Jerusalem has been a sticking point in attempts to find a political solution between Palestinians and their occupiers ever since the onset of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Yet, the situation involving the Holy City and its Al-Aqsa Mosque has reached a critical turning point since the recent ascension of ultra-right-wing Zionist parties to power in Israel.
On 3 January, Itamar Ben Gvir, the head of the Otzma Yehudit party, fulfilled his election promises by storming the courtyards of Al-Aqsa Mosque under official Israeli security cover. In doing so, the extremist minister of national security became the first official figure to take such a step since former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s similar action in 2000, which triggered the Second Intifada (also known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada).
Storming Al-Aqsa, a calculated move
Many political analysts agree that Ben Gvir’s storming of the mosque – which was coordinated by the Israeli police and General Security Agency (Shin Bet), and with the prior knowledge of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – signals the new government’s policy towards the city of Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa.
They say that the most right-wing and extreme government in the history of Israel is in the process of strengthening illegal settlements and changing the historical status of Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Analyst Ayman al-Rafati tells The Cradle that the storming of the mosque’s courtyard, as well as the prevention of Jordanian Ambassador Ghassan al-Majali from entering the mosque in mid-January, have two implications:
“The first is an attempt to break psychological deterrence that was established after the Battle of Sayf al-Quds (Sword of Jerusalem) in 2021, which erupted due to practices like this; The second is to reduce the margin of Jordanian guardianship over Al-Aqsa.”
The occupation authorities also seek to replicate the Ibrahimi Mosque experience in the West-Bank city of Hebron (Al-Khalil) by dividing Al-Aqsa in time and space between Muslims and Jews.
Israel hopes that the storming of the mosque will pass over without any significant backlash from the occupied-West Bank and Jerusalem, from the resistance fighters of Gaza, or from the Israeli left and center parties who raise concerns about its potential impact on state security and stability.
However, the actions of Ben Gvir and the Israeli police, while dangerous, do not align with the aspirations of the Jewish Temple group extremists who seek to build a structure on the ruins of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
On the day Ben Gvir assumed office as minister of national security, Aviad Fisoli, the attorney for the new Sanhedrin council (the central rabbinical institution of extremist Temple settler groups) sent a letter to the Israeli police commissioner in Jerusalem requesting an audience with the minister to inform him of their demands and to determine the level of support they could expect from the government and police.
The letter stipulated 11 demands, all of which would lead to the division of Al-Aqsa Mosque. These include:
- Extending the hours in which the extremists could storm the mosque;
- Allowing them to perform prayers and religious rituals inside the mosque;
- Opening the mosque to raids throughout the week; Allowing “sacred tools” into the mosque, including Torah scrolls, the Ark of the Covenant, trumpets, and plant and animal offerings;
- Establishing a Jewish synagogue inside Al-Aqsa Mosque;
- Ending police escorting of extremists;
- Allowing storming from all doors, not just the Mughrabi Gate controlled by the occupation authorities since 1967;
- Not barring the mosque from intruders during Islamic events;
- Declaring “equal rights” for all religions at Al-Aqsa;
- Cancelling the policy of ejecting Jews from the mosque;
- Opening the door of the synagogue in the historical Tanziah school – which overlooks the Al-Aqsa grounds – and is currently controlled by the Israeli Ministry of Security, to all Jews.
In April 2022, the temple group extremists began a campaign to obtain permission for performing the Passover sacrifice in Al-Aqsa.
The “Returning to the Temple Mount” movement, led by an extremist Jewish settler named Raphael Morris, sent a message to Ben Gvir in early January, asking for his help in facilitating the slaughter of the “Passover offering” in the courtyards of the mosque.
In their letter, the group stated that the formation of a real right-wing government “is a golden opportunity to return the crown to its former glory and to renew the Passover sacrifice for the first time in about two thousand years.” They believe that this act “will be recorded in the pages of history as the beginning of the building of the third Temple.”
‘Development:’ a pretext for demographic engineering
On the ground in Jerusalem, the settlers’ ambitions are being matched by ongoing state-sponsored excavations and the construction of roads and bridges. Mahmoud Abu Arqoub, a Palestinian guard stationed at Al-Aqsa Mosque, reveals to The Cradle that the Israeli police are preventing Jerusalemites and “Mourabitoun” (guards tasked with protecting Islamic holy sites from hostile non-believers) from restoring the dilapidated parts of the mosque.
Meanwhile, multiple projects are being implemented to accommodate the increasing number of settlers who storm the mosque.
According to the Palestine Information Center “Maata,” last year, around 55,000 settlers stormed Al-Aqsa Mosque, compared to 34,000 in 2021. Abu Arqoub also noted that in 2022, the Israeli government initiated a project to expand the wooden Mughrabi Bridge that connects Mughrabi Gate to Al-Buraq Square, which is used by settlers and “tourists” to enter the mosque courtyards.
Adnan al-Husseini, the head of the Jerusalem Affairs Department in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), believes that the bridge expansion project aims to increase the number of settler intrusions and paves the way for the implementation of a large settlement project by facilitating access for motorized vehicles.
Abu Arqoub predicts that “major unrest may break out in the month of Ramadan (next March) around the Damascus Gate. The occupation is imposing more restrictions on this region in preparation for its Judaization and annexation.”
Under the guise of developing the transportation network, the Israelis are racing against time to seize more land from Jerusalemites. In mid-January, the local planning and construction committee in the Jerusalem municipality approved plans to build a light-rail transit track connecting east and west Jerusalem.
They claim that the project is part of the “modern transportation revolution in Jerusalem to ease traffic congestion.” However, Jerusalemite researcher Nevine Najeeb posits that the track, set to be completed in 2028, will provide an excuse for the occupation municipality to seize more land and properties belonging to Jerusalemites. As Najeeb explains to The Cradle:
“In the future, the occupation municipality will demand the demolition of homes that Jerusalemites have owned for hundreds of years because they stand in the way of the train, or to strengthen security measures around its track. This scenario was previously implemented by the occupation in the town of Shuafat nine years ago, when dozens were forced to leave their homes under the same pretext.”
In parallel, the occupation authorities and temple groups continue to excavate tunnels beneath the Al-Aqsa Mosque. On 10 January, sources in Jerusalem revealed the discovery of a new tunnel that penetrates the wall of the Old City, four meters wide, extending from the town of Silwan to a point near the Mughrabi Gate.
“The goal of the tunnels is to provide conditions for the demolition of Al-Aqsa Mosque as a result of natural factors, such as an earthquake, in order to avoid a comprehensive confrontation with the occupying power,” Najeeb explains.
‘Strangers in Jerusalem’
The most dangerous Israeli development, however, is the implementation of the “Greater Jerusalem” plan, which seeks to change the demographic balance in the Holy City in favor of the Jewish population, as revealed by the Applied Research Institute in Jerusalem (ARIJ).
In a report published in late 2022, the institute indicated that Israel had begun adding four large settlement blocs – Givat Ze’ev, Ma’aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion, and Psagot – to Jerusalem. This move is expected to decrease the percentage of Palestinians in the city’s population from 37 percent to 21 percent.
In a press release, ARIJ director Jad Isaac stated that in 2022, the Israeli government approved several settlement projects, including the construction of 4,900 settlement units in Jerusalem, 9,000 units in the Atarot area north of the city, and the “Silicon Valley” settlement project spanning over 710,000 square meters in the Wadi al-Jouz neighborhood.
Additionally, there are plans to transform the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and Silwan town into mixed neighborhoods by increasing the number of settlers residing there and issuing orders to evict Palestinians or demolish their homes.
In 2022, ARIJ documented 138 cases of house demolitions and 273 settler encroachments on the lands of Jerusalemites. Furthermore, the Israeli occupation authorities initiated the “Land Settlement and Registration” project to seize more property, which may result in 80 percent of the land being registered as “absentee property,” making Palestinians “strangers in Jerusalem,” as noted by Isaac.
The existential threat to Al-Quds
Palestinians in the city are facing systematic alienation, with the occupation authorities attempting to prevent Palestinian schools from teaching the Palestinian curriculum. Last year, two schools had their licenses revoked under the pretext of teaching curricula that allegedly included “incitement against the Israeli state and army.”
Approximately 45,500 students in Jerusalem, attending 146 schools affiliated with the Palestinian education system, are at risk of being forced to study the Israeli curriculum, according to the Faisal Husseini Foundation.
Since the occupation of Jerusalem in 1967, all Israeli governments, both right and left, have pursued projects to Judaize the city. However, the current Israeli government, described by Israelis themselves as the most right-wing in Israel’s history, poses a greater threat to the city.
There is an unprecedented opportunity for right-wing groups to Judaize the city and demolish the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Such a step is likely to ignite another conflict that may escalate into a major regional war, as leaders of resistance movements in Palestine, Lebanon, and elsewhere have repeatedly warned.