Has the status quo in and around Al-Aqsa compound changed?
Netanyahu's statements have done little to quell what seems to be a Palestinian conviction that things are changing in the Noble Sanctuary
A sensitive mechanism, which evolved after the 1967 war and was preserved in the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, governs entrance and prayer at the Noble Sanctuary, the holiest Islamic site outside the Arabian Peninsula, and the holiest site in Judaism.
While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly said he would not allow any changes to the current status quo, which bars non-Muslim prayer at the Al Aqsa mosque, his statements have done little to quell what seems to be a Palestinian conviction that things are changing in the Noble Sanctuary.
“He is changing the status quo…that’s what is happening on the ground,” Saeb Erakat, chief Palestinian negotiator and secretary general of the PLO executive committee, told Al Arabiya News.
“He is preventing Muslims from entering the Haram al Sharif [the Noble Sanctuary] between 7 and 11 every day and he is saying that he will not allow ministers and MKs to enter. But at the same time, he is allowing every other extremist to enter and pray in Al-Aqsa mosque,” Erakat said in a telephone interview.
Jewish activists, ministers at the site
Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel was among several Israeli politicians who paid visits to the holy site in the weeks leading to the unrest. Ariel has even come out in support of the growing movement that is calling for the right to pray at the compound.
Additionally, a number of high-ranking Israeli officials are slated to speak at an event in honor of American-born Israeli Yehuda Glick, a far-right activist who calls for Jewish prayer at the site. Glick survived a shooting in October 2014.
Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely will speak at the event which will also honor activists who promote increased Jewish presence on the site, the Haaretz reported.
Ahmed Ruwaidi, a senior advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said barring Muslims from visiting the mosque at all in the morning hours and on Jewish holidays is a major change in the status quo.
“That is social division. Barring us, the people of the place, from using the Aqsa,” he said.
“Netanyahu is a liar when he says that he has not changed the status quo. That is the Palestinian and Jordanian position,” he added.
As mandated by the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, the Jordanian Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs oversees the Noble Sanctuary. But after the second Intifada of 2000, the Israelis took a hold of the keys to the only gate from which non-Muslims can enter the compound.
“Israel is bound by the treaty it signed with Jordan in which Jordan’s jurisdiction is clear when it comes to Jerusalem and the Aqsa mosque,” Ruwaidi added.
To Ruwaidi, the sharp increase in Jewish visitation to the site and the clashes between worshippers and Israeli forces in and around the Aqsa in recent months, “was the spark of the current Palestinian anger.”
Another decision that sparked anger was Israel’s banning the Murabiteen and Mourabitat in September, the unarmed Palestinian guards that stand alongside Israeli forces in and around the compound. The decision came after one of the guards clashed with a French tourist who raised the Israeli flag in the compound. Police said at the time they may press charges against the tourist for incitement and disturbing public order.
The guards are employees of the Jordanian Ministry of Awqaf an Islamic Affairs.
The base of the current situation
Al-Aqsa has banned non-Muslim prayer since 1187.
The critical moment in the modern era was Israel’s capture of the Old City in the six-day war of 1967.
Following the victory, tens of thousands flocked to the Western Wall, believed to have been a retaining support for the second Jewish temple built 2,500 years ago. It was the first mass Jewish pilgrimage to the site since the temple’s destruction.
But days later, with the approval of the prime minister, then Defense Minister Moshe Dayan went to see the imams of the Islamic Waqf and handed them back the keys to the mosque.
“I said that Israeli troops would be removed from the site and stationed outside the compound,” Dayan wrote in his autobiography. “The Israeli authorities were responsible for overall security, but we would not interfere in the private affairs of the Muslims responsible for their own sanctuaries.
“We had no intention of controlling Muslim holy places or of interfering in their religious life.”
Over time, there was a status quo which evolved under which Jews were allowed to enter and tour the area, but forbidden from praying. Israeli police and some military help provide security, but the Waqf administers the compound.
Beyond the mosque
Erakat acknowledges that the current climate has been exasperated by more than the events in Al-Aqsa.
“The whole thing is not only about the status quo of Al-Aqsa, this occupation has been going on for 40 years, and I don’t think we can have peace, and security and calm if the Israeli government believes they can maintain the occupation, and the increased settlements and the incursions and the humiliation of Palestinians,” he said.
The increase in settlement activity in East Jerusalem and the West Bank is a major point of contention in the conflict.
In the past year, Netanyahu’s government has expanded its funding of settlements, leading to a surge in units in the occupied territories.
While settlement-expansion is not exclusive to Netanyahu’s government, the increase is diminishing prospects for Palestinians of full statehood, said Hugh Lovatt, Israel/Palestine Project coordinator at the European Council of Foreign Relations.
“The increase in settlements is increasing the realization that the prospects of achieving… at least a really independent, sovereign Palestinian state, are slipping away,” he told Al Arabiya News earlier this month.
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