three Palestinians fired their weapons at Israeli policemen guarding al-Aqsa Mosque at 7am on Friday 14 July, their act was not a random one.

While it is still not known if they belong to any movement or group, there is no doubt that their action was the culmination of a couple of months that have seen an escalation in the daily violence around the mosque area, all under the watchful eye and often encouragement of the Israelis.
The biggest problem that troubling Palestinians in Jerusalem is Israel's direct and indirect attempts to claim the mosque as a Jewish area. The efforts began with attempts to visit the mosque, and have escalated to public displays of prayer, and public statements about the need for Israel to reclaim "sovereignty" over the al-Haram al-Sharif or al-Aqsa mosque.
The United Nations Education Science and Culture Organization (UNESCO) has declared the compound's 144 dunums as a world Heritage site and has called for its protection. Jordan, Israel and the US reached an understanding in November 2014 that reaffirms the need to preserve the status quo on the compound.

Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu, Jordan's King Abdullah and US Secretary of State John Kerry put it in simple words. al-Aqsa is for Muslims to worship and the world to visit. 

This equation is translated on the ground as an understanding that ensures Muslims uninhibited access to their mosque, while visitors of all other faiths are allowed to visit under strict regulations. 

Al-Aqsa is for Muslims to worship and the world to visit

Palestinians in Jerusalem say that the situation in al-Aqsa has been deteriorating for some time, with settlers and right-wing activists acting arrogantly and violating this understanding while Israeli police stand by.

Right-wing forces have been successfully pushing the police to change the status quo, and as a result, a sharp increase in the numbers of Israelis who are visiting al-Aqsa (and a difference in their intentions) has been noticed.
According to Ofer Zalzberg a senior analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis group, "the situation in al-Aqsa has indeed been deteriorating" for some time, with the Israeli authorities not paying much attention to the protests of Palestinians and the Jordanian authorities.

Read more: Israel reopens al-Aqsa Mosque but Palestinians refuse to enter over cameras and metal detectors

He says that activists, often referred to as the "Temple Mount activists", have stepped up their campaign during the past few months, increasing their presence and attempts to pray on the compound.
Greater numbers of Jewish activists were allowed by the Israeli police onto Al-Harm Al-Sharif/al-Aqsa Mosque, and allowed to violate the Amman understanding more often.

Palestinians perform night prayer in front of the new security metal detectors, outside one of the main
entrances to the al-Aqsa mosque, refusing to enter because of the detectors installed by Israel [Anadolu]

"Perhaps the most obvious violation occurred on the 29th of June when the chief of the Jerusalem district police, Yoram Halevi, joined 150 activists to go on the mosque area. The police chief took photos with the activists and allowed a Cohen [Jewish priest] to make a benediction to him and to the others."

Zalzberg notes that the act - which was filmed and appeared in the Palestinian media - demonstrated that the Israeli police is not neutral. "Israel and the Jerusalem police in particular is complicit in violating the ban on non-Muslim worship on the holy esplanade."
Both Jordan, which retains custodianship over the mosque area, and the Israeli government have been trying to find a solution to de-escalate the tensions. Jordan's King Abdullah who telephoned Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu succeeded in getting the mosque area reopened to all Muslims.

Read more: UNESCO declares Hebron Old City protected heritage site

The reopening, however, came with a condition. Metal detectors were placed at two gate entrances to the mosque that has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site.
When Israel unilaterally instituted metal detectors Sunday morning, Jerusalem's Muslims refused to be checked entering their own mosque. The Israeli authorities didn't even bother to coordinate with Jordan, whose peace agreement with it states the special role of the Kingdom in the mosque and other Islamic holy sites.
Israel insisted that it is not changing the status quo, but for Palestinians, the introduction of restrictions and obstacles for the people of Jerusalem to pray in their own mosque is seen as an unacceptable constraint.

The fact that this was done unilaterally and without coordination with Palestinians or Jordanians has made the situation even worse.
Palestinians worshipers in Jerusalem who often leave their shops and homes to pray five times a day in the mosque objected to the metal detector gates. They argue that for 50 years the status quo has held up without a problem, and without such restrictions.

Only when extremist Israelis tried to forcibly enter the mosque and attempt to lay religious claims to Islam's third holiest site, did the trouble begin, they argue. 

Keeping Palestinians out of any decision regarding the city and especially the management of Al-Haram al-Sharif is proving to be a major error.

The level of trust between Palestinians and the occupying Israeli authorities is at an all-time low

The level of trust between Palestinians and the occupying Israeli authorities is at an all-time low. While Palestinians have respect for the role of Jordan and King Abdullah II, the absence of Palestinian representatives causes problems on both sides.

It prevents Israel from having a reliable communication tool, and at the same time it doesn't provide the Israelis with a real-time decision-making mechanism that can rebuild trust.
Until a peace agreement concerning the long-term status of Jerusalem is reached it is incumbent on Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian government to agree on a process that can help the city's population to have their own local representatives.

With a Jerusalem Palestinian leadership accepted and empowered, it will become easier to ensure that all parties can reach mutually acceptable agreements when it comes to sensitive issues, such as the future of the UNESCO World Heritage site.  

Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. 

Follow him on Twitter: @daoudkuttab

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.