At first, Israelis tried and succeeded using intimidation. Long after the 2003 decision to ban the use of the Bab Al Rahma (Gate of Mercy) site as office space for the Islamic Heritage Committee of Al Aqsa Mosque, run by activist Sheikh Raed Salah, the Israelis continued pressuring the Jerusalem Awqaf Department (endowment) to keep the location off limits. No explanation was given and the Jordanian-run Islamic awqaf would not challenge the decision in Israeli courts. Instead, Jordan used diplomatic efforts to get the decision reversed. For 16 years, the diplomatic track produced no results.
Then came the 2019 appointment of a new and expanded awqaf council that seemed to have a political backbone. Jordan carefully chose religious leaders who had taken a stand against the attempts to forcefully place electronic gates at the entrances of Al Aqsa Mosque/Al Haram Al Sharif. They also expanded the council from 11 to 18, adding political figures, academics, business and media personalities.
When the council, formed and approved by the Jordanian Cabinet, met for the first time in January, they decided to symbolically pray at the site of the Bab Al Rahmah; after all, they had the keys to it. The site was within the 144-dunnum UNESCO World Heritage Site and everyone, including Israel’s right-wing prime minister, had conceded that Al Aqsa is for Muslims to pray and for all others to visit.
This symbolic prayer caused a storm in Israel because it violated an unwritten law, namely that Palestinians must obey the orders of the occupiers and, as a result, the Israelis attempted to chain the location shut and keep the keys. The Palestinians, seeing that they now had an empowered awqaf council, responded by breaking the chains. Israel responded by arresting the head of the council and calling for the questioning of some of the newly-appointed council members.
None of these tactics succeeded. In fact, by arresting 75-year-old Sheikh Abdel-Azeem Salhab, the Israelis boosted the council’s standing in the eyes of Jerusalemites. More importantly, it became clear in the Israeli courts that there is no legal order to close off the location, even after appeal. The Jerusalem district court ordered the release of the head of the awqaf council and all others. They were, however, banned from entering Al Aqsa Mosque for different periods of time.
In the meantime, the people of Jerusalem continued to pray at the controversial site, much to the anger of the Israelis, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and right-wing fanatics, who felt that the Israeli forces are weak and soft by not succeeding in bringing Palestinians to order.
A further legal attempt was launched, and on March 17, the Israeli district court was asked to issue a temporary restraining order. This time, the court agreed, noting that the awqaf needs to respond within 60 days or else the temporary closure will become permanent.
It is unclear how much the Israeli court order will affect the situation on the ground. The genie is out of the bottle and it is highly unlikely that Palestinians will voluntarily adhere to the order of unilaterally closing the location well within their own internationally-recognised mosque.
The fact that the Israeli courts decided to make the final judgment after 60 days means that they are aware of the election pressures and want to wait till after the Israeli Knesset elections on April 9 before making their final determination.
The pressure, of course, is on the occupation forces, in how they will enforce this temporary decision. More arrests are unlikely to produce results. Having Israeli forces stationed within the Aqsa Mosque complex in order to carry out this decision will further escalate tensions and such forces will become the target of regular protesters. Muslims will most likely pray at the nearest location to the Bab Al Rahmah that they will be allowed to. None of the Israeli tactics will work. A more reasonable solution has to be for the occupation forces to negotiate with the Jordanian government and reach a solution that does not affect the rights of Muslims to all 144 dunums of Al Haram Al Sharif. Anything short of that is unlikely to succeed.
Daoud Kuttab is a columnist in The Jordan Times
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