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Temple Mount or Haram Al-Sharif? We've been here before

An Israeli soldier guards the Muslim shrine, "The Dome Of The Rock", in the city of Jerusalem, Israel, June 8, 1967.
AP Photo
i24NEWS correspondent Michael Plutchok puts Jerusalem crisis in historical perspective

This year's 9th of Av remembrance day is a telling moment.

The Jewish fast comes after two weeks of Muslim protests, sometimes violent, that were sparked in Jerusalem and reverberated around the world. When both are viewed together as a whole, they tell a revealing story.

The latest protests, ostensibly over security measures at the holy compound, underscored not only how volatile any move on the Al-Aqsa mosque can be, but also how deeply the backlash is based on religion.

This was evident, for example, in one of the popular chants often sounded at the latest set of protests: "With (our) spirit, with (our) blood, we shall redeem you, Al-Aqsa!". It also became evident as leaders of the Waqf (the Islamic religious institute charged with administering the site) increasingly began calling the shots, dictating to worshipers when to refuse or comply with Israeli police.

The compound known as the Temple Mount to Jews and Haram Al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) to Muslims has been a territorial prize for a long list of occupiers throughout history – the Jebusites, Israelites, Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, early Muslims, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans and the British – to name a few of the city's previous rulers.

This 35-acre compound has seen more historical events than perhaps any other area of its size in the world.

Saddest day

Michael Plutchok/i24NEWS

Today, the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, is seen as the saddest day in the Hebrew calendar. It marks for Jews the world over the date in which both Jewish temples were destroyed, some 650 years apart, with each devastating event coupled with exile.

Since Titus sacked Jerusalem and turned the tide against the four-year-long Hebrew rebellion against the Roman Empire in 70 AD (the rebellion was finally crushed in 73 AD), Jews have developed a wide array of practices to remember and sanctify their heritage in Jerusalem in general, and on the Temple Mount in particular.

One prominent example is the ritual breaking of a wine glass by the groom at Jewish weddings, coupled with a text the groom reads, signifying their sorrow for the loss of Jerusalem.

Another practice is to fast on the day of destruction, and pray at the Western Wall, the last standing remains of the exterior wall of the second Temple.

New owners

While Jews refined their traditions of memory, a formidable conquering force emerged from the Arabian desert, sweeping its way through the Levant.

The conquerors bringing with them a new religion – Islam. It wasn’t long before the new religion began erecting its own monuments, not least among them the Haram Al-Sharif. Its iconic golden Dome of the Rock is popularly identified with Jerusalem's skyline.

Fast-forward 1300 years, and by the end of the nineteenth century Jews had emerged from Europe's ghettos promoting their own version of self-determination: enough weeping for Zion, the early Zionists would say, now is the time for Jews to return and redeem their motherland.

Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine crept higher. By the early twentieth century, more and more Jews were praying at the Western Wall, the last remaining visible relic of the Temple.

This influx did not go unnoticed by the local Muslim population. As the number of Jews arriving at the Western Wall increased, Muslim leaders’ recognition of the sanctity of the site to Jews decreased.

The political consequences of any historical claims about Al-Aqsa became apparent early on, and would evolve into such a touchy issue that avoiding it all together became the policy of the many Grand Muftis, the highest Muslim authority in Jerusalem.

Michael Plutchok/i24NEWS

The current Grand Mufti, Mohammed Hussein, has been quoted several times asserting that the site has been holy exclusively to Muslims since the dawn of time. He's not alone; practically any religious figure ordained by the Waqf to administer the site will sound a similar notion.

It wasn't always this way. In 1924, the Supreme Muslim Council published “A Brief Guide to Al-Haram Al-Sharif”. The guide read: “Its identity with the site of Solomon’s Temple is beyond dispute," confirming Jewish claims to roots at the site.

“But this Guide,” it continues, “confines itself to the Muslim period, the starting [point of which] is the year 637 A.D.”, recognizing the historic limit of Muslim presence on the Mount.

The popular narrative on the Palestinian street – and especially with Al-Aqsa's prime stakeholders, the Palestinians of East Jerusalem – follows the current Mufti’s line. For largely political reasons, Palestinian leaders find it useful to deny the Jewish connection to the site, and frequently proclaim that “Al-Aqsa is in danger”.

Ibrahim, a middle-aged resident of a-Tur, an East Jerusalem neighborhood, provided a fine example of this.

I met him while covering the latest series of protests over the new security measures on the holy compound, introduced by Israel after a deadly attack on July 14th killed two Israeli policemen. In his neighborhood, clashes took place throughout the day between Palestinian youths and Israeli police. The youths took to the streets with stones and Molotov cocktails in hand to agitate against the Israeli nemesis, at the request of religious and political leaders who urged them to "defend Al-Aqsa".

AHMAD GHARABLI (AFP)

Ibrahim was one of many spectators taking in the view as half a dozen teenagers hurling objects at Israeli police in riot gear who retaliated with tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets.

When I asked about Al-Aqsa and its meaning to Jews, Ibrahim rejected the notion off the bat. "What do Jews have to do with it?" he said. "First the wall was holy, now Aqsa is holy too? Every time it's something new with them."

Another resident of a-Tur, 23 year old Muhanad was also among the spectators, and echoed another prominent narrative often voiced in East Jerusalem's streets.

"You know," he said with the grin of one who is convinced he knows an unrevealed truth, "the Jews in America, they control everything. They send money here so the settlers can dig tunnels under the mosque," referring to archaeological excavations that have been conducted for the past couple of decades by Israeli authorities, sparking deep controversy and backlash among Palestinians.

It's not uncommon to hear a plethora of conspiracy theories regarding these excavations when speaking to Palestinian protesters.

Not the first time at the rodeo

The religious nature of the protest has also characterized similar cases in the past. These two hot and violent summer weeks reminded some commentators of the events in the summer of 1929.

Despite a decade of relative quiet throughout the 1920s, a steady flow of Jewish immigrants into British Mandatory Palestine invigorated Arab resistance to British rule and its complacency over Jewish immigration.

Ahmad GHARABLI (AFP)

A series of events perceived by the Muslim population as Jewish encroachment on the Temple Mount would set off a string riots and attacks throughout British Mandatory Palestine in 1929.

In Arabic it was known as Thawrat al-Buraq, or the "al-Buraq Uprising", taking the name of the Islamic mythological steed which, according to Muslim faith, Mohammed rode to Al-Aqsa before ascending to the heavens.

The result of the 1929 Arab uprising was devastating in its cost of human life and property for both sides. In Jerusalem, Safed and Hebron, massacres by Arab assailants against the Jewish communities which were deeply rooted in those cities concluded with the slaying of 133 Jews, and the killing of 110 Arabs mainly by British police who were forcefully suppressing the uprising. Hundreds more were injured on both sides.

Then, like today, religious slogans played the role of the lit match that set the barrel ablaze.

One can only hope that today, unlike in the past, leaders on both sides of the conflict will make wise decisions – the kind of judicious decisions that take into account and respect different peoples, their beliefs and sensitivities.

Michael Plutchok is a Middle East correspondent for i24NEWS

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