Police, Protestors Scuffle at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque

Al-Aqsa Mosque, located in Jerusalem’s old city, is Islam’s third holiest site. (Wikimedia Commons)

Al-Aqsa Mosque, located in Jerusalem’s old city, is Islam’s third holiest site. (Wikimedia Commons)

Tensions in East Jerusalem flared on January 14 when unarmed Palestinian guards denied a kippah-wearing Israeli policeman entrance to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, prompting closure of the mosque and a scuffle between worshippers and police.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque compound is known to Jews as the Temple Mount, where they believe ancient Biblical temples to have stood, and is known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, where they believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.

When Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, their government allowed Jordan’s Islamic Waqf department to administer all Muslim sites in Jerusalem and to preserve their status quo within the Al-Aqsa compound, whereby non-Muslims may visit the site but not worship there. Today, non-Muslims are guided by policemen through the compound along predetermined routes. The Mosque’s unarmed Palestinian guards are employed by the Islamic Waqf.

The Israeli policeman was denied access to the compound because, according to the compound guards, his kippah suggested he intended to pray there, a violation of the status-quo arrangement. According to Al-Monitor, “Israeli security makes inspection rounds at the site regularly, but never while wearing religious garb.”

Al-Jazeera quotes Faras al-Dibs, a spokesman for the Islamic Waqf, as saying, “the guards asked the policeman to take off his [kippah] cap before entering the mosque, but he refused and attempted to force his way into the place, prompting the guards to close [the mosque compound].”

The closure continued for around seven hours, and hundreds of Muslims had to conduct their noon prayers outside the compound. Muslim worshippers scuffled with Israeli police, who waited outside the Mosque to arrest the guards locked inside. Al-Jazeera reported that during the scuffle Israeli police “physically assaulted” Sheikh Omar al-Kiswani, the director of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, who was subsequently hospitalized. However, Haaretz reports that, according to Faras al-Dibs, al-Kiswani was just “lightly wounded.”  

The Times of Israel, citing a statement from the Israeli police, placed blame for the compound closure on the Islamic Waqf guards, who had locked themselves inside and prevented police from entering. In contrast, Al-Monitor wrote that Israeli security closed the compound, without reference to the Islamic Waqf guards.

According to Al-Monitor, Israeli police pulled back and allowed the compound to reopen after Sheikh Azzam Khatib, the head of the Islamic Waqf department in Jerusalem, intervened. In contrast, Wafa, a Palestinian news agency, wrote that “the police ended the siege after hundreds of people started gathering at the mosque demanding reopening of the mosque for worship.”

The five guards who locked themselves in the compound were arrested after exiting but were released that evening after they had signed commitments not to reenter the compound for seven days. On January 20, Israeli police, also banned five other Islamic Waqf guards and a sixth activist from the mosque compound for periods ranging from four to six months. On January 22, dozens of Palestinians protested the bans by staging a demonstration at the mosque compound.

Palestinians fear the changing climate around the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. They are concerned that growing incursions by policemen and guarded parties of Jewish visitors to the compound will cause an Israeli takeover of the compound for religious reasons. The Israeli government has denied this allegation.

Jordanian officials are also unhappy with the direction of the conflict. Wasfi Kailani, director of Jordan’s Hashemite Fund for the Restoration of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, said that any Israeli police interference and security presence on the site is unacceptable, whether or not religious garb such as kippahs are involved.

Al-Monitor quotes Ofer Zalzberg from the International Crisis Group as saying, “in the last few months, Israel has stepped up its arrests of Muslim guards employed by the Jordanian Waqf. This is highly [unacceptable], and it signals that things are getting out of control and the coordination that could solve such problems is absent.” The Middle East Monitor writes that “Al-Aqsa officials complain that Israeli police usually target the guards who stand up to Jewish settlers’ increasingly frequent incursions into the mosque complex.”

The conflict over the Al-Aqsa Mosque is only the latest in a long history of acute tensions between Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem. Conduct around and control over the mosque compound have become indicators of Israeli-Palestinian relations. In fact, then-Prime Minister of Israel Ariel Sharon’s 2002 visit to the compound triggered the Second Intifada. Clashes at the mosque can easily become flashpoints for protracted dips in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

As Israeli elections loom and Palestinian Muslims grow increasingly unhappy with what they see as Israeli encroachment on their holy site, the mosque compound will only grow in importance.