As the Religious Zionist Party forms part of Israel’s new government, fears arise of tensions over the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound leading to a new regional escalation. Israeli settler provocations at Jerusalem’s holy sites have a long history of causing civil unrest that runs counter to Washington’s foreign policy goals, which is why U.S.-based non-profits that finance Israeli extremists are all the more outrageous.
With far-right Israeli lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir pledging to fight for unfettered access to Al-Aqsa Mosque for extremist settlers, the conditions that could lead to an explosion of violence throughout occupied Palestine – and even regionally – are ripe. In May 2021, Israeli settler incursions into the Al-Aqsa Mosque, combined with routine attacks on worshipers by Israeli police, caused a war to break out between Israel and the Gaza Strip.
Once on the fringes of Israeli society, the extremist Temple Mount and Eretz Yisrael Faithful Movement have now entered the mainstream, with a leader of the second most powerful Israeli political party on their side. The temple mount group openly states on its website its intentions of destroying the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound as we know it today and building the Jewish “Third Temple” in its place – a virtual declaration of war against the Muslim world.
Although the extremist settlers who routinely storm the mosque are not necessarily close to achieving their end goal, they are hoping to see the new Israeli government grant them the full right to storm at will and perform religious rituals in Al-Aqsa. Such provocations could spark a round of tensions inside the Old City of Jerusalem and its surroundings, leading to a situation that the Secretary General of Lebanese Hezbollah, Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah, has vowed to challenge using a united resistance front, formed of a number of regional actors, including Yemen’s Ansar Allah.
The origins of the Al-Aqsa mosque tensions
Since the early days of the British Mandate period in Palestine, the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and its surroundings have been central to both the Palestinian national struggle and to creating the grounds for greater conflict between Zionists and Palestinians.
The Zionist movement’s attempts to take over the Western (Wailing) Wall – attached to the outer walls of the Al-Aqsa site, have sparked a number of riots and clashes, culminating in the bloody 1929 al-Khalil (Hebron) uprising.
During the Ottoman Rule of Palestine, Chaim Weizmann, then head of the Zionist Organization, saw the Western Wall site as a prize to attain, initially in order to bring ultra-orthodox Jews into the Zionist camp. He attempted to purchase the site from the Islamic religious trust known as the Waqf. In Tom Segev’s book, “One Palestine, Complete,” he cites a letter written by Weizmann to his wife, where he described, “the minarets and the bell-towers and the domes rising to the sky are crying out that Jerusalem is not Jewish,” clearly indicating a need to change the city’s character.
According to Yehoshua Porath’s book, “The Emergence of the Palestinian-Arab National Movement 1918-1929”, during tensions between Zionists and Palestinians in 1920s Jerusalem, the precedent was already set for Muslim fears over any change in the status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites. Porath writes that the Palestinians understood Zionist attempts to change the status quo at the Western Wall site as a gradual attempt to take over the Haram al-Sharif (otherwise known as the Dome of the Rocks mosque), located in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
In reaction to Zionist attempts to attain more control in the Old City, the former Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, created a large campaign to both refurbish the site and to signal to Muslims that the Al-Aqsa Mosque was under attack. This campaign ended up increasing the importance of the third-holiest site in the Islamic faith and in the Palestinian national struggle, combining the religious significance of al-Aqsa with the Palestinian fight for national liberation. The fact that Judaization attempts were being made by leaders of the Zionist movement, pre-dating the British Mandate rule itself, remains stored in the Palestinian collective consciousness until this day.
Al-Aqsa under the law
The position that is maintained by the United Nations, despite Israel having passed its own legislation to annex Jerusalem in 1980, is that under international law, the territory is considered to be occupied. The international community “rejects the acquisition of territory by war and considers any changes on the ground illegal and invalid”, is the way the issue of Israel’s claims to sovereignty over the city it viewed by the UN. In addition to this, the status quo, as per Israel’s agreement with Jordan, is that the Jordanian Waqf has the right to maintain security inside the Al-Aqsa compound, whilst Israeli forces have the right to manage security on the Holy Site’s exterior.
Despite attempts to change it, Israeli law states that performing acts of religious worship inside the site is forbidden for Israeli Jewish citizens. Jewish Israelis are allowed to enter as tourists, as is the case for non-Muslim international travelers to the site. However, the Israeli police that operate security checks surrounding Al-Aqsa clearly do not abide by this precedent.
Israel has no right, under international law, to any of Jerusalem. One way that Tel Aviv could have been granted legitimacy in Jerusalem was through a potential peace deal with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), with no such deal having yet taken place. Between 1993 and 1995, both Israel and the PLO signed what was known as the Oslo Accords. Oslo gave birth to a semi-autonomous Palestinian governing body – the Palestinian Authority – in some limited areas of the West Bank and Gaza. The series of agreements between the PLO and the Israeli government was supposed to lead to a process by which a Palestinian State could be created.
Although Israeli negotiations with the Palestinian Authority (PA), currently based out of the city of Ramallah, never resulted in a peace deal, the PA had only ever claimed for their state to include East Jerusalem. Under international law, without a viable Palestinian state – one that has its capital in East Jerusalem, Israel has no legal right to any part of the city.
Despite this, in 2000, then-Israeli opposition leader, Ariel Sharon, stormed the Al-Aqsa compound, causing a mass Palestinian revolt. Sharon’s move followed a march that had just taken place to commemorate the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres of around 3,500 Palestinians and Lebanese civilians – massacres that Sharon played a central role in facilitating.
For Palestinians, it was the act of an Israeli politician storming the Al-Aqsa Mosque site that served as the straw that broke the camel’s back. The uprising across the Occupied Territories known as the Second Intifada began in September 2000 and continued officially until 2005.
Israel’s growing encroachment on Al-Aqsa
Over the past two years, the Israeli assaults on Palestinian worshipers inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound have been extremely pronounced, especially during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Israeli riot police have repeatedly stormed the site, injuring hundreds of Palestinians and even killing a young man earlier this year. The war between Gaza and Israel in 2021 began as a result of tensions surrounding Al-Aqsa and the threat of an Israeli settler “death to Arabs” march penetrating the compound’s walls.
Leading up to the 2021 conflict, Israeli police had restricted access to the site for prayer during the month of Ramadan and even closed off the minarets at Al-Aqsa to prevent the call to prayer. In 2019, the Israeli Mayor of Jerusalem, Moshe Leon, pushed to install quiet speakers at the Mosque site, which indicates that the action performed by the Israeli police was likely not arbitrary and fits into a trend of extinguishing the Islamic presence in the city.
Going further back, in 2010, an Israeli terrorist attempted to detonate explosives in order to blow up the Al-Qibli Mosque inside the Al-Aqsa compound. This attack was followed by continued attempts by settlers to invade the area. 2015 however, was when the provocations began to take off in an unprecedented manner, with the number of Israeli settlers choosing to storm the Al-Aqsa Mosque steadily increasing since that time.
According to Yaraeh – an organization that promotes settler incursions into Al-Aqsa – from August to October 2021, approximately 10,000 Israeli settlers entered the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, representing a 35% increase from previous years. This October, Yaraeh proudly announced that almost 8,000 settlers stormed the site in one month – the highest on record and more than in the entirety of 2012
In 2021, Hagit Ofran, the director of Peace Now’s Settlement Watchdog, told +972 Magazine that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government had been responsible for tensions at the al-Aqsa site, “so much so that it was the reason Netanyahu was no longer in touch with Jordan’s King Abdullah II”. Since the occupation of Jerusalem in 1967, Israel and Jordan have been bound by an agreement that maintains the “status quo” at the site, which involves Tel Aviv respecting the Hashemite King of Jordan’s symbolic custodianship over Al-Aqsa.
With Netanyahu returning to power, the Jordanian element to this story is particularly important. Netanyahu is backed by fanatical Israeli lawmakers who would like to see Palestinian citizens of Israel expelled from the country altogether. Although Jordan’s King Abdullah II is not likely to abandon his nation’s 1994 peace treaty with Tel Aviv, it is clear that during the Trump administration years, the Hashemite ruler had been isolated after taking a stance against the Netanyahu-Trump “Deal of the Century” model to end the Palestine-Israeli conflict. There are even reports that Benjamin Netanyahu, along with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was involved in attempts to hatch a coup plot to overthrow the Jordanian monarch – one that was publicly quashed in April 2021. The Israeli role in the alleged U.S.-Saudi campaign to undermine Abdullah was said to have been part of an attempt to strip the Hashemites of their symbolic custodianship over Al-Aqsa.
Under the Biden administration’s combined efforts with the former Bennett-Lapid government of Israel, Amman had again grown closer to Tel Aviv and even signed a memorandum of understanding for a “water for clean energy” exchange agreement. However, with Netanyahu’s return to power and the current weakening of the Palestinian Authority, if tensions arise from the growing encroachment upon Al-Aqsa, Jordan’s ruler could again be undermined. The Jordanians and Palestinian Authority have already joined hands, sending a message to the U.S. and E.U. to demand that no change be made to the status quo at Al-Aqsa as the new Israeli government comes to power.
In addition to its plans for the expulsion of thousands of Palestinians in neighborhoods like Silwan, Israel is also demolishing Islamic burial sites in the Old City. The Israeli Supreme Court has also been complicit in rejecting appeals to prevent a cable car project in the Old City, which will economically impact local Palestinians, as well as destroy their heritage sites. Recently, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem has condemned the rising settler attacks on holy sites throughout the city, but his statements largely fell on deaf ears.
Given all the context noted above, it is fair to assume that another escalation is only around the corner and that due to the silence of the international community, the Palestinian people will be left to defend their holy sites on their own. When this happens, however, it is likely that much of the Western world, along with Israel, will act as if the Palestinians are being violent and unreasonable, and motivated purely by anti-Semitism.
U.S. funding of extremist Temple Mount groups
The Temple Mount movement, which explicitly expresses its desire to not only change the status quo at Al-Aqsa but to build the ‘third temple’ by destroying the Islamic Holy site there, is spearheaded by American-born Israelis. There has been significant financial as well as promotional support from U.S. citizens and organizations. Lately, prominent conservative commentators Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson have themselves entered the site in the presence of extremist Temple Mount figures. Among both Christian and Jewish Americans, the issue has been of importance for starkly different religious reasons.
The Temple Institute, the most notable of a number of organizations that advocate changing the status quo at the Al-Aqsa compound and building the Jewish third temple, was revealed by a Haaretz news investigation to have been funded by a leading U.S. donor to Benjamin Netanyahu. The Temple Institute, founded in 1987 by Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, received $96,000 from the U.S.-based One Israel Fund in 2012 and 2013 alone, with a number of other American organizations also contributing donations during that time. The 2015 Haaretz report uncovered that the financing of extremist Temple Mount groups comes from a large pool of tax-exempt charitable organizations that are based in the United States, ranging from New York and California to Texas.
According to the Temple Institute’s last publicly available financial report, for the years 2019 and 2020, the organization received over $2.9 million in funding. Around half came from the Israeli government, with the other half coming from donations. To contribute funds from the United States to the Temple Institute, donors can be directed from a website called America Gives, partnered with Israel Gives, a website from which you can directly aid to the Temple Institute. American Support for Israel, U.K. Gives and Canada Charity Partners are all set up to receive donations from outside of Israel.
American-born ex-Likud Party Knesset member, Yehuda Glick is a prominent figure in the Temple Mount movement and heads the Shalom Jerusalem Foundation. On the foundation’s official website, you can find a donation campaign that hopes to attract people who seek to “see the rebuilding of the Third Temple speedily in our time”. The foundation collects money through a tax-exempt charity based in New Jersey called the Jerusalem Friendship Alliance INC and collected more than $1.8 million in total revenue between 2011 and 2020.
The above-noted means of donating from the United States to the Temple Mount movement are but only a sample of a much larger pool of charitable organizations, through which American organizations and private persons can give money to a cause that runs counter to U.S. policy. Washington supposedly supports maintaining the status quo at Al-Aqsa.
Fearing a repeat Ibrahimi Mosque massacre scenario
In 1994, after years of attempts by extremists to change the status quo at the Ibrahimi Mosque in the West Bank city of al-Khalil (Hebron), the settlers were finally successful. On February 25, U.S.-born Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein entered the Ibrahimi Mosque with an automatic weapon, opening fire on Palestinian worshipers. The horrifying terrorist attack resulted in the murder of 29 people and the injury of 125 others, in what Palestinians claimed was a settler plot with indirect support from the Israeli military.
Shortly after the attack, Israel declared the old city of Al-Khalil a closed military zone, later seizing 60% of the Ibrahimi Mosque and turning it into a synagogue closed off to Palestinians. The attack was a resounding success for the Israeli terrorist, who had achieved his goal of making Palestinians pay for falling victim to his actions, and making the life of those living in the Old City miserable and subjected to constant checkpoint stops. Today, Al-Khalil’s Old City is one of the most disturbing areas to visit in all of Palestine, as settlers occupy homes that Palestinians have been expelled from, while simply visiting the Ibrahimi Mosque comes with a humiliating journey through a military checkpoint and a number of stops.
Although violent attempts to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound have not yet returned into the fold, the possibility of extremist attempts to use violence at the site is always a fear in the back of every Palestinian’s head. This fear is not unfounded, nor is it without historical precedent, as the Jewish Underground terrorist group had attempted just this back in the 1970s and 1980s; to not only blow up al-Aqsa Mosque but to detonate bombs on packed Palestinian civilian buses in East Jerusalem. Yehuda Etzion, a former member of the Jewish Underground who attempted to blow up Al-Aqsa in 1984, today still advocates building the third temple. Etzion continued to agitate, heading the Chai Vekayam movement that played a prominent role in promoting the Temple Mount movement in the early 2000s. The Jewish Underground is no longer operating, and many of its members were arrested for their violent attacks and plots. However, interestingly, the funding for this organization came primarily from within the United States.
The extremist settler, Baruch Goldstein, who was responsible for the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre, was a protégé of the extremist Israeli political figure known as Meir Kahane, the founder of the infamous Kach movement, whose armed wing was the Jewish Defense League (JDL). The Kach movement was eventually outlawed in both Israel and the United States, with the JDL being designated a terrorist group for its violent antics. Today, former members of the Kach movement and those sympathetic to its cause, such as Itamar Ben-Gvir, are now about to take cabinet positions in the new Israeli government.
Those who follow the beliefs of Meir Kahane, whose group carried out bombing attacks on U.S. soil, are called Kahanists. A 2019 Investigation conducted by The Nation revealed that a web of non-profit American organizations was financing Kahanist groups affiliated with the Religious Zionism Party, which is poised to become the second most powerful Israeli political party under the new Netanyahu administration. An Intercept report in early November then followed up on The Nation’s findings and revealed that tens of millions of dollars had been donated to Israeli far-right groups affiliated with the Religious Zionism Party. Religious Zionism openly advocates for changing the status quo at Al-Aqsa. Its most prominent figures, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, have both stormed the Al-Aqsa mosque this year.
The Biden administration has not changed Washington’s long-standing position of maintaining the status quo at al-Aqsa. However, its position of upholding “unwavering support” for Tel Aviv directly contradicts this position. The Israeli government, the recipient of $150 Billion in U.S. aid, directly finances the Temple Institute and other far-right organizations. Some of Israel’s most prominent political figures also support the idea of building the Jewish Third Temple and actively call for changing the status quo at Al-Aqsa.
Organizations that are the most prominent in promoting these ideas receive a large sum of their finances from U.S.-based tax-exempt organizations. If the U.S. government does not decide to put its foot down and make its support for Israel conditional, a major flare-up over the status of Al-Aqsa will be on its hands – an escalation that could cost Washington its relationship with Jordan and even leaderships in the wider Muslim world. The Al-Aqsa Mosque’s status is an issue that is close to the hearts of over 2 billion Muslims worldwide and attempts to destroy it will be tantamount to a declaration of Holy War, funded by tax-exempt U.S. organizations.
Feature photo | Jews pray in Jerusalem opposite the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the night before Yom Kippur, October 3, 2022. Saeed Qaq | NurPhoto via AP
Robert Inlakesh is a political analyst, journalist and documentary filmmaker currently based in London, UK. He has reported from and lived in the occupied Palestinian territories and hosts the show ‘Palestine Files’. Director of ‘Steal of the Century: Trump’s Palestine-Israel Catastrophe’. Follow him on Twitter @falasteen47