Early on Friday evenings, they meet at the Temple Mount — a group of worshipers who differ from the others in appearance, and especially ideology. The group consists of 50-70 men who sit or stand together and listen to lectures on the Koran in the square outside Al-Aqsa Mosque.
These are not the Hamas supporters seen often at the compound, known to Muslims as Haram a-Sharif, nor are they members of the Kharkat al-Tahrir movement (despite their similar attire and ideology). They are, rather, members of the Salafi movement who believe in imitating the ways of the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate followers, and they are becoming an almost permanent presence on the Temple Mount.
While these are not terrorists like members of the Al-Salafiya Al-Jihadiya organization, who operate today in many Middle Eastern countries and recently in the West Bank as well, their presence at Al-Aqsa is not a comforting sight, particularly given the increasing hostilities between Jews and Muslims at this acutely sensitive and contested spot.
Last Sunday, the Jerusalem District Police was forced to close the Temple Mount when a group of Jews visited the site during the hours designated for non-Muslim visitors and began to sing Hanukkah songs. Dozens of Muslims, including Islamic extremists (not necessarily the Salafis) who are permanent fixtures on the mount, attacked the Jewish group as dozens of police officers tried to disperse the violent confrontation. Four worshipers — Jewish and Muslim — were arrested.
On Wednesday, the compound was closed to visitors and worshipers once again after fireworks were shot at police from the Al-Aqsa Mosque. There was more, minor, trouble after prayers on Friday.
Combined with other incidents on the Temple Mount over recent weeks, this seems to be just the beginning.
Temple Mount is in whose hands?
The flow of non-Muslim visitors to the Temple Mount on Tuesday afternoon was typical. The site is open to tourists and Israeli visitors from 7:30 to 10 a.m., and then again from 12:30-1:30 p.m. A multitude of languages, including Hebrew of course, rises from the group waiting outside the gate for the security check.
Among the visitors Tuesday was Yoram Loewenstein, director of the Tel Aviv-based Performing Arts Studio, with several of his students and a group of their guests from Lithuania, and Aline Levy, a former participant in the Israeli Big Brother reality show. They had come to learn a bit about the history of the site and more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A few meters away from the security guards sat a smiling young man offering drinks and biscuits to the visitors. He introduced himself as a member of an organization called “Bringing Joy to the Pilgrims.” It is only Jewish pilgrims that this group has in mind.
The police officer at the entrance expertly picked out the regular troublemakers. Two young men with unusually large white knitted kippas were taken aside for a more thorough inspection. The visitors were instructed to leave all religious articles, including prayer books and Hanukkah menorahs, at the entrance to the site. After another brief delay, the group finally entered the compound.
All visitors are thoroughly inspected at the entrance to the Temple Mount because Israel’s security forces realize that a single incident here can easily cause the entire region to erupt. On Hanukkah and other Jewish holidays, increasing numbers of right-wing activists (as well as Likud Knesset members lately) call upon the public to visit the Temple Mount. Each such attempt causes unrest among Muslim worshipers at the compound and throughout the West Bank.
The Temple Mount/Haram a-Sharif has always been a source of conflict and contention between Israel and the Palestinians. Violence has erupted here many times, the most infamous recent incident occurring on September 28-29, 2000. What began with opposition chairman Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount, deteriorated the following day into the opening confrontations of the Second Intifada, also known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada. When afternoon prayers ended on Friday, September 29, Muslim worshipers began to riot and throw stones at the Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall below, wounding Jerusalem Police Chief, Major General Yair Yitzhaki. A special unit of the Israel Border Police was ordered to force its way on to the Temple Mount using live fire if necessary. Seven Palestinians were killed and dozens were wounded, triggering clashes and violence throughout the West Bank and Gaza.
Since then, the Jerusalem District Police has learned its lesson, now restricting Muslims under a certain age from entering for Friday prayers on sensitive occasions. Nevertheless, radical Muslim groups use the site to regularly incite against Israel, and skilled provocateurs from the other side use it as a political podium.
And there are plenty of both — extreme right-wing Israelis who try to light a Hanukkah menorah in the Al-Aqsa Mosque or establish a synagogue at the site, and Islamic activists, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians who fight to “save Al-Aqsa” from the Jews. They often seem to sustain one another in what appear to be efforts to trigger a holy war.
Every message posted on the internet by one makeshift organization or another, calling upon the Jews to “pray on the Temple Mount,” becomes a means of recruitment for radical Islamic groups to bring dozens of supporters to the site, “to protect Haram a-Sharif.”
One of the most active groups on the Temple Mount in recent months is known as Al-Shabab Al-Aqsa. This group of young men is most often recruited by members of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement (lead by Sheikh Raed Salah) in order to “protect Al-Aqsa.” This means physically preventing Jews from attempting to pray on the Temple Mount or to cause damage to the site. These activists are Arabs from Israel and East Jerusalem who are paid for each “shift” that they work.
Alongside them is the “Women’s Corps,” with the same assignment. These women are generally poor, divorced or widows and are recruited by the Islamic Movement, which pays their salaries and organizes their transportation to the mount. These provocateurs occasionally shout insults and “Allah Akhbar” at non-Muslim visitors, but usually just stand guard.
Activists affiliated with Hamas can often be found on the mount as well. After the June 2013 coup in Egypt, Hamas supporters hung posters of ousted Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi on the Temple Mount, drawing harsh criticism for using the Al-Aqsa Mosque for political purposes — despite the fact that every known Palestinian movement uses Haram a-Sharif for political gain. This includes Islamic Jihad and Kharkat al-Tahrir.
The latter has been active in the West Bank for years but does not play any organizational role in terrorist attacks or in Palestinian politics. The number of its supporters has significantly increased in recent years following the split between Hamas and Fatah. Today, there are 2,000 Kharkat al-Tahrir supporters in Jerusalem alone, who so far have avoided all political and military involvement.
And recently, the Salafis have appeared as well. These are not terrorists like the three Al-Salafiya Al-Jihadiya activists killed two weeks ago by Israeli Special Forces in Hebron. The Salafis are an ultra-religious group that calls upon the Islamic world to return to its roots. They have lived and operated in Gaza and the West Bank for hundreds of years. The problem is that in recent years, more and more Salafi activists have joined terrorist groups that operate from places such as Sinai and Syria.
The Hebron incident was the first armed confrontation between members of the militant denomination and Israeli security forces, but it may not be the last. Just last week, Palestinian security forces reported that they arrested dozens of military activists affiliated with Al-Salafiya Al-Jihadiya.
The storm on the horizon
Sheikh Azzam Al-Khatib, director of the Waqf in East Jerusalem and at Al-Aqsa, charges that Israeli “radicalism” is “ruining everything.”
In an interview this week, he described a recent Sunday when, he said, a group of 26 Orthodox Jews visited the Temple Mount and “even attacked your own soldiers,” and he warned: “If a fire erupts here, it will ignite the entire world.”
“We dream of Jerusalem being a source of peace between religions,” he added, “each with its own holy site: Al-Aqsa to the Muslims; the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to the Christians; and Al-Buraq Wall (the Muslim name for the Western Wall, named for the horse that carried the Prophet Muhammad to the heavens), which belongs to the Muslims as well but the Jews may pray there.”
He offered these terms straight-faced, either unaware or unperturbed by the radical revisionism. Throughout the conversation, Al-Khatib cautioned that every Jewish attempt to pray at “Haram a-Sharif” will draw a response and objections from the Muslims. “This site represents 1 billion, 700 million Muslims. We do not want a religious war to break out in the region. It will put us all in danger.”
The complex and dangerous circumstances that are rapidly developing on the Temple Mount prompted Israel’s two Chief Rabbis, Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau and Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, to this week reaffirm the ruling made by Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook (years before the establishment of the State of Israel) which forbids Jews from visiting the Temple Mount. This new-old ruling, however, is unlikely to have much impact at this most sensitive of sites, where years of seething tension appear to be bubbling ever closer to the surface.