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Explained: Why Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque has been a site of frequent clashes

The al-Aqsa Mosque is one of Jerusalem’s most recognised monuments. The mosque’s complex is one of Islam's most revered locations, and the Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism.

Written by Neha Banka , Edited by Explained Desk | Kolkata |
Updated: April 19, 2022 2:21:23 pm
Palestinians clash with Israeli security forces at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City Friday, April 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Tensions flared at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque compound on Sunday, leading to clashes that left 17 Palestinians wounded. The unrest happened just two days after at least 152 Palestinians were injured during clashes with Israeli riot police on Friday.

The violence occurred during the Jewish festival of Passover, which coincided with the Muslims observing Ramzan. Israeli police had said that officers entered the site after coming under attack with stones, fireworks and other objects that resulted in several injuries. The clashes follow heightened tensions over weeks between the Palestinians and Israelis, after fatal attacks in Israel and deaths of Palestinian civilians during subsequent raids in the West Bank.

What happened?

Al Jazeera quoting the Islamic endowment that runs al-Aqsa said Israeli police entered the mosque before dawn on Friday, while thousands of worshippers were gathered for early morning prayers.

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The BBC reported the Israeli police saying that “dozens of Palestinians, some carrying flags of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, marched on the compound at about 04:00 then started throwing stones and fireworks” and that Israeli police waited until prayers had ended before entering the site to disperse the rioters. Israeli police added that the worshippers had started throwing stones towards the Western Wall located below the mosque’s compound, where Jewish worshippers were standing.

After videos of the clashes rapidly spread online, Israel’s police and the country’s foreign ministry tweeted videos showing fireworks exploding inside the mosque compound, with masked youths throwing stones towards officers and other videos showing masked Palestinians inside the al-Aqsa Mosque throwing objects with loud bangs clearly audible. These clashes were some of the most violent at the site in almost a year.

These clashes have come at a particularly volatile period. Before the clashes erupted, militant groups in Gaza had called for “hundreds of thousands” of Palestinians to converge on the compound on Friday “to protect our nation and our mosque”. The festival of Passover traditionally sees an increase in visits to the Temple Mount site by religious Jews, which the Palestinians view as provocative.

A map of the Old City in Jerusalem. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In May last year, following clashes at the mosque compound and weeks of civil unrest, militant group Hamas, which governs Gaza, fired rockets towards Jerusalem, which triggered an 11-day war with Israel.

The historical context

It is not possible to disassociate the 14-hectare site and the clashes with the larger, ongoing Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

The al-Aqsa Mosque is one of Jerusalem’s most recognised monuments. The mosque’s complex is one of Islam’s most revered locations, and the Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism.

Over the decades, the site in Jerusalem’s Old City has frequently been a flashpoint for violence between Palestinians and Israeli forces and hardline groups and is at the heart of competing historical claims. Some Palestinians believe that the mosque has also served as a symbol of their resistance, culture and nationhood.

The Temple Mount is a walled compound inside the Old City in Jerusalem, and is the site of two structures: the Dome of the Rock to the north and the Al-Aqsa Mosque to the south.

The Dome of the Rock is a seventh-century structure, an important Islamic shrine, believed to be where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. To the southwest of the Temple Mount, is the Western Wall, a remnant of the Second Temple and the holiest site in Judaism.

Israeli security forces take position during clashes with Palestinians demonstrators at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City, Friday, April 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

In Judaism, it is believed to be the site where God gathered dust to create Adam. According to the Bible, in 1000 BC King Solomon built the First Temple of the Jews on this mountain, which Babylonian troops tore down some 400 years on the orders of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. In the first century BC, Jews returned from their banishment and built the Second Temple. The temple was burned in AD 70 by Roman general Titus.

Following the Six-Day War in 1967, an armed conflict between Israel and a coalition of Arab states primarily comprising Jordan, Syria and Egypt, the Waqf Ministry of Jordan that had till then held control of the al-Aqsa Mosque, ceased to oversee the mosque. After Israel’s victory in that war, the country transferred the control of the mosque and the northern part of the site, also known as Haram al-Sharif, to the Islamic waqf trust, a body that is independent of the Israeli government. Israeli Security Forces patrol and conduct searches within the perimeter of the mosque.

Before modern borders were drawn up in the region, pilgrims to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina would stop over in Jerusalem to pray at this mosque. Friday prayers still draw thousands of worshippers to the site and Muslim religious festivals draw particularly large crowds.

A view of Al Aqsa, Jerusalem. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Socio-political context

For Abrahamic religions, this site bears a great amount of significance and has remained an important place for pilgrimage. For a long period in the site’s history, non-Muslims did not have permission to access it. In the book ‘City of stone : the hidden history of Jerusalem’, Meron Benvenisti writes that Article 13 of the Mandatory Charter conferred on Britain by the League of Nations prevented it from interfering with the site or the administration of purely Muslim holy places, one of which was the mosque.

After Israel captured the site in 1967 following the Six-Day War, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel had announced that entering the Temple Mount was forbidden to Jews, in accordance with a halakhic prohibition, Jewish religious laws.

Given the tense socio-political situation with regard to the site, the Israeli government has imposed several restrictions on access to it. In its history, particularly its modern history, the site has been witness to several provocations that led to wider clashes and conflict in the city and region.

In 2000, former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon visited the site when he was leader of the opposition, with a large security presence, which sparked what later came to be known as the Second Intifada. Protests against Sharon’s visit spiralled into an armed conflict that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians.

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