No Dividing, or Conquering Al Aqsa

Ramadan is almost over. In Jerusalem this means the narrow streets of the Old City will soon be much emptier. Fridays at Al Aqsa will return to the usual moderate bustle of the faithful but all in all, the city would have lost the uniqueness of having hundreds of thousands of people pulsing through its tiny alleyways on Fridays for noon prayer.

I’ll be honest. It’s not all fun. That many people can cramp anyone’s style, much less squash them senseless if caught going the opposite direction of the human wave of worshippers. But there is also something beautiful about it, because they have made it to Jerusalem and are praying at Al Aqsa.

The Aqsa Mosque is the third holiest site in Islam, believed to be from where Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven on his winged horse, Al Buraq. After Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, this is where Muslims make their pilgrimage, to the beautiful and spacious plaza where the Dome of the Rock stands majestically in the middle. That is, if they are allowed by Israeli authorities to enter Jerusalem at all.

Not only does Israel bar millions of Palestinian Muslims from entering Jerusalem and praying at Al Aqsa –” something a Nigerian Muslim or an Indian Muslim can do easily –” Israeli right wing politicians are now plotting to follow the Ibrahimi Mosque prototype of dividing the Aqsa Mosque compound between Jews and Muslims.

Last week, right-wing Knesset member Zeev Elkin proposed that separate prayer times be allotted to Jews and Muslims at the Aqsa [which Israel claims is the Temple Mount] where the compound would be open to Jews every day except for Friday and Muslim holidays, and open to Muslims every day except for Saturdays and Jewish holidays. The bill, which has yet to be passed, gives specific times for each group of people and instructions for what to do if Muslim and Jewish holidays fall on the same day.

This is, without a doubt, a recipe for disaster. For Muslims, it is a trampling of their values, their religious beliefs and a desecration of all they hold dear and holy. I will not purport I can speak from that place but I certainly can speak from my position as a proud Palestinian who believes with all her heart that the Aqsa Mosque compound cannot and should not be divided.

Anyone who follows Israeli policies in the occupied Palestinian territories would have read the writing on the wall years ago. Religious Jewish groups have been ‘touring’ the compound for years, coming in through the back door, so to speak. Only allowed through the Moroccan Gate and according to a specific schedule designed for tourists who want to visit the holy site, settlers, soldiers and religious Jews have been increasingly entering the Aqsa Mosque Compound to perform Jewish rituals and to try and pray on its grounds.

Furthermore, calls from right wing groups who insist that the two temples were built and subsequently destroyed right below the Dome of the Rock and Aqsa have grown louder over the years, calls which the Israeli government has so far quelled on the surface but which have been allowed to take root within Israeli society itself. This is only further encouraged by the fact that the Israeli government has endorsed a massive network of underground tunnels beneath the Aqsa plaza complete with replicas of the temples and even a future model of what it would look like should the third temple be built. Of course, the gold-hilted Dome of the Rock, the Aqsa and all other remnants of Muslim or Arab presence there are wiped clean off the slate.

Calls from Muslim clerics and the Palestinian Authority have all demanded a halt to these horrible plans. President Abbas is expected to bring the subject up at the Islamic Summit in Mecca, probably to “wake the Muslims from their slumber” to the Israeli threats to Judaize Jerusalem and pull Al Aqsa out from under them. I am not certain how much his cajoling will do given the track record of Muslim and Arab countries towards the Palestinian cause in general, but the call must be made nevertheless.

What the world seems to forget is that while Israel kicks and screams about how its people do not have religious freedom to worship at what they call the Temple Mount, claiming the PA incites against them and denies their right to exist, millions of Muslim Palestinians who live mere hours if not minutes away from Jerusalem cannot access one of their most holiest of places because of Israel’s entry ban on Palestinians. Ramadan aside –” Israel offered laxer restrictions on Fridays for Muslims–” Palestinians are consistently denied freedom of worship in a city that is theirs and at a site that for thousands of years, they have claimed as their own.