The Muslim prayer hall that may spark the next Israeli-Palestinian battle

In Jerusalem, small frictions can escalate quickly if the causes are not addressed.

Palestinian volunteers clean the grounds outside the Dome of the Rock Mosque at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, in Jerusalem’s Old City, March 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

(RNS) — The status of a small Muslim prayer hall on the eastern side of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque complex is shaping up to be the next flashpoint between Jews and Muslims, as radical Jews, supported by the Israeli state, cross lines long respected in the name of peace.

Since the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Israeli security forces and local Muslim activists have battled nearly daily over Bab al-Rahmeh, or Mercy Gate, with soldiers repeatedly tearing out electric wiring in the building and destroying furnishings, only to see Muslims restoring the power and moving in again.

The Netanyahu government has said that Israel will continue to respect the status quo at Al-Aqsa, a commitment Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated recently to the king of Jordan. But the past few months have been a volatile time in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, much of the violence taking place on the grounds of the 35-acre site that is the third holiest mosque in all of Islam. After Israeli police attacked Muslim worshippers at Al-Aqsa during Ramadan, Hamas and other Muslim organizations launched rockets aimed at Israeli cities from Gaza, Lebanon and Syria. 

While the skirmishes resulted in little damage and no fatalities, they show how small frictions can escalate quickly if the causes are not addressed.

Bab al-Rahmeh has a history of causing tensions. The musala — a Muslim prayer space in which there is no imam or pulpit from which to deliver a sermon — was closed in 2003 and stayed that way for 16 years after Israel made the site off-limits to Muslims during the Second Intifada. At the time, Israel claimed that the location was being used as an office by a radical Muslim leader, Sheikh Raed Salah, a Palestinian citizen of Israel.

In 2019, a newly formed Muslim Waqf Council, a Jordanian Islamic ministry overseeing holy sites in Jerusalem, decided to reopen the site and its members held a symbolic prayer service there. Israel responded by arresting the head of the council and calling for the questioning of some of the newly appointed council members, but the hall remained open.

Now the Israeli authorities are insisting that Muslims close the prayer hall again according to a court order, a request that Palestinian leaders, as well as the Jordanian custodians of Jerusalem’s holy places, reject. The entire mosque area is part of the UNESCO-protected World Heritage Site, they say, and Israel has no right in stopping Muslims from praying there. 

The Bab al-Rahmeh controversy has been returned to the front burner by the new Israeli minister of security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, who has publicly called for the right of Jews to pray on what Jews call the Temple Mount. The call for change would violate the long-standing status quo agreement as well as a Jordanian-Israeli understanding that was restated only months ago at the security summits in Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh.

Local Muslims suspect that the reason Israel wants to keep Muslims out the Bab al-Rahmeh is that they have their own plans to one day turn it into a synagogue. The building can become accessible from an unused gate that would allow Jews to enter and leave the site without having to go through the mosque area.

Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer who runs the nongovernmental organization Terrestrial Jerusalem, has dedicated his professional life to issues of peace and equality, particularly in East Jerusalem. Seidemann recently told me that he has seen blueprints at the office of an Israeli architect for a synagogue to be built on top of Bab al-Rahmeh. My attempts to contact Gideon Harple, the Israeli architect Seidemann identified as the author of the plans, went unanswered.

For the time being, it appears that the Israeli security forces aren’t likely to support extremists’ efforts. At the same time, they are using a court decision based on flimsy arguments to back their call for the prayer hall to be closed.

For Palestinians, the problem is not the court order, but Israeli attempts to force their will on the historic managers of the mosque area. The insistence that Muslims vacate the area, they believe, is based not on a court order but a more familiar judgment — namely, that Palestinians must obey the orders of the occupiers.

Whatever their justification, the Israelis are attempting to chain the location shut and keep the keys.

Even with a radical religious nationalist minister in charge of the police, their tactics, which haven’t worked in the past, won’t work now. That Israel is nonetheless content to risk bloodshed and a violent explosion in the region just so these far-right-wing politicians’ ideological fanaticism can be appeased is extremely dangerous.

(Daoud Kuttab, an award-winning Palestinian journalist from Jerusalem, is the former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. Follow him on Twitter @daoudkuttab. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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