Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – The holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan began Monday, April 12, and for the succeeding week and a half there was trouble at Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate. Muslim youth were used to gathering in the square in front of the the gate, which had been built by the Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. This year, in their ceaseless quest to impose their security presence on every inch of the city, the Israeli police decided to try to interfere with these gatherings by putting up iron railings and harassing the youth.
Americans who read about Muslims in Jerusalem may be confused. Many will know from the Old Testament about Jerusalem as the capital of the ancient kingdom of Judah and so will think an Israeli claim on the city is a historical revival. And, of course, they will know of Jesus’s relationship to the city where he was tried by the Roman prefect and executed for political sedition in the Roman manner, by crucifixion.
So what are the Muslims doing there? you may ask.
Very briefly: The Prophet Muhammad (d. 632) is believed by Muslims to have journey to Jerusalem and to have ascended from the site of the al-Aqsa complex up to heaven, from which he returned to continue his prophetic mission. I argued in my book,
That we may conclude from the Qur’an and the account of Jacob of Edessa that Muhammad likely did visit Jerusalem on a trading journey in 617 or 618, when it was under the rule of the Iranian Sasanian Empire, and had a mystical experience there at the Temple Mount, which was then abandoned. After the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 AD they gradually banned Jews from living there. At first they built pagan temples in the city, but after Constantine they build the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and made it a Christian city. Iran conquered it in 614 and held it until early 630.
After the Prophet’s death in 632, the Eastern Roman Empire tried to reassert itself in Palestine (that was what they called it). There is some indication that Jews were persecuted, for having tilted to the Iranian side during the war. The Miaphysite Christian majority may also not have been happy about the reimposition of Chalcedonian rule. There may have been uprisings among local Arabs. Somehow the second Muslim vicar of Muhammad, the Commander of the Faithful Umar ibn al-Khattab, got drawn in to these struggles, and his armies conquered Jerusalem and the Near East away from the Eastern Romans. Umar built a small structure on the Temple Mount that later Umayyad kings expanded into the al-Aqsa Mosque, finishing it in 705.
Muslims then ruled Jerusalem, and considered it holy, from 636 until 1917, with the exception of a period of less than a century during the Crusades, 1099-1187 and 1243-1244. Most Jews and Christians in the area over time converted to Islam (and usually quite voluntarily).
Muslims ruled Jerusalem far longer than Jews did, in history.
Israel conquered East Jerusalem and occupied it in 1967.
So, back to this week and the oppression of the Palestinians at Damascus Gate.
There were also some political demonstrations mixed in with the post-fasting gatherings, apparently, since the Palestinians of East Jerusalem were unhappy about bruited Israeli plans to stop them from voting in the upcoming elections for the Palestine Authority. Israel illegally annexed Palestinian East Jerusalem and fears allowing its residents to vote in a Palestinian election would legitimize Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem. Although the disposition of Jerusalem is an unsettled final status issue in ongoing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (stalled now for many years), the Israelis jumped the gun and unilaterally declared Jerusalem a unified city under Israeli control. This declaration has no standing in international law.
Tensions rose, and last Thursday a far right wing Israeli mob gathered, attacking some Palestinian by-standers and shouting “Death to the Arabs!”
The mob belonged to an extremist organization that wants to tear down the al-Aqsa Mosque atop the Temple Mount, based on their belief that it stands on the site of the Jewish Temple destroyed in 70 AD by the Roman Empire. The al-Aqsa Mosque complex is the third holiest site for the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims, who make up about a fourth of humankind.
Demonstrations were held throughout the West Bank and in Gaza in sympathy with the East Jerusalemites.
Determined not to be denied their access to the public sphere, the Palestinian youth kept gathering at Damascus Gate.
Finally, on Sunday Israeli authorities removed the iron barriers and backed down a bit.
Israeli police have continued, however, to harass Palestinians at Damascus Gate. On Tuesday night, police attacked hundreds of youth gathered there with flash bombs and tear gas and batons, driving them out of the square with beatings.
There were also attacks by police on youth gathering in al-Bireh, 9 miles north of Jerusalem, with some Palestinians suffering severe reactions from tear gas inhalation. Similar events took place at the north gate of the town of Bethlehem.
The Jewish extremists, many of them squatters on Palestinian property in the West Bank, continued their provocations against the holy Muslim al-Aqsa complex.
The Al-Quds [Jerusalem] daily reported that on Wednesday morning,
- “Once again, settlers, under the protection of the Israeli occupation police, stormed the complex of the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque from the side of the Moorish Gate. The Islamic Endowments Department in occupied Jerusalem said that dozens of settlers stormed the square around the mosque in the morning, and carried out provocative tours and received explanations about” the Temple.
Sort of like measuring someone else’s house for new curtains.
- “The incursion was carried out with close protection provided by the special occupation police, while the occupation soldiers, stationed at the gates of the mosque, imposed strict measures on the entry of [Muslim] Jerusalemite worshipers during the incursions period.
Rejecting the occupation plans against Jerusalem, Jerusalemite activists launched calls to support the people of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in the city, who are threatened with forced displacement by the Occupation, by participating in the evening prayer and supererogatory prayers on Wednesday in the neighborhood.”
In other words, during the holy month of Ramadan, Israeli security forces are interfering with access to al-Aqsa Mosque for Muslim worshipers so that settler land thieves who dream of terrorism against this holy site can be coddled with intrusive “tours” of a place they have no right to according to a century of Status Quo treaties and understandings.
Even Israel’s new friend, the United Arab Emirates, is shrieking about the Israeli crackdown on Palestinians in Jerusalem and the steady, inexorable ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from neighborhoods like Sheikh Jarrah, as well as the veiled threat to destroy the al-Aqsa mosque complex.
Jerusalem has long been a flash point for potential regional violence, but as al-Aqsa and East Jerusalem are systematically targeted, there could be an explosion.