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Al-Aqsa Goes Beyond Religion. For Palestinians, it’s a Symbol of Freedom and Resistance 

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From their political fragmentation and weakness, the importance of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque to Palestinians becomes more evident 

Haaretz | Amira Hass | Apr 9, 2023

“The Maronites have France, the Shi’ites Iran, the Sunnis [have] Saudi Arabia and who is left for the communists? Only Allah,” said a leftist in Ramallah recently, quoting the Lebanese musician Ziad Rahbani (the son of the singer Fairuz), to illustrate the helplessness felt by Palestinians like himself. But what was a barbed political jab for Rahbani and an expression of frustration for the secular man who quoted him is a daily reality for the Palestinians. 

This is not the place to discuss the role of faith in Allah in shaping and maintaining Palestinians’ resilience in the face of the Israeli rule imposed on them. But on a more prosaic level, the more the balance of international political powers is to their detriment, and the more that Israel advances unceasingly its plans to take over their vacant lands and profits from their political fragmentation and weakness, the national, political, social and emotional importance of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque – and not only the self-evident religious importance – becomes more clear. 

This religious compound, which Muslims call Haram al-Sharif and Jews the Temple Mount, is also the only open space available to residents of the crowded Old City. Every Jerusalemite emphasizes this fact – and says that sometimes this is the only place where Palestinians do not encounter police officers and soldiers and where they feel almost free, if only for a few hours. As the number of provocative visits to the complex by Jews who intend to pray and also to build the Third Temple increases, it loses this quality of an almost-free zone. 

The Al-Aqsa compound, which is important and well-known to around 1.5 billion Muslims, is the permanent and natural, even intimate, view from the windows of about 200 homes in the Old City, as a Jerusalem resident told Haaretz. That is, it is both a world site and a neighborhood site, both sacred and a social and family gathering place. The compound and its mosques bring together physically – not only symbolically and emotionally – tens of thousands of Palestinians who are usually scattered and divided and separated: urban and rural, West Bank residents and Israeli citizens, women and men, rich and poor, individuals and families, supporters of Fatah and Hamas and the al-Tahrir party and unaffiliated persons, devout and traditional and even secular Muslims who are attracted to the beauty and the camaraderie of the place, worshippers and those who came also or solely for a family picnic. (Only 99.99 percent of residents of the Gaza Strip, 70 kilometers [44 miles] away, are completely excluded, without any semblance of Israel giving them freedom of worship). 

The abusive routine of Israel, which makes sure to increasingly dismember the Palestinian territory and which destroyed and continues to destroy every Palestinian geographical, historical and social continuity that has existed in the land for centuries, cannot negate Al-Aqsa. But Jewish political-religious forces that aspire to this, and that can no longer be dismissed as marginal and harmless, give the Palestinians every reason to worry about the fate of the place and to request the intervention of international bodies. And so, the Arab Muslim states, even those that are advancing normalization with Israel and do not hide that they are “fed up” with the Palestinian cause, cannot turn a blind eye to Israel’s practices in the mosque and toward Palestinian worshippers there. Because it is a pan-Islamic religious site, Israel – which does not permit Palestinians to demonstrate – cannot erase its nature as a permanent mass gathering place. This fact also makes this holy place even more precious to Palestinians and gives the central site of religious worship social and political power. 

This year, as in past years, in the weeks preceding the month of fasting, the security agencies and their colleagues in the media once again “succeeded” in depicting Ramadan as a terrorist event. In this way, it is associated in the minds of Israeli Jews with potential security tension and warnings of harm to them and in effect to all the “normality” they enjoy, as if this were the essence of the holy month to Muslims. Placing the responsibility for quiet on the Palestinians involves a typical disregard for the fact that there is nothing normal about Israeli domination over the Palestinians, despite its decades-long persistence. 

Therefore, without planning or instructions from above, everything related to Al-Aqsa and Ramadan has become a blend of protecting the freedom of worship and the social customs that developed around it together with a struggle against the foreign Israeli regime: So it was when tens of thousands of people refused to pass through the metal detectors installed at the entrances to the compound, in 2017, and in 2021, when young people who stayed awake during the nights of Ramadan refused when police demanded they leave the steps outside Damascus Gate where they congregated. There is nothing religious or sacred about sitting on steps, and those young people were neither political leaders nor particularly devout. But the mere connection to Ramadan and the prohibition gave their refusal social legitimacy. 

This year, another custom stood out as a religious-national tool: The custom of i’tikaf – temporary withdrawal of believers from regular life, and their staying overnight in a mosque. According to the Al Jazeera website, since 1967 this custom has been restricted at Al Aqsa to the last 10 days of the month of Ramadan and to Friday nights, with the restriction being enforced by the Jordanian Religious Affairs Ministry and the mosque’s administration. This year’s requests from Jerusalem families and religious institutions in the city to the Jordanian authorities to permit overnight stays in the mosque the entire month went unanswered. Despite this, and despite the demand of the Israeli police that they evacuate, Al Jazeera says this is the second time since 1967 that people keeping this custom managed to remain inside the mosque for the first two days of Ramadan. Then the police began to raid the compound, forcing them out. Video footage of every provocation by Jews seeking to sacrifice goats or pray on the Temple Mount/ Haram al-Sharif despite the ban, and every incursion into the compound by club-wielding Border Police who stomp on the prayer rugs with their heavy boots, is seen by millions of Muslims around the world, who are appalled. 

Is it an inbuilt, shameless disdain towards a religion other than Jewish? Is it a nearly innate contempt for the faithful on the Temple Mount just because they are Arabs? Is it the uniformed and armed forces – including Druze and Arab members, if they were among them – having gone power mad? All of the above, apparently. You can’t just say that this is what the police are like in the age of the new National Security Ministry, since it acted this way (and even shot dead worshipers at Al Aqsa) before we could have ever imagined that Itamar Ben-Gvir would become the minister in charge of the police. What is certain is that this déjà vu of a pseudo-military assault on a religious and holy site is created by Israel year after year, with a relentless persistence that is beyond puzzling to anyone who believes in the rationality of this government. 

This persistence is understandable when one recalls that the army and police are obligated to protect all Jews who are right-wing settlers who intend to torch a vineyard in the West Bank, to set fire to homes in Hawara, to set a village mosque alight or to violate the sanctity of Al-Aqsa. The aims of the Jews who go up to the Temple Mount are political and irredentist, and that is why the Palestinian youth – who are mainly but not exclusively from Jerusalem – do not need anyone to organize them or give them orders. Regardless of their level of piety, they know that they must defend the only place in their land that is still (relatively) protected from Israel’s intentions and capabilities to destroy. 

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000

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