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PoliticsMiddle East

What's behind hostilities at Jerusalem's holy site?

April 13, 2023

Incidents at the holy site known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif and to Jews as the Temple Mount have often ignited conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. DW looks at why.

Israeli security forces drag a woman on the grounds of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem on April 5, 2023
Confrontations at the holy site in Jerusalem have led to international calls for calmImage: Ammar Awad/REUTERS

Last week, widely circulated video footage showed Israeli police officers entering the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem and repeatedly beating worshipers with batons and rifle butts. Days later, many Palestinian residents in the ancient city were still in shock and offended.

"I am sad, I am angry, where is the logic, where is the dignity when they beat people, women," said Hanan, a Palestinian resident of the Old City who regularly prays at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. "This is a holy month, this is a place of worship after all," she said, adding that the holy site represents "everything to her."

Her sentiments were echoed by other residents in the Old City's Muslim quarter. The Al­-Aqsa Mosque compound, also known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif and the site of which is known to Jews as the Temple Mount, was raided twice last week.

Calls for calm after Al-Aqsa Mosque clashes

"Every human being will be disturbed and feel uncomfortable seeing those pictures; removing praying people from the place, beating them in such a painful way. Nobody can accept this," said Hashem Taha, who owns a spice shop on one of the main alleyways leading to the entrance of the holy site.

In a statement, Israeli police said they were "forced to enter the compound" to "prevent a violent riot" by "law-breaking individuals and rioters." Israeli police arrested around 350 people. Palestinian eyewitnesses inside the mosque described the use of force as excessive and unnecessary.

The Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif is sacred to both Jews and Muslims and to Christians as well. Jews revere it as the site where the two biblical temples once stood, and it is the holiest site in Judaism. The hilltop overlooking the ancient city is also known as the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, the third holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina and according to Islam the Prophet Muhammad traveled from Mecca to Jerusalem in one night and ascended to the heavens. During Ramadan, it is usually packed with visitors and worshippers.

Until last week, Ramadan had largely passed quietly, except for one incident some days earlier. But the violent raids on the eve of the Jewish Passover holiday triggered more violence, elevating the volatility of the situation. Palestinian militant groups from Gaza fired rockets toward Israeli towns around the Gaza Strip, apparently in response to the violence at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Rockets were also launched from southern Lebanon and Syria into northern Israel.

In the occupied West Bank, three British-Israeli women were killed in a roadside shooting by Palestinian gunmen on Friday morning. Later Friday in a separate incident, an Italian tourist died in the aftermath of an alleged car ramming. On Monday, the Israeli army shot and killed a 15-year-old Palestinian boy in a raid on a Palestinian refugee camp near Jericho.

Strong sentiments over a sacred site

In recent years, incidents around the Al-Aqsa compound have often, but not always, ignited conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. In 2000, late Likud party leader Ariel Sharon headed a group of Israeli lawmakers on a visit to the Temple Mount. Back then, Sharon's visit is considered to have triggered the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising.

Years later, in 2017, thousands of worshippers prayed outside the compound in protest of the airport-style metal detectors that were installed at the entrances of Al-Aqsa after two Israeli police officers were shot dead nearby. Israeli authorities later killed the three gunmen. The protests also spread abroad, until Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister at the time, eventually ordered the removal of the metal detectors.

There has also been friction about Israeli restrictions imposed on access to the holy site. Israeli authorities frequently place limitations on the age of Palestinians allowed to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque, as well as on permits to visit Jerusalem for Palestinians from the occupied West Bank and from Gaza.

In 2021, Israeli raids and confrontations at Al-Aqsa triggered a violent war that lasted 11 days between Israel and the Hamas militant Islamist group in Gaza.

'Shrinking space' at holy site

"There is shrinking Palestinian space. Five years ago, Al-Aqsa and the esplanade was the least occupied place in Jerusalem. Today it is the most occupied place in Jerusalem," said Daniel Seidemann, founder of the nongovernmental organization Terrestrial Jerusalem, which advocates for a two-state solution.

"There is not one single, unequivocal cause for this. What we're seeing in general in Jerusalem is what I call the weaponization of faith, where, the movements that drive events and control the discourse in Jerusalem are more extreme, more absolutist and more exclusionary," he said. "That is certainly the case regarding the [ultranationalist] Temple Mount movement in Jerusalem, which began as a fringe in 1967 and today is in power," he added, referring to Israel's far-right government.

On the Palestinian side, there are militant Islamist groups such as Hamas, which has declared itself the "defender" of Al-Aqsa. Israel has accused Palestinians of using any issue pertaining to the holy site as a pretense to incite violence.

Palestinian men pray Israeli police forces take position at the Al-Aqsa compound on April 5, 2023
An arrangement referred to as the 'status quo' sees Muslims pray at the site while non-Muslims visitImage: Ammar Awad/REUTERS

Non-Muslims visit, Muslims pray: A status quo under threat

The holy site has been under Israeli occupation since Israel captured and occupied east Jerusalem from Jordan during the Six-Day War in 1967. Israel later annexed the eastern part and declared the whole city as its capital, but most countries have not recognized it as such. Palestinians want to see east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, which has yet to be negotiated in peace talks.

Since 1967, the politically sensitive site has been administered according to a set of arrangements — usually referred to as "status quo" — that also regulate other religious sites in the Old City. Under the arrangement, Israel is responsible for security and policing while neighboring Jordan has maintained its historical role as custodian of the site. A Muslim religious trust, called the Waqf, oversees the day-to-day running of the Al-Aqsa site.

International calls to calm tension

Following confrontations at the site, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reaffirmed in a statement on Wednesday that Israel is "committed to maintaining freedom of worship, free access for all religions and the status quo on the Temple Mount, and will not allow violent extremists to change that."

Jordan and Egypt, both involved in US-sponsored talks to de-escalate tensions between Israelis and the Palestinians, condemned the incidents sharply, as did Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

On Tuesday, Jordan's King Abdullah II, with whom the Israeli prime minister has a frosty relationship, reiterated the "urgency of stopping all unilateral measures that violate the historical and legal status quo at Jerusalem's Muslim and Christian holy sites."

This year, Ramadan coincided with the Jewish Passover and the Christian Easter holidays. As they have previously done at the beginning of Passover, the Jewish Return to the Mount movement and, among others, Jewish extremist groups called for the revival of a ritual to sacrifice goats on the Temple Mount. But as in previous years, individuals carrying goats were stopped by the police and the animals were confiscated. However, Jewish visitor groups, heavily protected by the police, visited the site during the holiday without further incident.

Jews are generally allowed to visit the site where the temples once stood, but they are not allowed to pray there. Leading rabbis in Israel maintain that Jews should not ascend to the area to prevent them from touching forbidden holy ground.

In recent years, however, far-right Jewish Temple Mount activists have encouraged more visits to the area, with some covertly praying as well. Palestinians and other stakeholders have described it as a provocation and a creeping erosion of the status quo.

A handout picture courtesy of Minhelet Har-Habait (Temple Mount Administration) shows Israeli minister Itamar Ben-Gvir walking through the courtyard of Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque compound, known to Jews as Temple Mount
Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir visited the Temple Mount in early JanuaryImage: Minhelet Har-Habait/AFP

Under Israel's new government, police controlling the area are under the authority of far-right  National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir. In the recent past, he described the ban on Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount as "discrimination" and advocated for a change of the status quo.

"Ten years ago, there were visits of non-Muslims, of Jews, to the mount as guests of the Islamic Waqf. Today, the visits are those of who are saying we are not your guests, we are your landlords," said Daniel Seidemann, adding that the idea of a "shared place at best" is fading.

On Tuesday, the Israeli government acted on the recommendations of its security agencies to ban further visits by non-Muslims in the last 10 days of Ramadan, as it has done in previous years.

Edited by: Sean Sinico