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Sunday, June 13, 2021

Explained: Behind the clashes at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa

What is the significance of the mosque and its location, and why has it become the site of clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinians over the last one week?

Written by Nirupama Subramanian
Mumbai | Updated: May 18, 2021 10:46:40 am
Jerusalem clashes, Israel-Paletine clash, Jerusalem Ramadan, Jerusalem Ramadan violence, Israel police, Israel police attacking Palestinians, Al Aqsa, Jordan on Israel, Egypt on Israel, Indian ExpressA Palestinian man runs away from tear gas in front of the Dome of the Rock Mosque at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem on Monday. (AP)

On Monday, Israeli police stormed the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in East Jerusalem, leaving a reported 300 people injured. It came on a day Israel observes as Jerusalem Day, and marked the fourth day of clashes at one of the most revered and the most contested sites of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Week of tensions

On the last Friday of Ramzan last week, more than 150 people were injured when Israeli forces broke up a massive gathering of Palestinian worshippers who had gathered to pray at the mosque, revered as Islam’s third holiest site. There were more clashes in the area over the weekend. The stand-off came at the end of a week of tensions over the eviction of Palestinian residents from two neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem, Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, to make way for Jewish settlers.

On Monday, the tensions came to a head again, hours before the annual May 10 Jerusalem Day processions by Jewish groups through the Old City of East Jerusalem to mark the day the territory was captured by Israeli forces during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Israel annexed the territory later and incorporated it into West Jerusalem, captured earlier, in the 1947 war. For the second time in four days, police fired rubber bullets inside the compound, while Palestinians sheltering inside threw stones and rocks.

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The Israeli Foreign Ministry said Monday’s incident was the “direct result of incitement by Palestinian terror groups”. On Twitter, the ministry posted photos of stone purportedly collected inside the mosque, implying that people inside the compound were planning to attack the May 10 processions. Due to the spike in tensions, the police changed the route of the processions at the last minute.

Israeli police officers clash with Palestinian protesters near Damascus Gate just outside Jerusalem’s Old City, Sunday, May 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The mosque & the Mount

The Al-Aqsa is located on a plaza at Temple Mount, which is known in Islam as Haram-e-Sharif. The Mount is also Judaism’s holiest site. The most imposing structure on the compound is the Dome of the Rock, with its golden dome. The Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall sacred to Jews, is one side of the retaining wall of the Al-Aqsa compound.

Al-Aqsa is central to the rival claims over Jerusalem. Both Israel and Palestine have declared it their capital. In July 1980, the Israeli Parliament passed the Jerusalem Law declaring it the country’s capital. Palestinians declared Jerusalem the capital of the putative state of Palestine by a law passed by the Palestinian Authority in 2000. The 1988 Palestinian Declaration of Independence also declared Jerusalem as the capital. For the present, the Palestinian Authority has its headquarters in Ramallah.

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Soon after the 1967 Six-Day War ended, Israel gave back to Jordan the administration and management of the Al-Aqsa compound. While non-Muslims have not been allowed to worship at Al-Aqsa, Jewish individuals and groups have made repeated attempts to gain entry to the Mount Temple plaza . Since the late 1990s, around the time of the first intifada, such attempts began occurring with a regularity as Jewish settlers began claiming land in East Jerusalem and surrounding areas. It has led to repeated clashes and tensions at Al-Aqsa. Frequently, the Israeli police have backed such attempts.

Palestinians and Israeli police clash at the compound that houses Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City on Saturday. (Reuters Photo)

World concerns

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan called his Israeli counterpart to express “serious concern”. The Security Council held a meeting on the situation in Jerusalem, but did not make any statement immediately. UN Secretary General António Guterres expressed “deep concern” over the violence and the possible eviction of Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem. He asked Israeli authorities to exercise “maximum restraint”. A spokesperson for Guterres said the status quo at Al-Aqsa should be “upheld and respected”.

Last Friday, the US said it was “extremely concerned” . A White House spokesman said the US wanted Israeli and Palestinian authorities to “act decisively to de-escalate tensions and bring a halt to the violence”. He also said it was “critical” not to aggravate the situation with “evictions in East Jerusalem, settlement activity, home demolitions and acts of terrorism”.

Palestinians clash with Israeli security forces at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City Monday, May 10, 2021. (AP Photo)

The UAE, which recently recognised as Israel as a state and sealed a historic peace agreement to normalise relations with it, has “strongly condemned” the clashes and the planned evictions in Jerusalem over the past week. The statement, issued by Foreign Minister Khalifa al-Marar, asked Israel to protect the sanctity of the Al-Aqsa.

Saudi Arabia, which has given its tacit blessings to the “Abraham Accords” by not opposing Israel’s recognition by UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, said it “rejects Israel’s plans and measures to evict dozens of Palestinians from their homes in Jerusalem”.

On a visit to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on Sunday took to Twitter to condemn Israel for “violating all norms of humanity and international law. We must reiterate support for Palestinian ppl. Int community must take immed action to protect Palestinians and their legitimate rights”.

Israel response

At a special cabinet meeting to commemorate Jerusalem Day, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that Israel would “not allow any extremist element to undermine the quiet Jerusalem”, and that “we will uphold law and order…we will continue to safeguard freedom of worship for all faiths but we will not allow violent disturbances”.

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