Tensions mount as Israel refuses to re-open Al Aqsa
By: Nigel Wilson
Source: Al Jazeera
Ramallah, occupied West Bank – Palestinian religious and political figures have denounced the ongoing closure of Al-Aqsa mosque compound, calling it a violation of their religious freedoms.
Al-Aqsa remained closed on Saturday, a day after a deadly shooting attack outside an entrance to the holy site in occupied East Jerusalem.
“There is no excuse for the closure of Al-Aqsa mosque, and we oppose this decision,” said Sheikh Yusuf Idis, the Palestinian Authority’s minister of religious affairs. “The freedom to worship is a right guaranteed in law and any violation of that right is rejected.”
The compound has been shuttered by Israeli police since three Palestinian assailants shot and killed two Israeli policemen in Jerusalem’s Old City on Friday morning. The attackers were subsequently shot dead by Israeli forces inside the compound.
It was the first time that Friday prayers at Al-Aqsa had been cancelled in decades, and Israeli authorities later extended the closure until Sunday at the earliest, citing security concerns.
Hundreds of additional Israeli forces were deployed in parts of the Old City and at checkpoints throughout. Many worshippers who had planned to pray at Al-Aqsa ended up praying in the streets of Jerusalem instead.
Al-Aqsa is sacred to both Muslims and Jews, who refer to the site as the Temple Mount. The Jerusalem Mufti, Sheikh Mohammed Hussein, was briefly detained by police and released on bail on Friday after he attempted to gain access to the site and led open-air prayers close to the compound.
Analysts warned that the decision to prohibit entry to the sacred site – which was last closed to Muslim worshippers in 2014, following the shooting of Yehuda Glick, a prominent Temple Mount activist who is now a Knesset member – would likely exacerbate tensions in the city in the short-term.
“This is a decision that aims to deter further attacks and it will be interpreted by most Palestinians as collective punishment,” said Ofer Zalzberg, a senior analyst for Israel/Palestine at the International Crisis Group.
Late on Friday, Israeli police released security camera footage of the early stages of the attack, which appeared to show the armed assailants approach the officers from inside the compound.
Some Israeli right-wing Knesset members have subsequently called for dramatic changes to security and the uneasy status quo at the site, where non-Muslim worship has been prohibited since Israel captured East Jerusalem 50 years ago.
“Israel must bolster its rule and control over the [holy sites], and to ensure that all Jews can pray there at any time in safety,” said Eli Ben Dahan, Israel’s deputy defence minister and a member of the Jewish Home right-wing faction, in response to the attack.
Jewish Home MK Moti Yegev said the holy site “should be closed to Muslim [worshippers] for a long time”, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the compound was shut for security reasons, noting that the status quo would be “preserved”.
Still, given the growing influence of the Israeli religious right in domestic politics, some Palestinians fear that any such incident could be used as an excuse for a broader policy shift that would lead to a change in the status quo.
Zalzberg said that for the time being, such a shift was unlikely.
“[Netanyahu] needs to do crisis management and he does not want to find himself losing relations with Jordan, when strategically they need each other so much in south Syria. He doesn’t want to ruin the emerging relations that he’s trying to build with the Gulf,” Zalzberg told Al Jazeera.
Friday’s violent attack shattered a period of relative calm around Al-Aqsa that had lasted since late 2015, when Netanyahu and King Abdullah of Jordan reaffirmed their commitments to the status quo.
However, in recent weeks, a number of incidents around Al-Aqsa have increased tensions. Late last month, Israeli police prevented Muslim worshippers under the age of 40 from accessing Al-Aqsa compound while a group of more than 100 Jews visited the site to mark the anniversary of the killing of Hallel Ariel.
Earlier in June, Israeli police forcefully entered the site and detained two Palestinians, while police have allowed Temple Mount activists to serve food and drinks next to the holy site on Jewish holidays.
Tensions could spike further in late July when a ban preventing members of the Israeli parliament from visiting the site is due to expire. Netanyahu has granted MKs access for a five-day trial period beginning on July 23, in order to assess the potential security issues of allowing them to visit the site for the first time since 2015.