On May 7, Israeli security forces fired rubber-coated bullets, tear gas, and stun grenades at worshipers gathered at Al-Aqsa mosque. And the conflict between Israel and Palestine escalated. The mosque has played a pivotal figure in the conflict for many years before. How much do you know about the mosque?
Let’s delve into the background of the mosque and how it has played a role in the conflict for many years.
Located in the Old City of Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa is the third holiest site in Islam. It was built on top of the Temple Mount, known as the Al-Aqsa Compound of or Haram esh-Sharif in Islam.
Muslims believe that Muhammad was transported from the Great Mosque of Mecca to al-Aqsa during the Night Journey.
Islamic traditions hold that Muhammad led prayers toward this site until the 16th or 17th month after his migration from Mecca to Medina.
The mosque had survived several destructions over the years, including earthquakes in 746 and 1033. During the periodic renovations to the mosque, Islamic Caliphate dynasties have constructed additions to the mosque.
We have to note that when Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099, they used it as a palace and the Dome of the Rock as a church. But after Saladin recaptured Jerusalem in 1187, the function of the site was restored to a mosque.
Who has control over the mosque?
This is one of the central questions regarding the mosque. The Old City is under Israel control, but the mosque remains under the administration of the Jordanian/Palestinian-led Islamic Waqf.
Israel took control of east Jerusalem and the Old City during the war of 1967. The country then annexed the region, and declared United Jerusalem as capital of its country. But this decision was never approved at an international level.
Under the contract, the Islamic committee known as Waqf, financed and controlled by Jordan, continues to operate with the mosque. Waqf got its special role approved by the peace agreement between Israel and Jordan in 1994.
Israeli security forces remain active on the site and they coordinate their actions with Waqf. Both Jews and Christians can visit the site. But unlike Muslims, they cannot pray on the land. Jews, for example, pray under the West Wall.
The control of the site fuels the tensions, because many argue against the discriminatory right of the agreement against non-Muslim citizens.
And then you have to take account the yearly celebrations of Day of Jerusalem, a day Israel celebrates in honor of capturing the city. This celebration also contributes to the tensions. Palestine citizens see the celebrations as a provocation. Palestine wants to make East Jerusalem a capital to the future Palestine state.
But Israeli government has no intention to change the status-quo of the site.
Central Figure of the Conflict
The latest conflict between Israel and Palestine is all about the mosque. The violence that has spread to Israel and the Palestinian territories started after Israeli authorities blocked access to the important Damascus Gate plaza during Ramadan.
Then came the march of thousands of Israeli ultra-nationalists through the city on May 6, 2021, celebrating Jerusalem Day. The height of the tensions came on May 7, when Israeli security forces fired rubber-coated bullets, tear gas, and stun grenades at worshipers at the mosque.
Al-Aqsa has a special place in Islamic history. After Mecca and Medina, many Muslims worldwide consider Jerusalem the third holiest place on Earth.
Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock have remained sites of Islamic pilgrimage for 15 centuries. Al-Aqsa means “the farthest mosque” or the “farthest sanctuary”.
It is mentioned in SUra 17, verse 1 of the Quran. It is linked to the story of Muhammad’s Isra, or the night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem. The Quran says the prophet was “carried by night from the Sacred Mosque (in Mecca) to the Farthest Mosque (Al-Aqsa), whose precincts we have blessed”.
From there, many believe Muhammad ascended to heaven, called the Mir’aj. The mosque’s origin dates back to the 7th century, first built in AD 637, five years after the death of the prophet. The current building, after numerous destructions and renovations dates back to the 11th century.
It hosts daily prayers and Friday gatherings.
Sensitive site of the conflict
We said before that Al-Aqsa plays a pivotal role in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. It is also one of the most sensitive sites.
Following Israel’s victory in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the annexation of East Jerusalem, the site has served as a source of tension and conflict.
Israel granted jurisdiction of the mosque to the Islamic Waqf, but the country still commands access to the grounds and security forces perform patrols within the precinct.
Under the Preservation of the Holy Places Law, the government of Israel allows entry to different religious groups, including Christian pilgrims.
Israelis respect the sanctity of the place. For example, the Chief rabbinate of Israel said it is forbidden for Jews to walk on the site in 2005 because of its holiness. But ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups constantly advocate for greater access and control of the site, wanting to reclaim the historic Temple Mount.
Jews regard the Temple Mount as historic because that is where God promises his full presence. Here are just a couple of incidents that happened at the site.
In September 2000, Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon and a delegation guarded by riot police entered the precinct. This event sparked protests and a violent crackdown by Israeli authorities. Many Muslims worldwide considered the event as a desecration of the sacred mosque.
This event ignited the Second Intifada, or the Palestinian uprising.
Tensions peaked again following an attack on Yehuda Glick, a controversial right-wing rabbi in autumn of 2014. Following that, Israeli authorities closed down access to Al-Aqsa for the first time since 1967. In March and April of the same year, police used tear gas and stun grenades on Palestinians inside the mosque, prompting international outcry.
And that happened this May as well.
To this day, the controlled access to the site reminds Palestinians of their relative powerlessness in the ongoing land dispute with Israeli authorities. Muslims around the world see attacks on the site as a desecration of their sacred site and attack on Islam.
Facts about Al-Aqsa
Let’s finish off with a couple of facts about the mosque.
For example, it was the first Qibla for Muslims. Muslims nowadays pray in the direction of the Kaaba in Saudi Arabia, but that has not always been the custom. Before restoring to the Kaaba as a Qibla, Muslims used to pray in the direction of the Noble Sanctuary in Jerusalem. But Muhammad was instructed to the take Kaaba as a Qiblah through Surat Al-Bagara.
Another fact, it is not just one mosque. While many refer to it as a single building, Al-Aqsa consists of several mosques, including the Marwani Mosque and the Buraq Mosque.
Many believe the dome of the rock is one of the first Islamic domes in history. It was initially made of wood, but then decorated with marble pieces and a distinctive gold layer.
The Mosque has its private library, established in 1923 by the Supreme Muslim Legislative Council. This library consists of valuable manuscripts and published works in Islamic and Arabic studies.