Walking along Jerusalem’s millennia old cobblestone steps, my pathway was suddenly blocked.
“I am Muslim.”
Heavily armed and sporting the Israeli Police insignia on his shoulder, the paramilitary police officer seemed startled by my reply. “Do you have your passport?”
My U.S. passport in hand, he began suspiciously pawing through its worn, stamp-filled pages. Looking from my I.D. to my European face and back again, he seemed unconvinced. Again, he asked, “You’re… a Muslim?”
Obviously, my answer hadn’t changed in the past 10 minutes, and when he asked me for a brief personal history and even to recite the Shahadah, Surat al-Fatiha and Surat al-Ikhlas, I obliged without hesitation. Finally, after the third piece of evidence, the idea of a white Muslim woman seemed to have sunk in, and I was given the green light to continue along the ancient pathway into the Al-Aqsa compound.
Despite the exaggerated intensity of the officer, this is what security for one of Islam’s holiest sites ought to look like on a regular basis — show you’re Muslim and enter at will. However, under the “protection” of the Israeli government, the treatment I received was largely due to the privileges attached to my foreign passport.
Depending on their orders for the day, these same soldiers both actively prevent Muslims — especially Palestinian Muslims — from entering Al-Aqsa and shuttle in right-wing Israeli settlers intent on occupying the area.
Officially, Al-Aqsa, which was the first Qibla and the site of the Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) night journey chronicled in the Quran, is under the control of the Palestinian-led Islamic waqf. But like in other areas where Palestinians are “officially” in control — in practice, the government of Israel does as it pleases. Recent Jerusalem day activities, for instance, saw the admittance of more than 200 Jewish worshippers paired with the denial of entry to Muslims for “security reasons.”
Most recently, the Executive Director of Israel’s Religion Ministry announced to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, that he would seek to regularize Jewish worship on the Temple Mount — a territory that includes Al-Aqsa and is the holiest site in the Judaic tradition. Until recently, however, Israeli Rabbis had promoted the opinion, endorsed by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, that the Torah itself forbids Jews from entering, let alone worshiping in the area. This shift in policies suggests a political rather than religious motive and reflects the desire of Israel’s government to tie politics and religion to one another in order to reinforce the exclusion of non-Jewish inhabitants.
Blurring the line between religion and politics
In addition to its prominent place in Islam, Al-Aqsa is of particular symbolic importance in the context of the Palestinian liberation struggle due to conflicts that have arisen around control of the compound. For instance, Ariel Sharon’s official visit to Al-Aqsa in 2000 is widely accepted to have been a key triggering event of the second Palestinian Intifada, or uprising.
The line between politics and religion is increasingly opaque as the government of Israel works to politically mobilize its population and attempts to build domestic unity in another wise deeply divided country around the juxtaposition of a singular, politicized Jewish identity and the “other” — anyone without a clear link to the first Abrahamic faith. Restrictions on religious worship are a constant, sad reality of the occupation that affects both Palestinian-Muslims and Christians alike. Yet the mounting focus on institutionalizing access to Al-Aqsa for Jewish worshippers is of particular concern in the context of domestic and regional Israeli political maneuvering.
Fears of the Ibrahimi Mosque Legacy
The fate of Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque is one reason that this rising tension around the Al-Aqsa compound is causing so much concern. As the result of competing claims on that site that left a deeply bloody trail, the Ibrahimi Mosque is now divided into a Jewish and Muslim section with a division of 19% and 81% of the structure, respectively. Like Al-Aqsa, Hebron’s famous site is formally under the control of the Palestinian waqf, but subject to Israeli whims, with local Muslim worshippers often facing restricted access. As the parallels between the two cases continue to grow, unease with Israeli escalation has taken root not only among Muslims but the interfaith Islamic-Christian Committee for Support of Jerusalem and the Holy Sites as well.
Increasing visits to Al-Aqsa as well as the move towards legislating worship at the site have sparked fears that the government of Israel seeks to implement an Ibrahimi-style division of the mosque compound. This prospect has caused concern throughout the Muslim world, with last month’s Arab League meeting campaigning around the issue and Jordan’s King Abdullah sending his deep concerns and calls for caution back to Tel Aviv through Amman-based Israeli Ambassador Daniel Nevo.
The strong stance of the Jordanian government on this issue is telling, regarding the importance of the mosque. Better known for maintaining good relations with its Western neighbor than criticizing it, Amman’s government has shown publicly that Israeli escalation is unacceptable — but translating the words of diplomats into practical changes on the ground is always a challenge — and in few places are those challenges as large as they are in Palestine.
While all of this information can sometimes create a sense of helplessness, placing the protection of Al-Aqsa in the broader context of the Palestinian liberation struggle highlights the role everyday people can play through increasingly successful campaigns such as Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), as well as acting as community advocates for the Palestinian cause — in which case, information becomes a source of power rather than frustration.
image credit: usaid.d800