“They [the Israeli settlers] are not coming here to enjoy the architecture or even to feel associated with the past. No, they are looking to the future.” – Dr. Yousef Nathseh
OCCUPIED EAST JERUSALEM — Accompanied by police, 150 Israeli settlers stormed the Al-Aqsa compound during the Jewish festival of Chanukah this past week. Scores of Jews now force their way into Al-Aqsa regularly, in what many Palestinian Muslims fear signals the imminent destruction of the Al-Aqsa Mosque to make way for a Third Jewish Temple.
The head of the Likud faction and a member of the Israeli Knesset light candles for the Jewish Hanukkah festival in the nearest place to the Al-Aqsa Mosque near the Mughrabi Gate. The so-called Temple groups boast about 900 settlers storming Al-Aqsa . #Act4Palestine pic.twitter.com/9ipyutcJRV
— Memo Hamada (@MemoHamada16) December 3, 2021
Dozens of Israeli settlers backed by police broke into the courtyards of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied #Jerusalem on the pretext of celebrating the Jewish Hanukkah holiday, today. pic.twitter.com/Wpa4mnC7fh
— Quds News Network (@QudsNen) December 2, 2021
In October, an Israeli Magistrate Court ruled to allow “silent” Jewish prayer at the Al-Aqsa complex, reversing the status quo of Al-Aqsa being strictly reserved for Muslim worship. The decision came after Rabbi Aryeh Lippo requested the court remove a temporary ban imposed on him by Israeli police when he was caught praying at the Al-Aqsa compound. Israel does not have a law prohibiting Jewish prayer at the holy site but, in order to curtail conflict, authorities have enforced a ban on Jewish prayer there since 1967.
The court ruling was overturned and Lippo’s ban upheld but Palestinian concerns surrounding a potential Israeli takeover of the holy site remain. The justifications for those concerns will be the subject of this article.
“This is an Israeli policy to vacate Al-Aqsa Mosque from the Muslims in order to start a new period for the Jews by rebuilding that temple inside this area,” the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) Deputy Governor of Jerusalem Abdullah Siam told MintPress News. “This is the final aim of Israel in the Old City.” MintPress News was unable to speak to Governor Adnan Ghaith because Israel has placed him under house arrest.
Israeli violations of Al-Aqsa
After Israel annexed East Jerusalem following the 1967 Six-Day War, control over the Al-Aqsa compound was given to Jordan through a religious trust called the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf. Non-Muslims are allowed to visit, but prayer is forbidden.
According to the PA’s Jerusalem Governorate, Jewish settler tours of the Al-Aqsa compound occur twice daily – in the morning and again in the afternoon. Nearly 3,900 Jewish settlers entered Al-Aqsa complex in November. Israel’s parliamentary Education Committee also approved educational tours of Al-Aqsa compound for Jewish students.
The Al-Aqsa complex is surrounded by Israeli construction. Settler organization Elad is building a metal structure overlooking Al-Aqsa Mosque atop land belonging to a Palestinian family in Silwan. The Jerusalem Municipality has bulldozed graves in the Bab al-Asbat Cemetery along the eastern walls of the Al-Aqsa compound to make room for a national park. Israeli authorities have desecrated graves in Bab al-Rahma Cemetery, which is also located along the eastern walls of the Al-Aqsa compound. And in 2020, Israel’s National Infrastructure Committee announced plans to build an underground railway tunnel along the edge of Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Israeli bulldozers and Jewish prayers aren’t the only activities violating the sanctity of Al-Aqsa. Muslims are frequently prevented from worshiping at the holy site.
On the first day of the holy month of Ramadan this year, Israel banned thousands of Muslims from entering Al-Aqsa on the grounds that they hadn’t received COVID-19 vaccination yet (this as Israel was refusing to provide equitable distribution of the vaccine to Palestinians).
Mr. Siam emphasized that bans on Muslim worship aren’t just reserved for holidays, but occur year-round. “Every morning in Al-Aqsa, [Israel] has started to ask the Palestinian who would come inside, ‘Why you are coming? From where are you coming?’ And if they are youths, they keep their IDs and say, ‘When you get out, you can take your ID,’” Siam said.
The governorate’s office also mentioned how many Palestinians will not only have their IDs confiscated, but may also be called in for interrogation and banned from Al-Aqsa for months or even a full year. “And also in the morning, many police with their uniforms, with their guns, start to walk around inside Al-Aqsa,” Siam continued. “By this way, they want to make the Muslims afraid and move them away from the place that the settlers will go through inside Al-Aqsa. So, the Israeli Police are sharing with the settlers in these attacks of Al-Aqsa.”
In regard to permitting Jews entry to the Al-Aqsa compound, the Israel Police told MintPress:
[T]he police act in accordance with the guidelines that are designated to enable protecting public order, welfare and security, and these are transmitted at the entrance of visitors to the Mount area. We will continue to permit visits to the Temple Mount [what Israel calls Al-Aqsa compound] in accordance with the customary guidelines for visits at the site.”
While a ban on Jewish prayer is purportedly in place, visitors to the Al-Aqsa complex say the police seldom enforce it. Miko Peled, an Israeli-American activist who stumbled upon a Jewish tour of the religious site in May, stated:
The police repeated several times, ‘No praying aloud, no religious symbols allowed.’ But as soon as we walked in, the prayers began, and the police just let them, and stood there and guarded them as they were going through this.”
— Miko Peled (@mikopeled) May 26, 2021
American charities behind the Temple Mount movement
The Jerusalem Governorate, which monitors Israeli violations of Al-Aqsa, said settler incursions have increased in frequency and size recently. The movement’s booming popularity can largely be attributed to the Temple Institute, the Temple Mount Heritage Foundation, and The Open Gate – the main groups promoting Jewish ascension onto the Al-Aqsa compound and the rebuilding of a Third Jewish Temple there.
Orthodox Judaism believes that the rebuilding of the temple – destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. – can happen only after the arrival of the Messiah, although not all factions support this idea.
The Temple Mount movement network receives funding from the Israeli government, but they are also supported by tax-exempt donations from American charities and foundations.
P.E.F. Israel Endowments Fund, a non-profit based in New York, and Texas-based non-profit Biblical Faith accept donations for the Temple Institute. American charities Israel Independence Fund (IIF) and the Central Fund of Israel (CFI) support the Temple Mount Heritage Foundation. And New York charity One Israel Fund supports The Open Gate. These charities also receive sizable donations from foundations run by some of America’s wealthiest individuals, including recently deceased billionaires Sheldon Adelson and Irving Moskowitz.
According to the most recent Internal Revenue Service tax returns analyzed by MintPress, P.E.F. Israel Endowments Fund received funding from the Benjamin and Susan Shapell Foundation, Mindel Foundation, Dennis Berman Family Foundation, and Ben and Esther Rosenbloom Foundation. The Ben and Esther Rosenbloom Foundation gave the most, contributing $60,000 to the charity in 2019.
The One Israel Fund received donations from the Benjamin and Susan Shapell Foundation, Dennis Berman Family Foundation, and the Cherna Moskowitz Foundation – which contributed the most, at $230,000 in 2019.
And CFI is financed by the Cherna Moskowitz Foundation, C Funding, Carl & Sylvia Family Freyer Foundation, Abraham and Esther Hersh Foundation, Ner Tzion Foundation, Ben and Esther Rosenbloom Foundation, Mindel Foundation, Irving I Moskowitz Foundation, and the Adelson Family Foundation. The Irving I Moskowitz Foundation contributed the most, giving $1,047,000 to CFI in 2019.
Of the organizations cited above, those whose contact information was publicly available were contacted, but only the Temple Mount Heritage Foundation responded to a MintPress inquiry. Tom Nisani – director of Beyadenu, or the Temple Mount Heritage Foundation – said the organization’s goal is the Jewish right to enter the Al-Aqsa complex and Israeli sovereignty of the site.
While activists within the Temple Mount movement paint the issue as one relating to religious freedom, Dr. Yousef Nathseh, who retired from the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf in August as the Tourism and Archaeology department’s director, explained the subtext behind these tours is what is so worrisome for Muslims.
“It is not an innocent visit. It is a visit that would like to deliver a political message,” Dr. Nathseh said. “They are not coming here to enjoy the architecture or even to feel associated with the past. No, they are looking to the future.”
Peled, who grew up in Palestine, elaborated that, contrary to mainstream belief, these Temple Mount activists are not on the fringes of Israeli society. Rather, this ideology is fully cemented into the state’s narrative. He recounted:
I remember as a kid that there were a lot of non-religious songs about how building the new temple is part of our national goal. So this is much deeper than most people think. Most people think it’s a bunch of religious fanatics, but it’s not. It’s part of the Zionist national project.”
On the first night of Chanukah, Israeli President Isaac Herzog sparked controversy when he lit the candles at Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron in the Occupied West Bank. The site is sacred to both Muslims and Jews, but Herzog’s act was seen as fanning the flames in a historically contentious city.
In 1994, Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Muslim worshippers at Ibrahimi Mosque. Following the massacre, the religous site was split between Muslim and Jewish worship, with Muslim access cut to 40%.
Deputy Governor Siam fears what happened to Ibrahimi Mosque may become Al-Aqsa’s fate. “The settler organizations demarcated [Ibrahimi Mosque]. And this has become a normal thing now in Hebron,” Siam said. “They want to do the same in Al-Aqsa.”
For Peled as well, concerns surrounding Al-Aqsa’s destruction are legitimate, especially when considering today’s discourse in Israeli politics. Goldstein was a disciple of Israeli-American extremist Meir Kahane, and now Itamar Ben-Gvir, a fellow Kahanist, is part of the Knesset (Israeli parliament). On Sunday, Ben-Gvir led a group of Israeli settlers into the Al-Aqsa compound to perform Jewish rituals. This is not the first time he’s entered the compound.
“We are very, very close to this actually happening. We are absolutely very close because [Israel is] destroying everything else,” Peled said. He continued:
They’re destroying all the other monuments that nobody pays attention to, which have any kind of significance to Palestinian history. Al-Aqsa is a little more high-profile, so they’re taking their time with that. But there’s no question that is part of the objective – destroying Al-Aqsa and building a temple.
Feature photo | Islam’s holy Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem’s Old City is seen through a door decorated with a Jewish Star of David. Oded Balilty | AP
Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist for MintPress News covering Palestine, Israel, and Syria. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The New Arab and Gulf News.