Closure of Al Aqsa Mosque limits Access to Worship & Education

by Debbie & Nkosi, Jerusalem team

EA outside Old City of Jerusalem

An EA stands outside the Old City of Jerusalem. Photo EAPPI/D. Hubbard.

Why should we not be able to pray?

This is the question asked of us by Zarifa Ibrahim, a Muslim woman who is standing with other women outside Bab Hutta (the gate leading to a Muslim neighborhood bordering the Al Aqsa mosque compound) on November 5. She along with all other Muslims, including the students from the schools are locked out of the Al Aqsa mosque compound

Zarifa at Bab Hutta in Old City Jerusalem

Zarifa waits to enter Al Aqsa mosque compound. Photo EAPPI.

The Al Aqsa mosque compound, which lies in the Israeli-occupied Old City of Jerusalem is the third most Holy site in the world for Muslims . It is has been a site that has seen much conflict over who should have access.

Each morning as the EAPPI Jerusalem Team, we monitor access to worship at the gates to the Mosque to see which gates are open and to which people. On October 30, Israeli security forces completely closed the al-Aqsa mosque compound in East Jerusalem. It was the first time in more than a decade that Al-Aqsa was closed to this extent.

Since the October 30th closure, all women and men under 50 have had reduced or no access to the mosque. Needless to say the increased restrictions to the Al Aqsa have also resulted in increased clashes between Israeli Security Forces and Palestinians both in the Old City and several neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem. To those of us monitoring the situation, Jerusalem is not the city of peace that we had imagined in our minds.

The clashes have also been fueled by the discussion in the Israeli parliament about dividing Al Aqsa mosque both in terms of the physical space and the hours of prayer for the two groups. Moreover, it seems to us, that the clashes are a chain reaction to all the restrictions and denial of basic human rights that Palestinians living in Jerusalem experience on a daily basis.

Mousa Hijazi, is an engineer who works inside the compound each day. Like the others, he is waiting to be let in and says to us:

“All of the time the European people say they want a democracy but where is the democracy here. Why aren’t they asking for a democracy here?”

President Mahmoud Abbas, in a speech to mark the 10th Anniversary of the death of Yasser Arafat, noted that the closure of the Al Aqsa is tantamount to a ‘declaration of war,’ which is turning the Israeli/Palestinian conflict into a religious war, rather than a political war.

On November 5, girls going to Al Sharim Sharif girls school are waiting to access the Al Aqsa mosque compound for the school day. Photo EAPPI/D. Hubbard.

On November 5, girls going to Al Sharim Sharif girls school are waiting to access the Al Aqsa mosque compound for the school day. Photo EAPPI/D. Hubbard.

When the Al Aqsa mosque is closed, it not only denies Muslims access to prayer in their place of worship but also denies children access to education. The Al Aqsa mosque does not only serve religious purposes, but inside the mosque there are two schools; one for boys and another for girls. So these frequent closures affect the students at these schools, along with Muslim worshipers.

“This is our Holy place where we pray. I don’t understand why they closing us out. What is a man without God?”

Says another man who has been waiting for two hours for the soldiers to grant access to the Mosque.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966 (ICCPR), Article 18, states:

“Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”

This right to worship individually or in community on a daily basis at the Al Aqsa mosque remains a dream for many Palestinians. Physical barriers, ID checks checks, soldiers saying, ‘not until 10:00’ prevent them entering for prayers and schools.

*Read our previous post about Who is allowed on the Al Aqsa mosque compound

Who is allowed on the Al Aqsa Mosque Compound?

The Dome of the Rock on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. Photo EAPPI.

The Dome of the Rock on the Al Aqsa Mosque Compound. Photo EAPPI.

by David and Annica, Jerusalem team

It is 8 am on the Israeli Independence day, which this year was on the 6th of May. There is tension in the air. A group Jewish worshippers walk around on the Al Aqsa Mosque Compound escorted by Israeli police. The few Muslims that were allowed in to the area this morning watch with worry in their eyes as the provocation enfolds.

After the Six day war in 1967, when Israeli military annexed East Jerusalem, a deal was made on the protection of the holy sites. The Israeli Knesset passed the Preservation of the Holy Places Law, guaranteeing different religious groups access to their holy sites. A deal was also made with the Islamic Waqf, where Israel agreed to leave the administration of the holy site of the Al Aqsa Mosque Compound, which includes the Dome of the Rock, in the hands of the Islamic Waqf, while the Israeli police would guarantee and secure access to it.

The great majority of religious Jews respect this decision. Futhermore, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel even declared in 1967 that it is forbidden for Jews to walk on the Temple Mount, which many believe is the same location as the Al Aqsa Mosque Compound, due to its pronounced sanctity.

However, for some years now, Jewish eschatological groups have tried to come up on the Al Aqsa Mosque Compound, which they believe is the location of the Temple Mount, and worship. This is naturally seen as a provocation by both religious and secular Muslims, and often leads to clashes. Furthermore, in recent years, the Israeli Authorities have been put under growing pressure from Jewish extremists, who maintain that Israel should take control of the Al Aqsa Mosque Compound, because it is the Temple Mount.

The Al Aqsa Mosque Compound is no doubt one of the most contested religious sites in the world, and remains a key focal point of the Palestinian–Israeli conflict. Many experts thus say that moving control over it to Israel would threaten not only the peace process between Israel and Palestine, but also peace with Israel’s neighboring countries.

It is thus no surprise, that on Israeli Independence Day, the Israeli police expected clashes when Muslims under 50 years of age had to stand outside of Al Aqsa Mosque Compound queuing, while tourists and a group of provocative Jewish extremists had free access to the compound.

In the afternoon, a group from the Third Temple Movement demonstrate at the Al Aqsa Mosque Compound. A group wishes to pray up on the holy site. The police monitoring the demonstration are noticeably bothered by the activity, while the demonstrators show little respect for the police’s authority. When the protesters move towards the Chain Gate leading to the Al Aqsa Mosque Compound, they forcefully push through the Israeli police and their roadblocks.

Some of the protesters are arrested, while others are forced towards the upper entrance to the Western Wall plaza. The protestors are jammed through the metal detectors, while trying to fight the police. As they are pushed out, other Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall halt what ever they are doing, and turn to see the spectacle. Many start filming with their phones. Neither the demonstration, nor protesters seem to receive common support, rather they soon face counter arguments and aversion. Clear discontent towards them lingers in the air.

After a while most of the demonstrators have calmed down. One of them comes up to an EA, aiming for a discussion, maybe even some support. He tells the EA:

“We just want the right to pray on the Temple Mount. Now neither you Christians nor us Jews pray there. Only Muslims.”

However, there is also a different reasoning behind the rally, which could be found on a blog of the group arranging the demonstration. They write that the goal of the Independence Day activities was to transfer the authority over the Temple Mount into Jewish control, while the Third Temple Movement’s final aim is to build a new temple.

Still, the antipathy of other Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall, and their negative view of the Third Temple Movement, reveal something positive. It shows that people are getting tired of how smaller extremist groups constantly threaten the peace process, eventually trying to cause tensions and divisions between Israelis and Palestinians, but also within Israeli society. Working towards a just peace would, to them too, mean guaranteeing that Muslims are allowed to access their holy sites in the same way as Jews have access to the Western Wall, without routine restrictions and limitations. 

Only in the West Bank do we have Freedom to Worship

Our EAs this year provided protective presence and monitored the human rights situation throughout the Easter celebrations. This is the final account from our EAs sharing from Easter 2014 in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

by Liam, Bethlehem team

God sent his son to Bethlehem to get people to love God…but he didn’t say anyone needed permission”

As the 52nd EAPPI team in Bethlehem, we found our first week in placement coincided with Easter; a momentous occasion for Christians around the world but especially so for those living in the Holy Land. We were walking not far from our house, by ‘Ayda refugee camp, when a woman called out to us from her car.

“Hello! You are the new team; you must come to my house. My name is Antoinette. You like coffee? I make you coffee! You like cake? I make you cake too!”

As we have quickly found, one thing Palestinians are not in short supply of is hospitality. Here, sharing tea and coffee is a declaration of friendship. How could we refuse such a kind offer? Sitting in her house, we were introduced to her brother and sister-in-law, her nieces and nephews, their children and offered two types of cake, particular to Easter: ka’ek bi ajwa and ka’ak bi ma’moul

We spoke with Antoinette Knezevich on Thursday  April 17, the day before Good Friday, and discovered she was still waiting for her permit to be able to travel to Jerusalem for Easter celebrations. Antoinette used to teach at Schmitt College just outside of the Old City in East Jerusalem but, when the Separation Barrier was built by the Israelis; she was no longer permitted to drive to work and is not physically able to walk the distances required to pass through Checkpoint 300 – which cuts Bethlehem off from Jerusalem though they are a mere 7kms (or 4.4 miles) away from each other. Now she lives with her brother and his family, close to ‘Ayda refugee camp, with the Separation Barrier and its cameras looking into their kitchen.

The Permit Lottery

Cameras on the separation barrier look directly into Antoinette's window. Photo EAPPI/L. Hilton.

Cameras on the separation barrier look directly into Antoinette’s window. Photo EAPPI/L. Hilton.

Antoinette described how, before the permit system, she used to attend St. George’s Cathedral, the Anglican church in Jerusalem, and tended to the garden there:

“My husband and I were members of the church…my husband had a British passport because his father [Alexander Antonio Knesevich) was the first British Consul to Gaza during the British Mandate for Palestine”.

As is Antoinette’s case, if you have a Palestinian ID, Israel requires you have a permit even if you have an international passport. She continued:

“But since the building of the Wall I cannot anymore go to Jerusalem and to the church there. So flowers now make me sad. Can you imagine?”

Antoinette explained the process of applying for permits to worship:

“We are catholic and the priest took all the names and gave them to the Israelis and some got permits and some not. The husband might but not the wife – you see what they do?”

Individuals cannot apply for worship permits and are “awarded” permits much akin to a lottery yet preventing people access to worship is in contravention of International Humanitarian Law. Her brother and his wife succeeded but Antoinette did not. Antoinette questioned us:

“Since Jesus was here, we have been here. Do you need permission to visit the Church by your government? Where’s the justice?”

Two EAs converse with Antoinette. Photo EAPPI/L. Hilton,

Two EAs converse with Antoinette. Photo EAPPI/L. Hilton.

The Catholic Church in Bethlehem requested 5000 permits for the Easter period and received just 700 from the Israeli District Coordination Office, which were given across families forcing them to make the decision between only some of the family visiting the holy sites in Jerusalem or the whole family forfeiting the possibility. Antoinette decried:

“God sent his son to Bethlehem to get people to love God…but he didn’t say anyone needed permission”.

Freedom to Worship

Antoinette told of how Muslims and Christians live peacefully with each other, with Muslim families even sharing Santa gifts at Christmas and coloured eggs at Easter:

“They respect us and we respect them. Near my home are Muslim neighbours and we have no problems. The only problem is the occupation.”

Stood on her balcony, looking out towards the stark grey wall with its imposing watching presence; Antoinette shared:

“When they built the wall, it was like they built it on my heart…too heavy”. Her gaze dropped then and she looked deep in thought then quietly but firmly said: “It is like they took me up from the root of myself and threw me away”.

Antoinette points out the separation wall in front of her home. The wall now cuts her off from accessing Jerusalem. Photo EAPPI/L. Hilton,

Antoinette points out the separation wall in front of her home. The wall now cuts her off from accessing Jerusalem. Photo EAPPI/L. Hilton,

We worked Checkpoint 300 on the morning of Holy Saturday, greeting and wishing a “Happy Easter” to those passing through. Later in the afternoon, we saw many of the same people in Beit Jala for the parade to welcome the miraculous light from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. When we asked why they were in Beit Jala and not the Old City, we were told how the Israeli administration had put the Christian Quarter on lockdown so, despite being some of the lucky few to receive a permit, they were still not allowed to enter the holy sites and engage in worship.

One man said: “Only here do we have freedom to worship”.