Incensed by increasingly self-confident Jewish activism on the Temple Mount and the perceived Israeli government backing they receive, a senior Islamic cleric on Wednesday justified Muslim violence on the holy site as legitimate self-defense in the face of imminent danger.
Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, who served as the Palestinian Authority’s top cleric in Jerusalem between 1994 and 2006, told The Times of Israel that Islamic law recognizes the right of believers to spend the night in a mosque and pray, a religious act known in Arabic as i’tikaf. When done to defend the mosque from external aggression, the act can be known as religious steadfastness, or ribat.
He claimed that “Jewish extremists” had stepped up their efforts to encourage religious ascension to the Temple Mount — Judaism’s holiest site and Islam’s third-holiest, home to the al-Haram ash-Sharif sanctuary and the al-Aqsa Mosque — during the High Holidays, which began on Sunday and end on October 5.
“Who do we oppose? Only extremist Jews who come with aggressive intentions, who want to harm al-Aqsa, build [the third Jewish] Temple, or pray overtly,” he said. In a bid to avert flareups, the Israel Police forbids Jews from praying on the Mount, the site of two biblical Jewish temples.
“Why do they enter with [police] security?” he continued. “They do so because they’re afraid of being banished. An American Jew, for example, may come, visit and leave, without causing provocation or carrying out Jewish practices. There’s a difference between him and an extremist Jew who comes to harm al-Aqsa.”
On Wednesday, following three days of clashes between Muslim activists and police on Temple Mount, Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said that Israeli forces had entered the Temple Mount early Sunday morning after intelligence information indicated that Muslim activists intended to harm Jewish visitors to the site during morning visiting hours.
“The entrance to the al-Aqsa Mosque was blocked by iron bars,” Rosenfeld told The Times of Israel. “Wooden blocks barricaded the entrance. From within the mosque, 50 or 60 masked Palestinians fired fireworks and threw rocks and stones at police officers, who had to remove the barricade at the entrance to al-Aqsa Mosque and close the main doors, without entering the mosque. The rioters were prevented from coming out and were in fact locked in.”
Similar disturbances took place on Monday and Tuesday, during the Jewish New Year holiday of Rosh Hashanah. Rosenfeld said that “two small metal pipe bombs” were found at the entrance to the al-Aqsa Mosque.
The police spokesman was at pains to stress that police did not enter the mosque, but for Sheikh Sabri that seemed to be a moot point. Police have been overstepping their authority for the past four days by shutting the gates to Temple Mount, he said, and at times cutting off electricity to the mosque and those besieged in it.
“Why did the police place barricades? Why does it provoke us?” Sabri said. “We place direct responsibility with the government. We accuse it even before we accuse the extremist Jewish groups.”
According to Sabri, religious Jewish assertiveness on Temple Mount began during the premiership of Ariel Sharon in 2001, and has been increasing ever since. (Sharon’s September 2000 visit to the Temple Mount as opposition leader has been cited as a trigger of the bloody second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in which Israel was targeted by waves of suicide bombers). Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s commitment to the “extremists” is total, Sabri claimed, citing a visit by the Israeli agriculture minister, Uri Ariel, to the site on Sunday.
Any limits to Muslim ‘self defense?’
Sabri did not deny the existence of weapons in the mosque, but justified it as “self-defense.”
He indicated that the main Palestinian perpetrators of violence at the site were students in one of the three high schools located on the Temple Mount, who have been prevented by police from entering the compound since Sunday.
Muslims wishing to stay at the mosque overnight need no permission from the Waqf, the Jordanian Islamic Affairs officials overseeing the site, Sabri said. In fact, he viewed the activists as volunteers providing reinforcement to the Waqf attendees.
“The numbers of Waqf men are small, and they cannot oppose [the Jewish visitors],” he said. “[The Muslim volunteers] come the day before and spend the night, so they can be prepared to challenge the aggressors.”
But does “self-defense” have its limits? Can any action be deemed too dangerous by the official Islamic authorities on site? Sabri, who currently heads the High Islamic Council on the Temple Mount — created, according to its Facebook page, to “protect holy sites and primarily the blessed al-Aqsa Mosque” — was evasive.
“When a house of God is attacked, that is worse than me personally being attacked,” he said. “Al-Aqsa is part of our faith. Defending our faith is the most powerful form of defense.”