Despite claims it is seeking to calm tensions in Jerusalem, Israel is intensifying activities to encircle the al-Aqsa mosque and strengthen its control over the holy site, Israeli archaeologists have warned. Sounding the alarm as the US brokered a deal that will see cameras installed in the mosque compound, the group accused Israel of making rapid changes to the physical landscape around al-Aqsa to obscure the area’s Islamic character and create an ever-more arduous “obstacle course” for worshippers.
A wave of violence over the past fortnight, including attacks on two mosques and a church, has shocked Israel’s large Palestinian minority. Growing ever bolder, it seems, Israeli right-wing extremists are shifting attention to Palestinian areas inside Israel. Palestinian leaders, meanwhile, have accused Israeli authorities of repeatedly turning a blind eye to the attacks.
A right-wing Israeli settlement group has been put in charge of two controversial new projects to develop the area around al-Haram al-Sharif, the compound of holy sites that includes al-Aqsa mosque. Elad received planning approval this month to develop a huge visitors’ centre just outside the Old City walls in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan. While the visitors’ centre will give Elad a base less than 20 metres from the Old City, a second project could extend its reach to the retaining wall of al-Aqsa mosque itself.
Nazareth found itself transformed twice-over by the 1948 war. A town of 13,000 more than doubled in size over the course of a few months as 15,000 refugees from nearby villages poured in seeking sanctuary from the Israeli army. And, with other cities vanquished inside the new state of Israel, Nazareth unexpectedly found itself the only urban Palestinian space to have survived. Swollen with refugees and in a position to become the political and cultural capital of the Palestinians inside Israel, the city attracted the sustained attention of Israel’s military and political leadership.
The discovery of a rare aerial photo of Jerusalem in the 1930s, taken by a Zeppelin, has provided the long-sought after proof that when Israel occupied the Old City in 1967 it secretly destroyed an important mosque that dated from the time of Saladin close to the al-Aqsa mosque. The destruction of the Sheikh Eid mosque – in an area widely considered to be the most sensitive site in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – revives questions about Israel’s continuing abuse of Islamic holy places under its control.
The torching of the Jaba mosque by the settlers was intended chiefly as a reminder to Israel’s right-wing government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, that any move against them risks triggering a round of intensified violence that will further damage Israel’s image with the international community. But it was also designed to dampen the enthusiasm of the courts for further costly run-ins with settlers. The Supreme Court, settlers hope, will be in no hurry to enforce the destruction of future Ulpanas.
Jewish far-right groups responsible for a series of arson attacks on West Bank mosques over the past year broke dangerous ground last week when they turned their attention for the first time to holy places inside Israel. A mosque was torched, followed days later by an attack on Muslim and Christian graves. In each case the settlers left their calling card – the words “Price tag”, indicating an act of revenge – scrawled on their handiwork.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, was reportedly “outraged” on Monday by images of the gutted mosque in the Bedouin village of Tuba Zangariya, close to the Galilee’s Jewish towns of Rosh Pina and Safed. However, critics pointed out that he and other government ministers had failed to express equal concern over a spate of similar attacks on mosques that have occurred in the West Bank over the past two years.
Israeli authorities are pressing ahead with plans to build a courthouse complex on a large historic Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem that is already at the center of protest over plans to locate a “Museum of Tolerance” there. The proposed courthouse is expected to provoke stiff opposition, especially from Islamic groups, after it was revealed that an excavation last year for the museum, close by, unearthed as many as 1,500 Muslim graves.
The Israeli government has indicated that it will press ahead with a plan to enlarge the Jewish prayer plaza at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, despite warnings that the move risks triggering a third intifada. Israeli officials rejected this week a Jerusalem court’s proposal to shelve the plan after the judge accepted that the plaza’s expansion would violate the “status quo” arrangement covering the Old City’s holy places.
Tension over control of the Haram al Sharif compound of mosques in Jerusalem’s Old City has reached a pitch unseen since clashes at the site sparked the second intifada nine years ago. Ten days of intermittently bloody clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces in Jerusalem culminated yesterday in warnings by Palestinian officials that Israel was “sparking a fire” in the city. Israel’s Jerusalem Post newspaper similarly wondered whether a third intifada was imminent.
The municipality of Beersheva, the capital of southern Israel, is racing to put the finishing touches to repairs of the city’s long-neglected and unused Great Mosque, built more than 100 years ago by the Ottoman rulers of what was then Palestine. But, over the protests of Beersheva’s thousands-strong community of Muslims, the Jewish-run municipality is not planning to restore the city’s only mosque to its former glory as a place of worship. It wants to convert it into a museum.
Israel seems to have little time for the irony that a modern Jewish shrine to “coexistence and tolerance” is being built on the graves of the city’s Muslim forefathers. The Israeli Supreme Court’s approval last week of the building of a Jewish Museum of Tolerance over an ancient Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem is the latest in a series of legal and physical assaults on Islamic holy places since Israel’s founding in 1948.