Updated: May 18, 2021 10:46:25 am
Written by Rick Gladstone
The violent confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli security forces at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem this month reflect its significance as part of one of the most contested pieces of religious territory in the Holy Land.
Here are some basics on the mosque compound, from its importance over the centuries for three major religions to why it is such a flashpoint today.
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What is Al-Aqsa Mosque?
Al-Aqsa Mosque is one of the holiest structures in the Islamic faith.
The mosque sits inside a 35-acre site known by Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary, and by Jews as the Temple Mount. The site is part of the Old City of Jerusalem, sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims.
In Arabic, “aqsa” translates as farthest, and in this case it is a reference to Islamic scripture and its account of the Prophet Muhammad traveling from Mecca to the mosque in one night to pray and then ascending to heaven.
The mosque, which can hold 5,000 worshippers, is believed to have been completed early in the eighth century and faces the Dome of the Rock, the golden-domed Islamic shrine that is a widely recognized symbol of Jerusalem. Muslims consider the whole compound to be holy, with crowds of worshippers filling its courtyards to pray on holidays.
For Jews, the Temple Mount, known in Hebrew as Har Habayit, is the holiest place because it was the site of two ancient temples — the first, was built by King Solomon, according to the Bible, and was later destroyed by the Babylonians; and the second stood for nearly 600 years before the Roman Empire destroyed it in the first century.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, has classified the Old City of Jerusalem and its walls as a World Heritage Site, meaning it is regarded as “being of outstanding international importance and therefore as deserving special protection.”
Who has control over the mosque?
Israel captured East Jerusalem, including the Old City, from Jordan during the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, then annexed the area. Israel later declared a unified Jerusalem to be its capital, though that move has never been internationally recognized.
Under a delicate status quo arrangement, an Islamic trust known as the Waqf, funded and controlled by Jordan, continued to administer Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, as it had done for decades, a special role reaffirmed in Israel’s 1994 peace treaty with Jordan.
Israeli security forces maintain a presence on the site and they coordinate with the Waqf. Jews and Christians are allowed to visit, but unlike Muslims, are prohibited from praying on the grounds under the status quo arrangement. (Jews pray just below the sacred plateau at the Western Wall, the remnants of a retaining wall that once surrounded the Temple Mount.)
Tensions over what critics call the arrangement’s discrimination against non-Muslims have periodically boiled over into violence.
Adding to the tensions is Israel’s annual celebration of Jerusalem Day, an official holiday to commemorate its capture of the entire city. The celebration, most recently held Monday, is a provocation for many Palestinians, including residents of the eastern part of Jerusalem. The Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future Palestinian state — a prospect that seems increasingly remote.
Does Israel want to take full control of the site?
Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have said they do not intend to change the status quo.
But some Israeli religious groups have long pressed for the right to pray at the site. In April, Jordan’s Foreign Ministry formally complained about large numbers of Jewish visitors to the site, calling it a violation of the status quo.
What is different about the latest protests?
In the weeks before the outbreak of violence Monday at Al-Aqsa, tensions were building between some Jews and Palestinians on issues unrelated to the mosque compound.
They included violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians that erupted a few weeks ago around the Old City. Some Palestinians attacked Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, and an extremist Jewish supremacy group conducted a march in which participants chanted “Death to Arabs.”
Palestinians also were angered that the police had forbidden them to gather at a favorite plaza by the Old City during the first weeks of the holy month of Ramadan.
In a further inflammation of tensions, Palestinians have battled with the Israeli police over the expected eviction of Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood to make way for Israeli settlement construction.
The clashes have come as the Israeli government is in political limbo, after four indecisive elections over the past two years, and after President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority indefinitely postponed Palestinian legislative elections scheduled for later this month. It would have been the first such ballot since 2006.
How have previous clashes shaped the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Bitter recriminations and hardened attitudes have reverberated from all of the confrontations over the religious shrines in Jerusalem’s Old City, but some especially stand out as having helped shape Israeli policy.
In 1990, for example, deadly riots exploded after a group of Jewish extremists sought to lay a cornerstone for a temple to replace the two destroyed in ancient times. The violence led to widespread condemnation of Israel, including by the United States.
In 2000, a visit to the site to assert Jewish claims there, led by right-wing Israeli politician Ariel Sharon — then Israel’s opposition leader — was the catalyst for an explosive bout of Israeli-Palestinian violence that led to the Palestinian uprising known as the second Intifada.
In 2017, a crisis erupted after three Arab-Israeli citizens at the compound shot and killed two Israeli Druze police officers. That led the Israeli authorities to restrict access to the site and install metal detectors and cameras.
Arab outrage over those security measures led to more violence and tensions with Jordan that required US diplomatic mediation. The metal detectors were removed.
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