As if they were in a mosque, thousands of men and women sitting along the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem took their shoes off late Friday morning. Others kept them on.
Squished into the narrow space between the Lions Gate and the entrance to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, they would not dare cross through the metal detectors placed there by Israel last week, following a shooting attack at the holy site, in which three Arab Israelis emerged from the compound and shot dead two policemen who were on duty here.
A week later, since Israel had barred men below 50-years-old from entering the Old City, only a few young men roamed through the crowd — overwhelmingly locals of the walled city — handing out cold water. Women of all ages were allowed in.
Around 10 minutes before prayers began, police barricaded off worshipers at the Lions Gate from the rest of the city.
If clashes would break out, there would be little room for anyone to escape.
But despite feared violence, when the prayers were over, most worshipers quietly left the area, with many of them telling one elderly man at the exit, “Salam Alekom,” peace be upon you.
It was a clear success for the police, but a misleading one. Clashes had already begun outside the Old City walls, and would soon engulf whole neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city and spread into the West Bank. By nightfall, hundreds would be injured and three Palestinians would be killed.
Later in the night, three Israelis — a father, his son and daughter, eating their Shabbat eve meal — would be stabbed to death in their home by a 19-year-old Palestinian terrorist, who asserted he was defending Al-Aqsa from Israeli defilement.
But here, in this little slice of the Old City where this new escalation of horror began with the July 14 attack, and where minor clashes had raged for the past six days straight, a brief calm prevailed.
Though there were signs of what was to come. Beyond the barricades, hundreds of worshipers who had held their own prayers, ended their service with chants of “Khayber, Khatber, Oh Jews, the army of Mohammad will return.”
Khayber was an Arabian Jewish town whose residents were slaughtered by Mohammad in the seventh century.
Until this Friday, Jerusalemite Abid Alfkhawi, 72, didn’t think the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians had slipped into a battle between religions.
But Israel’s installation of metal detectors at the Temple Mount compound — a change to the status quo, say Muslim leaders; a self-evidently necessary security measure, says Israel — has changed that, he said. Now he believes the conflict is entering a new chapter.
“From today onward, this is a religious war,” he said. “Al-Aqsa is not a red line, it’s a line of war,” he added.
Alfkhawi’s friend, Salim Klfawee, 69, said it was “worse than when [former Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon went to Al-Aqsa,” referring to the 2000 visit to the contested site by the then Israeli opposition leader that was utilized as the pretext for what became the second intifada’s strategic onslaught of Palestinian suicide bombings against Israel.
Alfkhawi said he had no problem with a two-state solution or living with the Jews, but he did think that the “Zionists” were working toward building a third Jewish Temple where the first two once stood, and where the Al-Aqsa Mosque stands today.
Palestinian factions including Fatah and Hamas had called for a “day of rage” for Friday in response to the metal detectors.
The Jerusalem Waqf, the Jordanian government institution responsible for administering the Temple Mount, called on all Muslims to forgo praying at their local mosques and instead join the thousands to throng to the old city and pray in the streets.
Hisham, an engineer and resident of Jerusalem, was just old enough to pass through Israeli security.
He said he usually prays in the Shuafat neighborhood of Jerusalem but had heeded the call to come to the Old City.
“I came here to show that this is our mosque,” he said, speaking in fluent English. “They are touching a nerve, and waking everyone from their slumber,” he added, explaining that people who wouldn’t usually bother waking up on Friday morning were now coming to join the protests.
“Just remove the metal detectors. They are nonsense,” he urged. “We are going up the tree together and we don’t know who will come down.”
Ahmad, another worshiper who didn’t want to give his full name, said, “If we walk through those metal detectors, just like what happened at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron will happen here.”
Other Palestinians, too, expressed fear over what they called the Hebronization of Al Aqsa, where the presence of Israelis in the city precipitated the Israeli army taking full control of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, known as the Ibrahimi Mosque to Muslims, and special hours were given to Jews to pray at the site; they believe the same could occur at the Temple Mount.
All Muslims worshipers interviewed by this author on Friday asserted that the metal detectors are not there for anyone’s safety, but are rather mark an opportunistic power grab by the Israeli government.
When asked why he could not believe that the metal detectors were there for the safety of police and the worshipers, especially after a deadly shooting attack just a week earlier, in which the murder weapons had been smuggled into the holy site, Hisham responded, “We are occupied and you are the occupiers. So there is no trust.”
“[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is as dumb as a rock, and the biggest liar I have seen in my whole life,” said Mahmoud, a worshiper who said he has been working in Israel for the past 35 years, has tried to stay far away from politics, and has many Israeli friends.
He said it was “obvious” to the world that Israel has more than security in mind with the metal detectors, and warned Muslims were prepared to fight to death over the issue.
“It’s easy for all the Muslims to die here, but we won’t leave this home,” he said, referring to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. “Our lives are cheap compared to Al-Aqsa,” he added.