“Are you Jewish?” asked the sheikh dressed in white, standing near the Chain Gate of Temple Mount. When I answered that I was, he forbade the crowd of mostly middle-aged women standing around to speak to me. “You can get our photos from the policemen over there,” he said dryly.
Since they were banished last week from the Temple Mount during morning visiting hours on orders of Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, a few dozen Islamic activists have been gathering every morning near the gate, where tourists exit the Temple Mount, to voice their protest. They are known as Murabitat, a loaded Islamic term denoting religious steadfastness at a time of battle.
“You ask who we are? We are not terrorists!” chanted the women in unison, confined to one side of the cobblestone alleyway by police, as curious tourists passed by. “You ask who we are? We are banned from al-Aqsa!”
Funded by the northern branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement, the Murabitat formed learning circles on the Temple Mount plaza, where they would study Quran and disrupt the increasingly frequent visits by religious Jews to the site, with shouts of Allahu Akbar (God is Great) and physical assaults.
But as of early last week, the Israel Police has prevented the women from entering the Temple Mount during morning visiting hours, from 7:30 to 11:00. Erdan has also asked Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon to classify the group as an illegal organization, a decision that has yet to be implemented.
Days before the ban went into effect, tour guide Aviya Fraenkel visited Temple Mount with a friend one morning. The crude assault she encountered from the Murabitat left her deeply shaken.
“When we went to places the Muslims didn’t want us to go to, they simply lay on the ground and wouldn’t let us pass. They hit policemen. They threw water balloons at us over the cops, as wells as olives and stones,” Fraenkel told The Times of Israel last week. “The policemen protected us with their bodies a number of times.”
“It was hallucinatory, just like war,” she said.
Um Ismail, a resident of the Old City, said she has been coming to study at al-Aqsa (a reference to the entire Temple Mount plaza) for the past five years. She was concerned that the newly imposed restrictions would soon become a permanent division of prayer hours on the Temple Mount between Jews and Muslims, like the arrangement at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, which serves as both a mosque and a synagogue.
“In the Quran, God designated al-Aqsa to Muslims alone,” she said. “The Jews want to push us out. They want to enter, pray, get drunk, take wedding photos. We’ve seen them posing immodestly inside al-Aqsa many times.
“Do we come to their synagogue?” Um Ismail asked rhetorically. “So why do they push us out of al-Aqsa? Let them go to the Christian churches, or to their synagogues. What business do they have in al-Aqsa?”
The Temple Mount is revered as the holiest site in Judaism, and the third holiest in Islam. Since Israel captured the Old City in the 1967 war, the status quo established by then-defense minister Moshe Dayan enshrines the Temple Mount as a place of worship for Muslims and a tourist site for all others, banning Jewish prayer. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated repeatedly that he has no intention of changing the status quo on the Temple Mount to allow for Jewish prayer there.
Most Jewish Temple Mount activists insist that Muslims should be allowed to pray on the Mount alongside Jews undisturbed, but Palestinian worshipers cite recurrent restrictions on Muslim prayer at the site during national Israeli holidays such as Jerusalem Day as proof of the falsehood of Israeli claims.
Another activist, who identified as Aisha, said that at first police prevented only 20 women from entering the compound, but allowed her and her friends to enter after holding her ID card.
“For the past week they’ve been preventing us [from entering] completely before 11 o’clock,” she told The Times of Israel. “We will not let this time division pass. Are we to stay outside and see [the Jewish visitors] exit from al-Aqsa while we’re stuck here? Besides, look at the way [the police] treat us, like sheep.
“The only solution is for them to leave us alone,” she concluded.
Aisha insisted that the Murabitat was not an official organization. “We only come here to enter al-Aqsa, pray, and take Quran lessons. That’s all.” Every woman, she added, was given a specific time to arrive and study Islamic scripture. “We teach each other.”
In a written statement sent to The Times of Israel on Thursday, a spokesman for the Jerusalem Police said the decision to ban the women from the Temple Mount was based purely on security considerations.
“The Jerusalem Police invests considerable resources in maintaining public peace and the status quo on the Temple Mount. As part of this activity, removal orders from the Temple Mount were given to Murabitat activists due to their activities in disrupting order on the site,” the statement read. “The Jerusalem Police operates in a determined and unbiased manner, and will not allow extremist elements intent on disrupting the existing status quo and the public peace on Temple Mount.”
As 11 a.m. approached, the women held a special prayer session in the alleyway.
Standing in a row behind three men leading the service, the women chanted “O God, they have prevented us from entering al-Aqsa. Prevent them from entering heaven.”