Why Jerusalem’s Aqsa Mosque Is an Arab-Israeli Fuse

The violent clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces at the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem this month reflect their importance as part of one of the most controversial religious areas in the Holy Land.

Here are some basics of the mosque site, from its importance over the centuries to three major religions, to why it’s such a hot spot today.

The Aqsa Mosque is one of the most sacred structures of the Islamic faith.

The mosque occupies 35 hectares of land known as the Haram al-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary by Muslims and the Temple Mount by Jews. The site is part of the old city of Jerusalem, which is sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims.

In Arabic, “aqsa” means furthest away, and in this case it refers to Islamic scriptures and their account of Prophet Muhammad traveling from Mecca to the mosque one night to pray and then ascending to heaven.

The mosque, which can accommodate 5,000 worshipers, was probably completed at the beginning of the 8th century and is located opposite the Dome of the Rock, the Islamic shrine with the golden dome, which is a widely recognized symbol of Jerusalem. Muslims consider the entire site sacred, and many worshipers fill its courtyards to pray on holidays.

For Jews, the Temple Mount, known in Hebrew as Har Habayit, is the holiest place, as two ancient temples stood here – the first, according to the Bible, was built by King Solomon and later destroyed by the Babylonians; and the second stood for nearly 600 years before the Roman Empire destroyed it in the first century.

The United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization (UNESCO) has classified the Old City of Jerusalem and its walls as a World Heritage Site, which means that it is “of outstanding international importance and therefore deserves special protection”.

During the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Israel captured and annexed East Jerusalem, including the Old City, from Jordan. Israel later declared a united Jerusalem its capital, although this move was never recognized internationally.

Under a delicate status quo arrangement, a Jordan-funded and controlled Islamic trust called Waqf continued to administer the Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock as it had for decades, a special role affirmed in the 1994 Israeli peace treaty with Jordan .

The Israeli security forces are still present on the premises and are coordinating with the Waqf. Jews and Christians are allowed to visit, but unlike Muslims, they are prohibited from praying for reasons of the status quo. (Jews pray just below the sacred plateau on the western wall, the remains of a retaining wall that once surrounded the Temple Mount.)

Tensions over what critics are calling the arrangement Discrimination against non-Muslims has turned into violence at regular intervals.

Adding to the tensions is Israel’s annual celebration of Jerusalem Day, an official holiday to commemorate the conquest of the entire city. The celebration, which last took place on Monday, is a provocation for many Palestinians, including residents of the eastern part of Jerusalem. The Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future Palestinian state – a perspective that seems increasingly distant.

Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have said they have no intention of changing the status quo.

But some Israeli religious groups have long pushed for the right to pray locally. In April, the Jordanian Foreign Ministry officially complained about large numbers of Jewish visitors to the site, calling it a violation of the status quo.

In the weeks leading up to Monday’s violence in Al Aqsa, tensions built between some Jews and Palestinians over issues unrelated to the mosque grounds.

These included violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians that broke out in the old city a few weeks ago. Some Palestinians attacked Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, and an extremist Jewish supremacy group held a march in which participants sang “Death to the Arabs.”

The Palestinians were also angry that the police had banned them from gathering in a favorite square in the old city during the first few weeks of the holy month of Ramadan.

In another spark of tension, Palestinians have fought with Israeli police over the expected eviction of Palestinian residents of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem to make way for Israeli settlements to be built.

The clashes have occurred because the Israeli government is in political limbo after four undecided elections in the past two years and after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas postponed the Palestinian parliamentary elections scheduled for later this month indefinitely. It would have been the first such ballot since 2006.

Bitter accusations and hardened attitudes have been reflected in all the clashes over the religious shrines in Jerusalem’s Old City, but some are particularly notable for having shaped Israeli politics.

In 1990, for example, deadly riots exploded after a group of Jewish extremists tried to lay the foundation stone for a temple to replace the two destroyed in ancient times. The violence resulted in widespread condemnation of Israel, including by the United States.

In 2000, a visit to the site to assert Jewish claims, led by the right-wing Israeli politician Ariel Sharon – then Israel’s opposition leader – sparked an explosive attack of Israeli-Palestinian violence that led to the well-known Palestinian uprising second intifada.

A crisis broke out in 2017 after three Arab-Israeli citizens shot dead two Israeli Druze police officers on the premises. This prompted the Israeli authorities to restrict access to the site and install metal detectors and cameras.

Arab outrage over these security measures led to increased violence and tensions with Jordan, which required US diplomatic mediation. The metal detectors have been removed.

Patrick Kingsley and Isabel Kershner contributed to the coverage.