Inside Al-Aqsa, Muslims say they're losing control of the holy site
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On the grounds of the Al-Aqsa complex, one of the most revered places in Islam and Judaism, a delicate balance that governs this holy site is under strain.
Only Muslims are allowed to pray on the sacred grounds known to them as Al Haram Al Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) and to Jews as Temple Mount under a status quo arrangement originally reached more than a century ago. Non-Muslim visitors are allowed visits at certain times and only to certain areas of the complex.
But many in the Muslim world fear the right to be the sole worshipers at the holy site is slowly being eroded by a growing far-right Jewish movement.
The complex lies in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as the capital of their future state and which most of the international community considers to be occupied territory. Israel captured it from Jordan in a 1967 war and considers both East and West Jerusalem as its united, “eternal capital.”
It is the complex where Israeli police conducted violent raids twice in less than 24-hours last week. Videos shared on social media showed Israeli police beating screaming Muslim worshipers with batons. Police said they stormed the mosque itself after “hundreds of rioters and mosque desecrators barricaded themselves” inside, throwing fireworks and stones at them.
The violence prompted rocket fire from southern Lebanon and Gaza that Israel blamed on Palestinian militants. Israel retaliated with airstrikes.
Two Muslim-born CNN journalists were given permission to report from the compound by the Jordanian custodians of the site.
The compound was relatively calm when CNN visited Tuesday. At the gates of Al-Aqsa mosque, the main mosque in the compound, a group of women recited the Quran ahead of afternoon prayers. It has been a tumultuous Ramadan and Tuesday brought more tensions.
“I feel pain. True pain deep inside,” Um Kamal Al-Kurdi, a Palestinian resident of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem told CNN on Tuesday morning. “This is a house of God. It is for worship. Not for occupation or provocation. Even as we pray, we are provoked and monitored by the Israelis.”
As al-Kurdi spoke, a group of mostly Jewish visitors walked past, escorted by heavily armed Israeli police. One officer filmed the group of women as they began reciting the Quran louder and louder. A raised voice in recitation was their only form of protest in this brief but tense moment.
By Tuesday evening, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office announced it would prohibit non-Muslims from entering the holy site for the rest of Ramadan. The decision isn’t unprecedented, but his far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said in a statement that it was “a serious mistake that will not bring peace, but may only escalate the situation.”
The compound consists of large open courtyards as well as the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock.
The mosque and dome are built on top of the site where Jews believe their first and second temples stood, and is known as Temple Mount, the holiest place in Judaism. The Western Wall is believed to be part of the second temple complex, and sits below the courtyard. It is the site that Jew face in prayer.
Most leading Rabbis say Jews should not step foot on the site. But a growing movement of Jewish extremists has been campaigning to be allowed to perform prayers on the grounds, a call that could upend the status quo arrangement that governs the management of the site. CNN witnessed at least two Jewish worshippers praying without being stopped or removed by police.
Ben Gvir is a vocal advocate of Jewish prayer at the site. Once considered the fringe of Israeli politics, having been previously convicted of supporting terrorism and inciting anti-Arab racism, his visit to the compound earlier this year drew international condemnation.
Jordan’s Hashemite monarchy is the custodian of the complex, based on an agreement that dates back to 1924, and it manages the site under an Islamic trust called the Waqf. But Jordan’s role is becoming increasingly symbolic, experts say, because it is Israel that controls the security checks at entry points and therefore access to the sacred grounds. Tourists can enter during visiting hours on their own, but religious Jews are often escorted by heavily armed guards.
Sheikh Azzam Khatib, the director general of the Waqf, sees these increasing visits of Jewish groups under Israeli police escort as a provocation to Palestinians and the wider Muslim word.
“I see these visits as a raid on our holy site,” he said. “Israel should keep its hands off the mosque and the compound because this is a violation (of the sanctity of the site) … and can lead to events that cannot be contained.”
The status quo itself is an unwieldly subject, fraught with debate. It is not a traditional treaty signed by the various parties during some ceremony, instead built on historical precedents dating back to the Ottoman Empire, amended and agreed upon by various bodies from the British, to the United Nations and beyond. That status quo is slowly being chipped away, says Sheikh Rani Abusibr, an Imam of nearly twenty-years at Al-Aqsa.
“History is always written by the powerful,” Abusibr said. “Of course, it is expected that if there is no force to stand-up against this encroachment then our rights can easily be lost.”
Some Jewish extremist calls go beyond the demand for prayer. Far-right fringe movements want to see a third Jewish temple built at the site. On the day of CNN’s visit, small groups of Jewish radicals taunted Muslims by singing “The Temple will be built” at the gates of the compound.
Netanyahu has repeatedly insisted that he is committed to maintaining the status quo, but under his government, the most far-right in Israeli history, extremist voices are growing louder and stronger.
For the wider Arab world, al-Aqsa is seen as the last enclave of Muslim control in the heart of East Jerusalem. CNN spoke to Muslim worshippers at the site who only gave their first names citing security concerns.
“Al-Aqsa is ours. No matter what anyone says. Al-Aqsa is ours even it was raided by a million people,” Mohammed, a worshipper at the site, told CNN. “It is an ideology that we carry in our minds.”
Some Palestinian worshippers must go to great lengths to reach the mosques at the complex, particularly visitors from the Israeli-occupied West Bank, who generally need to obtain travel documents from Israeli authorities and can undergo lengthy waits at checkpoints and multiple security checks.
Without the status quo arrangement being enforced, there are fears that an already tumultuous region could spiral out of control. Any perceived shift in the norms can – and has – set-off cycles of deadly violence. But these periodic flare-ups have always fallen back on the simple understanding that has maintained some semblance of order in one of the most contentious corners of the world.
“Of course, I don’t feel safe. Everything can change in an instant, so I am always scared,” said Noor, a worshipper inside the Dome of the Rock, the golden-domed shrine that is seen in the holy city’s skyline. “But I am here because I have faith in God.”