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Al-Aqsa attacks harmed the mosque, but long-term cost will be Palestinian anger

The recent attacks affect not only the historic buildings but sow even deeper hatred, anger and frustration.

Palestinians run away from tear gas during clashes with Israeli security forces May 10, 2021, at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

(RNS) — The violence that has now engulfed Gaza and become an international crisis began in the last days of the holy month of Ramadan. The attacks on the Al-Aqsa Mosque were carried out by Israeli police so that Jewish extremists, whose ultimate aim is to destroy our mosque, could march through the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem.

It is not acceptable to spill the blood of 330 Muslims and destroy a protected World Heritage Site just so these people can enjoy waving the Israeli flag at one of Islam’s three holiest mosques.

It is part of a pattern of attacks on mosques in the occupied territories that extends back to the awful arson committed at Al-Aqsa in 1969 by Denis Michael Rohan, an Australian Christian Zionist who attempted to torch the compound’s ancient buildings. We remember the killings that took place in the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron by a Jewish settler in 1994, which led to the massacre of 29 Palestinian kneeling worshippers.

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The extent of the damage of the past month’s attacks to the wooden doors, windows and walls, however, is particularly frustrating and nauseating, as it comes during a years-long restoration effort at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Some of the plasterboard windows that were destroyed by the Israelis date back in their design to the first Umayyad period in the 7th century. Only two months ago, similar windows were put in place by craftsmen who had been working on their restoration since 2014. Other historic decorations are still awaiting restoration from the 1969 fire. This painstaking restoration has taken the Hashemite restoration team years and cost millions. We have only recently completed restoring doors and windows that were broken when Israelis stormed Al-Aqsa in 2010.

Needless to say, our work has gotten much more difficult in the past few weeks. The recent attacks affect not only the historic buildings but sow even deeper hatred, anger and frustration. It is painful to see these World Heritage treasures so casually destroyed and vandalized by the Israeli police.

In 1981, thanks to appeals by Jordan and other nations, UNESCO listed the Old City of Jerusalem as a World Heritage Site and a year later issued a report strongly calling on Israel to stop its destruction of the city’s holy sites. Annual reports by UNESCO regularly slam Israel for its practices in Jerusalem, and at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in particular.

Palestinians clash with Israeli security forces at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City, Monday, May 10, 2021. Israeli police clashed with Palestinian protesters at a flashpoint Jerusalem holy site on Monday, the latest in a series of confrontations that is pushing the contested city to the brink of eruption. Palestinian medics said at least 180 Palestinians were hurt in the violence at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, including 80 who were hospitalized. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Palestinians clash with Israeli security forces at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City, Monday, May 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Meanwhile, since 1922, the Al-Aqsa compound has seen five major restoration cycles undertaken by Jordan’s Hashemite royal family, custodians of the holy site, at a cost of $2.1 billion.

King Abdullah II of Jordan has continued his father and great-grandfather’s mission and in 2007 established the Hashemite Fund for the Restoration of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. 

This year, working closely with the Jerusalem Waqf, we had prepared for Ramadan by cleaning and sprucing up the entire mosque complex. A section was made ready for those coming from out of town to partake in the iftar, or fast-breaking evening meal, and the morning shour — the last light meal before dawn — for the faithful putting aside worldly issues to focus on spiritual ones.

But on the first day of Ramadan, the four minarets that make the daily call to prayer were badly vandalized by Israeli security forces in violation of the status quo arrangements respecting Jerusalem’s holy sites that have been in place since 1852 and respected by all powers since.

In the last 10 days of Ramadan, especially holy because it was during these days that the Quran was revealed, Israel acted reasonably and in accordance with previous Ramadans, in particular by barring entry to the mosque esplanade to radical Jews.

But the calm of those precious few days were short-lived. On May 7, Israel reacted with exaggerated force against a few protesters who were unhappy with Israeli plans to evict fellow Palestinians from Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. Israeli troops, clearly intent on trouble, broke into the holy prayer halls, upsetting the faithful reading their holy book and spending spiritual time in this holy place.

The Israeli forces launched stun guns and tear gas grenades. Hundreds of Palestinians were injured, including a half-dozen who lost their eyesight due to rubber bullets.

The vicious attacks continued for the next few days, as the Israelis were apparently set on allowing radical Jewish extremists to enter the mosque on the day Israelis remember as “Jerusalem Unification Day.” Every year on this occasion, Israeli extremists march in the Old City, vandalizing property and chanting inciting slogans about “death to Arabs.”

This year the Muslim faithful refused to accept this humiliation without a fight, and Israeli security forces chose to crush the few courageous youths who stood up to the aggression.

What happened next has been recorded and documented. All attempts at tolerance and mutual respect have been trampled by the Israelis. As we celebrate the Eid al-Fitr festivities that come at the end of Ramadan, our hearts are heavy.

His Majesty King Abdullah II continues to reject Israeli authorities’ attempts to change the demographics in East Jerusalem and alter the historical and legal status quo, stressing the need for Israel to abide by international humanitarian law. 

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The concerns of Muslims for their blessed mosque will not be satisfied until its status is returned to what existed in 1967 or at the very least before 2000, when Israel respected the authority of the Jordanian Jerusalem Waqf as set out in the 1994 Israel-Jordan treaty.

Israel needs to respect this peace deal, which affirmed the importance of Jerusalem to Jews while reaffirming the need for followers of other faiths to respect each other’s traditions and their holy places.

(Wasfi Kailani is the executive director of the Hashemite Fund for the Restoration of Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock and also a member of the Jerusalem Waqf Council. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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