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Sacred to both Muslims and Jews, the Al-Aqsa mosque compound has often been a trigger for broader conflict in Israel

On 29 April, the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan, Israeli forces raided the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, wounding more than three dozen Palestinians. In separate incidents, a Palestinian man and an Israeli guard were killed. Israeli forces used rubber bullets and stun grenades in the raid, which came as Muslims were preparing for Eid al-Fitr celebrations marking the end of Ramadan. The police said they entered the compound after hundreds of people started throwing rocks and fireworks, some of which were said to have been aimed at the Western Wall, where Jewish worshippers congregate. The raid on the mosque, also revered by Jews as the site of two biblical temples, has raised fears of broader unrest and conflict.

Why is the Al-Aqsa mosque so important to Muslims?

With 144,000 sq m, the Al-Aqsa mosque is the largest mosque in Jerusalem, which can accommodate half a million worshippers. Al-Aqsa is the third holiest site in Islam and is located in the Old City of Jerusalem. Decades after Prophet Mohammed's death, the mosque was built in the early eighth century, during the Umayyad period, and has been renovated and expanded several times since then. It is considered significant for a number of reasons, including its role as the place from which Muhammad is believed to have ascended to heaven. In recent decades, the mosque has also been a rallying point for Palestinians who see it as a symbol of resistance to Israel's occupation of East Jerusalem. 

Why do Jews revere the site?

The Al-Aqsa mosque compound is known as the Temple Mount to Jews and includes the Dome of the Rock shrine, the holiest site in Judaism. It is believed to be where the two Jewish temples once stood. According to Jewish tradition, the first temple was built by King Solomon in the 10th century BC, and the second temple was completed in the sixth century BC. The first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in the sixth century BC, and the second temple was destroyed by the Romans in AD70.

Who controls the site?

The Al-Aqsa mosque compound is managed by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, or religious trust. The Jordanian government has responsibility for the upkeep of the mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Israel has controlled the Old City of Jerusalem since 1967 when it annexed the area following the Six-Day War. However, it has not annexed the Al-Aqsa mosque compound and instead considers it to be under de facto Jordanian control.

But when it comes to security at the site, Israeli police are in charge. Since 1967, Jewish worshippers have been allowed to enter but not pray at the site; they can still worship outside the Western Wall. Last year, an Israeli judge upheld the ban on Jewish prayer at the site, but the New York Times reported a few months ago that Israel has "quietly" allowed Jewish visitors to pray there. This has led to Palestinian fears that Israel is trying to change the status quo at the site.

How did Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital affect the situation?

In December 2017, US President Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel's capital and moved the US embassy there from Tel Aviv, a decision that was widely condemned by the international community. The move was seen as a significant victory for Israel and a blow to the Palestinians, who have long sought East Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state. Though the Al-Aqsa mosque is located there, the US move didn't change the status quo at the site, which Israel still considers to be under de facto Jordanian control.

How has the Al-Aqsa mosque provoked conflict?

Conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has started in a number of ways at the Al-Aqsa mosque. In September 2000, Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon's visit to the compound sparked a wave of violence that led to the Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising. In July 2017, Israel installed metal detectors and security cameras at the compound following a deadly attack in which two Israeli policemen were killed. The move sparked protests among Palestinians, who said it was an attempt by Israel to assert control over the site. The metal detectors were later removed, but the cameras remain. In October 2018, Israeli authorities closed the compound for several hours after a Palestinian allegedly tried to stab Israeli police officers. The site's closure sparked outrage among Palestinians, viewing it as an infringement on their religious freedom.

The Al-Aqsa mosque compound continues to be administered by the Waqf; Jews are allowed to visit the site, but not pray there out of respect for Muslim sensibilities. But in recent years, there has been a growing movement among Israelis to allow Jewish prayer at the site. This has led to increased tensions with Palestinians, who fear that Israel is seeking to divide the compound into two separate areas for Muslims and Jews. Palestinians have used the division of the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron as an example of what could happen at Al-Aqsa.

What are the future plans for the site?

The future of the Al-Aqsa compound is one of the most sensitive issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Any change to the status quo at the site is seen as a potential trigger for violence. As such, both sides are cautious about making any moves that could be perceived as pushing for that. Though Jews are not currently allowed to pray at the site, media reports have suggested that Israel has tacitly allowed Jewish prayer there in recent months, leading to Palestinian fears that it is trying to assert its hand at the site by stealth. 

Written By: Olivium staff.


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