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Israel tells Palestinians: ‘Al-Aqsa is no longer yours’

Figures show that Israel has been allowing Jewish ultra-nationalists to visit the Al-Aqsa compound in record numbers

Al Jazeera – 6 June 2017

Palestinian leaders have denounced new construction projects they say will further tighten Israel’s grip on occupied East Jerusalem and its holy places, including the incendiary site of Al-Aqsa mosque.

The most elaborate plan is for a cable car intended to bring thousands of visitors an hour to the Western Wall and its Jewish prayer plaza immediately below al-Haram al-Sharif, a compound containing Al-Aqsa and the golden-topped Dome of the Rock.

The $56m project was unveiled at a meeting of the Israeli cabinet in tunnels below the al-Haram al-Sharif. It is the first time the cabinet has met in Jerusalem’s Old City, which Israel annexed in violation of international law.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the meeting in the provocative location late last month to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Israel’s illegal occupation of East Jerusalem.

Explosion in making

Palestinians, meanwhile, have expressed mounting concern that Netanyahu’s stated intention to “strengthen Jerusalem” conceals a policy of driving out Palestinians and seizing control over the Al-Aqsa compound. Israel claims two ancient Jewish temples are built under the mosque.

At the weekend, Jibril Rajoub, a senior official in the Palestinian Authority, told Israeli TV that Netanyahu’s government had to stop treating the site as though it were under Israeli sovereignty. “If you want to create an explosion, just say ‘It’s ours, it’s ours’,” he said.

However, in the same programme, he suggested the PA might agree to Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall. The PA appealed last week to the United Nations Security Council to take action to protect Jerusalem from what it called Israeli attempts to “Judaise” the city.

Officials believe Israel is seeking to foil any future peace-making efforts by preventing East Jerusalem from ever becoming the capital of a Palestinian state.

Donald Trump, the US president, who visited East Jerusalem as part of a visit to the region late last month, has promised he will soon unveil the “ultimate deal” to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Last Thursday he signed a waiver, delaying moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, on the grounds it would harm prospects for such a deal.

‘Illegal practices’ 

In addition to the cable car, Netanyahu’s government announced a $14m lift and underground passageway to ease access for disabled and elderly people to the Western Wall, a retaining wall of the Al-Aqsa compound and a Jewish holy site.

Longer term, Israel hopes to build a subterranean station, connecting the site by express train from Tel Aviv. Netanyahu told his ministers the various projects would strengthen the Jewish people’s connection to the city.

These latest moves follow figures showing that Israeli authorities have been allowing Jewish ultra-nationalists to visit the Al-Aqsa compound in record numbers.

Palestinians have long complained that Jewish extremists are being allowed to pray at the site, in contravention of agreements, and that they pose a danger because many support destroying Al-Aqsa and building a Jewish temple in its place.

Last month, the United Nations cultural body, UNESCO, passed a resolution reaffirming that East Jerusalem was occupied, and that “illegal practices” by Israel were threatening historical and cultural sites there.

“Step by step, Israel is finding ways to take over Al-Aqsa,” said Khalil Tufakji, a Palestinian geographer in Jerusalem and director of the Arab Studies Society’s mapping department, which monitors settler activity.

He told Al Jazeera: “Israel is sending a message to the Palestinians and to Jordan [whose officials formally oversee the site] that ‘Al-Aqsa is no longer yours. We can enter and we can do as we please there’.”

Cable car aids settlers

The cable car, due for completion in four years, is supposed to transport some 3,000 visitors an hour from West Jerusalem to an entrance in the Old City walls next to Al-Aqsa. The cable car will pass directly over Palestinian homes in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan.

Yariv Levin, the tourism minister, called it “revolutionary project” that would serve as “an exceptional tourist attraction”. Yonatan Mizrachi, who heads Emek Shaveh, a group of archaeologists that oppose the misuse of tourism and archaeology, warned that the cable car would also connect to a controversial tourism site in Silwan run by an Israeli settler organisation, Elad.

The City of David complex, close to Al-Aqsa, has taken over a large area of Silwan, damaged surrounding Palestinian homes with underground excavations, and encouraged large numbers of settlers to move into the area, backed by armed guards.

“This is yet another element in an Israeli policy of divorcing the Old City from its Palestinian hinterland, making it seem exclusively Jewish to visitors,” he told Al Jazeera. “It is all about changing the Old City’s character irreversibly.”

Loyalty oath by students

The cable car project, initially championed by Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, was scrapped two years ago after the French firm due to construct it pulled out, following warnings from the French foreign ministry of the likely diplomatic fallout.

Israel’s efforts to bring larger numbers of Jews into the Old City were highlighted last week with a new government-sponsored programme of ceremonies at the Western Wall.

A group of 300 students from the US, Britain and France became the first to “pledge allegiance to the Jewish people” at the spot, echoing a loyalty oath conducted at the Wall by newly drafted Israeli soldiers. At the ceremony, the students vowed to “forge a covenant with Jerusalem”.

At the same cabinet meeting at which the cable car and lift were approved, noted Tufakji, plans were announced to apply budgetary pressures to Palestinian schools in East Jerusalem to force them to switch to the Israeli curriculum.

That has alarmed Palestinian leaders, who say the curriculum – overseen by education minister Naftali Bennett, a settler leader – erases Palestinian connections to Jerusalem and teaches only Zionist history.

“Israel taking control of the Palestinian schools is very dangerous,” Tufakji said. “They want to change the thinking of the children, to educate them that Israel has a natural right to Jerusalem.”

‘Desolate’ before occupation 

That was the message from Netanyahu, too, on May 24, when Israel celebrated “Jerusalem Day”, an annual show of force by the Israeli right in East Jerusalem.

Tens of thousands of ultra-nationalists marched through Palestinian neighbourhoods, close to Al-Aqsa, forcing residents into hiding and traders to shut shops.

In an address to mark the occasion, Netanyahu said East Jerusalem had been “desolate” and “neglected” before Israel occupied it. He added that the Al-Aqsa mosque compound – or what he called Temple Mount – would “always remain under Israeli sovereignty”.

Under pressure from Israel, Jerusalem’s Islamic authorities have been forced to allow access to the mosque compound for settlers and ultra-nationalist Jews, backed by Israeli police.

Israeli figures show some 1,000 Jews entered the compound on Jerusalem Day, the largest number in a single day in decades. That followed the largest-ever annual number of visits by settlers, at nearly 15,000, in 2016.

Visits by extremists 

Sheikh Azzam Khatib Tamimi, head of the Waqf, an Islamic authority in charge of Al-Aqsa, protested in an interview last week with the Haaretz daily that the Jewish visitors “don’t come innocently as tourists. They are extremists … Their purpose is to foment conflict.”

He added that they had the blessing of Israeli officials. “The government isn’t preventing extremists from performing ceremonies [praying] here. The police encourage them.”

In April, during the Passover holiday, settlers were permitted by police for the first time to sacrifice a lamb close to Al-Aqsa, to them, part of a ceremony associated with building a Jewish temple where Al-Aqsa stands.

By contrast, Tamimi pointed out, Waqf officials were regularly banned from entering the compound and Islamic groups associated with Al-Aqsa had been outlawed by Israel. The vast majority of Palestinians can no longer reach the site because of Israeli movement restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza.

Shrinking city’s borders

Tufakji said Israel was increasingly treating outlying areas of East Jerusalem – located outside the wall Israel built through the city more than a decade ago and heavily populated with Palestinians – as no longer part of Jerusalem.

“Israel is frightened by the fact that East Jerusalem continues to have a Palestinian majority,” he said. “The goal is to ‘shrink’ the city so that the 140,000 Palestinians who live beyond the wall no longer count.”

He added that Israel had seized control of 87 percent of East Jerusalem’s land. A master plan for 2050 includes building an airport, railway and increasing the connections between the Western Wall and the main Jewish settler colony in the Old City.

Video link to Congress 

The projects unveiled by Netanyahu come in the wake of Trump’s visit to the Western Wall late last month. Trump became the first sitting US president to enter occupied East Jerusalem.

The Israeli prime minister exploited the visit to undermine last month’s UNESCO resolution, saying: “I told Trump that his visit to the Western Wall dispels all of [the] UNESCO lies.”

Netanyahu is due to take part in a video link on Wednesday this week between the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem and the US Congress to mark Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem. Trump or Vice-President Mike Pence are expected to participate.

Israeli officials have been advising that the event should be interpreted as tacit approval from the White House of Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem exactly 50 years ago.

On Monday, the US Senate voted 90-0 in favour of resolution celebrating what it termed the “reunification” the city’s western and eastern sections in 1967.

Mizrachi said: “Israel has reached the point where it believes it can treat the Old City and surrounding Palestinian neighbourhoods as part of Israel, without international criticism.”

Homes razed for plaza

Over the weekend, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the occupation, Haaretz published an account of what took place immediately after the capture of Jerusalem’s Old City. It recounted that army generals quickly and secretly demolished more than 100 Palestinian homes to create the current broad Jewish prayer plaza in front of the Western Wall.

Many thousand more Palestinians were also expelled from their homes nearby in the Old City to create its Jewish Quarter.

Uzi Narkiss, the army commander in charge of the area, warned his officials: “Best to do it and not ask questions.”

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