by Mustafa Abu Sway
A century of continuous Hashemite care of Al-Aqsa Mosque has been constantly violated by Israeli occupation policies, in contravention of international law, universal conventions and the peace treaty with Jordan.
The Hashemites, Jordan’s royal family, and the holy Al-Aqsa Mosque are organically intertwined. No mention of Al-Aqsa Mosque is complete without acknowledging the historical role of Jordan, a legacy that began in 1924 when Jerusalemites asked the Sharif Hussein bin Ali to restore Al-Aqsa Mosque. Many major projects were carried out by the Hashemite kings, including four major renovations of the Dome of the Rock. This commitment is not about sheer politics; His Majesty the King Abdullah II is the 41st generation direct descendent of Prophet Mohammed, peace and blessings be upon him.
The theological and spiritual relationship with Jerusalem that began with the Night Journey (Isra’ and Mi`raj) 1,400 years ago, occupies a sublime place in Islamic consciousness. The entailed responsibilities were first carried out by the 2nd Caliph `Umar Ibn Al-Khattab, and are continued today by the Hashemites. The Pact of Umar protected Jerusalemite Christians and their churches, and the custodianship of Abdullah II forms a continuum of the same protection. The Jordanian monarch’s recent maintenance of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City of Jerusalem is a manifestation of his deep commitment to supporting the Christians of the holy city. In a recent meeting with the World Council of Churches, he expressed his concerns about the dwindling number of Christians in Jerusalem. Prof. Bernard Sabella, a Palestinian Catholic sociologist, singled out the hardships created by the occupation as the reason why Palestinian Christians leave.
Trust in King Abdullah’s Commitment to Protect Jerusalem’s Holy Places
HM King Abdullah II personally raises the issue of Jerusalem’s holy places at international and regional forums. His message is loud and clear; Al-Aqsa Mosque is not up for division or sharing. It is no wonder, then, that the royal courts in Amman are a meeting place for Jerusalemite Christian clergy and Muslims scholars, politicians and civil society leaders, Palestinian officials and Arab members of the Knesset. It reflects a trust in His Majesty’s vision and commitment to protect Jerusalem’s holy places.
The obligation to care for Jerusalem’s holy places is entrenched in Jordanian law. The Jordanian Ministry of Awqaf continued to directly manage the affairs in the West Bank and relations were not severed even after the legal and administrative disengagement with the West Bank on August 7, 1988. But the disengagement was not ratified by the Jordanian parliament.
However, Islamic Awqaf affairs and Shari’ah Courts in East Jerusalem were excluded (from the disengagement) due to their significance and lest they fall directly under the Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs. The official Jordanian government website states: “Up to this date, Jordanian laws regarding Islamic Awqaf in the holy city are still applied.”
The Palestinians’ appreciation of the continued Hashemite Custodianship was manifested officially in the March 31, 2013 agreement between King Abdullah II ibn Al Hussein, the Custodian of the holy sites in Jerusalem, and His Excellency Dr. Mahmoud Abbas, who signed it in his capacity as president of the State of Palestine, head of Palestinian Liberation Organization, and president of the Palestinian National Authority. While this agreement recognizes the ability of Jordan to defend the holy sites in Jerusalem in international forums and relevant international organizations, it also recognizes the Hashemite Custodianship even after the end of the Israeli occupation, since the agreement does not have time limitations.
The Role of the Waqf
The Waqf department in Jerusalem, which is part of the Jordanian Ministry of Religious Affairs and Holy Places, undertakes all major projects, construction and maintenance at Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is a name for the physical space of all 144 dunums (c. 36 acres), courtyards and structures, including the walls and subterranean halls. There are three schools inside Al- Aqsa Mosque and numerous educational programs, a center for curation and preservation of historical legal and religious manuscripts, a unique Islamic museum, and a large library. It should be noted that the Waqf department, among many other responsibilities, takes care of more than one hundred mosques in Jerusalem.
Thousands of Muslim worshippers come to Al-Aqsa Mosque on any given normal day, with tens of thousands congregating on Fridays, and between 200,000 and 300,000 during Ramadan. This is why the Waqf maintains two active clinics, which are supported by the Red Crescent emergency medical services when large crowds of worshipers are present.
Anyone familiar with the needs of such massive crowds understands why the Waqf maintains a relatively large number of facilities for ablution and toilets. This is why the Waqf built extra facilities outside the mosque near Lion’s Gate. But when the Waqf renovated some of its property, just outside the Ghawanmeh Gate (northwestern corner of Al-Aqsa Mosque compound), to provide more toilets to serve the Muslim worshipers and non-Muslim visitors, the Israeli authorities, though they had knowledge of the renovation, confiscated the keys of the new facilities upon its completion and prevented the Waqf from using the space. They would give the keys back if the Waqf were to change it into a library! Books are some of the best things that has ever happened to humanity, but there is already a large and unique library inside the mosque, with thousands of rare manuscripts. Al-Aqsa Mosque library is the envy of many scholars, except that books are not the immediate need of people who have traveled for a few hours, after being stuck in buses and waiting in long queues at checkpoints, before they have reached the mosque! Countries such as New Zealand require the number of toilets and basins to be at 2 percent of the total number of the congregation at churches. It is rather simple to calculate the number required for the more than 200,000 crowds of people during Ramadan.
“Cannot” Is the New Norm at Al-Aqsa Mosque
Closures and demands for change of use are also the story of Bab al-Rahmah/Gate of Mercy (i.e., Golden Gate). It has been closed for the more than 13 years. And most recently, the Israeli police took the Waqf to court on the pretext that it is believed that it is used for terrorism, and that it would be used by the Heritage Committee, even by using other names! There are no such committees waiting to use this building. However, it should be clear that it is Waqf’s right to decide its use, exactly as with all other buildings and spaces within Al-Aqsa Mosque. If suspected terrorism is the problem, why then have the Israeli police offered to allow the Waqf to open this building if the Waqf agrees to make it accessible for visit by Muslims and non-Muslims alike? It is obviously a policy to put pressure on the Waqf Department in Jerusalem. Once the policy is exposed, all tactics to serve it, such as taking the Waqf to court over ghostly entities using a particular building become meaningless!
These tactics include the recent refusal of the Israeli police to allow the newly appointed guards by the Jordanian Ministry of Waqf from commencing their work, under the pretext that the appointment of the guards was not coordinated with the Israeli police. It is an attempt to put Israelis in a position to approve appointments at Al-Aqsa Mosque, which was never the case, nor will be. These guards are still being prevented from entry to Al-Aqsa Mosque. Among the hundreds of employees at the Waqf, it is mostly the guards who get harassed, beaten, arrested and sentenced to stay away from Al-Aqsa Mosque for doing their job.
Teachers bringing preschool children to visit Al-Aqsa Mosque get their IDs confiscated, and they are asked to get them from the police station near Jaffa Gate! Children who study at the schools inside the mosque are sometimes barred from entry, or have their school books confiscated. I have witnessed pupils from the Rashadiyyah school in Jerusalem, who came to the mosque to be at the funeral of the schoolmaster’s mother, being prevented from entering the mosque.
It is a nightmare to perform maintenance at Al-Aqsa Mosque. Caring for the physically challenged and elderly by putting a very small wooden ramp for wheelchairs at one of the gates of Al-Qibli Chapel is the end of the world (one of the Waqf engineers was arrested for working on the ramp). You are detained for a layer of fresh paint on a wooden door. Changing an old electric cable buried in the ground becomes synonymous with destroying psycho-metaphysical archeological space. Rusty water pipes that need replacing become a politically charged issue, and fixing burst water pipes that waste precious water is delayed for days! Bringing a very small sheet of glass to replace a broken window is an ordeal. When a tree is damaged or dies, the Waqf cannot plant new trees. “Cannot” is the new norm at Al-Aqsa Mosque!
Restrictions are imposed on the freedom of movement and freedom of worship also on a daily basis, but most of the restrictions take place between Sunday and Thursday, during the times when the Israeli security forces accompany and protect extremists. Sometimes, those national religious extremists attempt to perform Jewish prayers, Kiddush (which could be done over grape juice, and not necessarily wine) and even weddings inside Al-Aqsa Mosque/al-Haram al-Sharif, behind the backs of the Israeli police or right in front of them while they are being videotaped. Those who do perform outright rituals are usually removed, but one can see the police either tolerating or not detecting slow-motion davening (Yiddish for prayer).
In violation of the historical status quo, the Israeli police unilaterally began allowing non-Muslims and accompanying intruding extremists in 2003. The Waqf calls for returning to pre-2000 arrangements, and regaining its historical role of overseeing the entry of all visitors.
Non-Violent Muslim-Christian Solidarity
The issue of placing metal detectors at the gates of Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Muslims refusing to enter Al-Aqsa Mosque through these detectors in the summer of 2017, led to the iconic non-violent resistance. Muslim crowds prayed outside the gates of Al-Aqsa Mosque, in the alleys of the Old City and just outside its walls of the Old City, until the Israeli government removed the metal-detectors. In a beautiful show of solidarity, Christian men joined the Muslims in prayer. Muslim and Christian holy places and property are also Palestinian national issues. These mostly young men stood together in the face of oppression, injustices and human rights violations. Those youngsters were emboldened by their experience. Their message is clear that they will never give up on their holy places, religious duties or national rights.
Al-Aqsa Mosque is a place where high school students study for their general certificate exams and where kids who live in concrete boxes can breathe fresh air, but mainly it is a spiritual safe haven. It is not a place for large numbers of police officers to flex their muscles. Under International Law, it is the duty of occupying forces to provide security, but this should be done outside the gates of Al-Aqsa Mosque. To give the Waqf and Muslim worshippers hard times ad nauseam is not a security job, is counter productive and breeds problems.
It is beyond the scope of this article to offer an exhaustive list of all the violations to the historical status quo, which would be as long as the days of the year, year after year! Suffice it to show that there is a systematic violation of international law, universal conventions and UNESCO decisions that aim at protecting the cultural heritage under occupation. There is a serious undermining of the Hashemite Custodianship, without which we would have been in a much more precarious position. When comparing the magnanimous Hashemite’s historical role with what is going on at Al- Aqsa Mosque and Jerusalem in general, the elephant in the room becomes manifest.