Ever since 15 April, the Israeli occupation army and police have raided Al-Aqsa Mosque in occupied Jerusalem on a daily basis. Under the pretence of providing protection for provocative “visits” by thousands of illegal Israeli Jewish settlers and right-wing fanatics, the occupation army has wounded hundreds of Palestinians, including journalists, and arrested hundreds more.
Palestinians understand that the current attacks on Al-Aqsa carry deeper political and strategic meanings for Israel than previous raids. The Noble Sanctuary of Al-Aqsa has experienced routine raids by Israeli forces under various guises in the past. However, the significance of the mosque has acquired additional weight in recent years, especially following the popular Palestinian rebellion, mass protests, clashes and another Israeli war against civilians in Gaza last May, which Palestinians tellingly refer to as Saif Al-Quds, Operation Sword of Jerusalem.
Historically, Haram Al-Sharif — the Noble Sanctuary — has been at the heart of popular struggle in Palestine, as well as at the centre of Israeli policies. Located in the Old City of occupied Jerusalem, the Sanctuary is considered one of the holiest of sites for all Muslims around the world. It has a special place in Islam, as it has been mentioned in the Holy Qur’an and the sayings of Prophet Muhammad. The compound contains several historic mosques and seventeen gates, along with other important Islamic sites. Al-Aqsa is one of these mosques; the Dome of the Rock is another.
The significance of Al-Aqsa has gained additional meaning for Palestinians due to the Israeli occupation which, throughout the years, has targeted Palestinian mosques, churches and other holy sites. For example, during the 2014 Israeli war on the besieged Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs said that 203 mosques were damaged by Israeli bombs, with 73 being destroyed completely.
Hence, Palestinian Muslims and Christians alike consider Al-Aqsa, the Sanctuary and other Muslim and Christian sites in Jerusalem as a red line that must not be crossed by Israel. Generation after generation, they have mobilised to protect the sites although, at times, they could not do so. In 1969, for example, Australian Jewish extremist Denis Michael Rohan carried out an arson attack on Al-Aqsa.
Even the recent raids on the mosque were not confined to attacking and arresting worshippers. On the second Friday of Ramadan, much destruction took place within Al-Aqsa, and its famous stained-glass windows were shattered and furniture was broken.
The raids on the Haram Al-Sharif continue as I write. The Jewish extremists are feeling increasingly empowered by the protection they are receiving from the Israeli military, and the blank cheque provided by influential Israeli politicians. Many of the raids are led by far-right Israeli Knesset member Itamar Ben-Gvir, Likud politician Yehuda Glick or former government minister Uri Ariel.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is undoubtedly using the raids on Al-Aqsa as a way to keep his often rebellious far-right and religious constituency in line. The sudden resignation on 6 April of Idit Silman, a member of the right-wing Yamina party, left Bennett even more desperate in his attempt to breathe life into his fractious coalition. Once a leader of the Yesha Council, an umbrella organisation of illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, Bennett rose to power on the back of religious zealots, whether in Israel or in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Losing the support of the settlers could quite easily cost him his position.
Bennett’s behaviour is consistent with those of previous Israeli leaders, who have escalated violence in Al-Aqsa as a way to distract their voter base from their own political woes, or to appeal to Israel’s powerful constituency of right-wing and religious extremists. In September 2000, then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon raided Al-Aqsa Mosque with thousands of Israeli soldiers, police and like-minded extremists. He did so to provoke a Palestinian response, and to topple the government of his arch-enemy Ehud Barak. Sharon succeeded, but at a high price; his “visit” unleashed the five-year Second Palestinian Intifada, also known as Al-Aqsa Intifada.
In 2017, thousands of Palestinians protested against an Israeli attempt to install “security cameras” at the entrances of the holy shrine. The measure was also an attempt by former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to appease his right-wing supporters, but the mass protests in Jerusalem and the subsequent Palestinian unity at the time forced Israel to cancel its plans.
This time around, however, Palestinians fear that Israel aims at more than just mere provocation. Israel plans to “impose a temporal and spatial division of Al-Aqsa Mosque,” according to Adnan Ghaith, the Palestinian Authority’s top representative in East Jerusalem. This particular phrase — “temporal and spatial division” — is also used by many Palestinians, as they fear a repeat of the Ibrahimi Mosque scenario.
Following the killing of 29 Muslim worshippers in 1994 at the hands of an Israeli Jewish extremist, Baruch Goldstein, and the subsequent killing of many more Palestinians by the Israeli army at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron (Al-Khalil), Israel partitioned the mosque. It allocated a larger space to the Jewish settlers while restricting access to Palestinians, who are allowed to pray at certain times and barred at others. This is precisely what Palestinians mean by temporal and spatial division, which has been at the heart of Israeli strategy for many years.
Bennett, however, must tread carefully. Palestinians today are more united in their resistance and awareness of the Israeli plans than at any other time in the past. An important component of this unity are Israel’s Palestinian citizens, who are now championing a similar political discourse as that of their fellow Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In fact, many of the defenders of Al-Aqsa come from those “Arab Israeli” communities. If Israel continues with its provocations in Al-Aqsa, it risks another Palestinian revolt such as that which happened last May, which tellingly started in East Jerusalem.
Appealing to right-wing voters by attacking, humiliating and provoking Palestinians is no longer an easy task, as was often the case in the past. As the “Sword of Jerusalem” has taught us, Palestinians are now capable of responding in a unified fashion and, despite their limited means, even put pressure on Israel to reverse its policies. Bennett must remember this before carrying out any more violent provocations in Al-Aqsa, or the “Sword of Jerusalem” could be unleashed again.