The Israeli occupation authorities’ closure of the Noble Sanctuary, which includes Islam’s third-holiest mosque, to Muslim worshippers this week has become the latest flashpoint in the already tense relations between Jordan and Israel.
The shutdown, the first since 1969, came in the wake of a violent incident on Friday in which three Israeli Arabs allegedly used firearms to attack Israeli soldiers in the compound of Al-Aqsa Mosque. The three assailants were gunned down and two soldiers were killed.
Jordan, which administers the Waqf in the holy city, demanded that Israel reopen the compound immediately. It also warned Israel not to change the status quo in and around the compound. Israel rebuffed Jordanian demands and kept the compound closed until Sunday, when it announced that it will gradually reopen the area. In the meantime, the Waqf authority announced that it had lost complete control over Al-Aqsa. Its employees were prevented from entering the compound for two days, during which time Israel installed CCTV cameras and electronic gates in and around the area.
Palestinians see the closure of the compound and the installation of cameras and electronic gates as dangerous steps that are part of a scheme to enforce sovereignty over Al-Aqsa that could culminate in allowing Jews to perform prayers inside the mosque. Jordan and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have rejected any attempt to change the current status of Al-Aqsa. Israel claims that the mosque was built on the site where Solomon’s Temple once stood, although no archaeological evidence supports these claims.
Since the occupation, Israel — which has declared unilaterally the unification of the city as its eternal capital — has carried out excavation works under the mosque. Experts believe such excavations threaten the foundations of Al-Aqsa. Moreover, in the past few years Israel has allowed Jewish radicals to enter the compound and carry out religious rituals. They often included Israeli officials, some of whom have vowed to bring down the mosque and erect a new Jewish temple on its ruins.
East Jerusalem, which includes the entire old city, is an occupied territory and its future will be determined through negotiations. Palestinians consider East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. There is no doubt that the fate of the city has become one of the thorniest issues in intermittent peace talks. With Israel leaning to the far-right in recent elections, it is doubtful that peace negotiations, if they ever take place, will succeed in resolving the status of the old city.
Palestinians see the closure of the compound and the installation of cameras and electronic gates as dangerous steps by Israel and part of a scheme to enforce sovereignty.
There are two factors that should deter Israeli designs on the Noble Sanctuary: One is the Jordanian custodianship, which is recognized clearly in the 1994 peace treaty. Israel cannot afford to endanger this treaty, one of two signed with Arab countries. Jordan has used diplomatic channels to underline the Arab character of East Jerusalem and recently its efforts have succeeded in extracting a resolution from UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee that stated that all “legislative and administrative measures and actions taken by Israel, the occupying power, which have altered or purport to alter the character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem, and in particular, the ‘basic law’ on Jerusalem, are null and void and must be rescinded forthwith.” The decision in effect disavows Israeli sovereignty over occupied East Jerusalem.
Such victories, while largely symbolic, solidify the case against Israeli measures in the old city and underline the fact that it remains an occupied territory.
But Jordanian and Palestinian efforts are not enough. Both need the support of Arab and Muslim states and the international community as a whole. Israel realizes the danger of attempts to isolate it politically and will do its best to overturn such resolutions. It must not succeed.
The second factor concerns the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, and in particular the Old City. Their numbers have been dwindling as Israel prevents those who had left the city from returning by canceling their residency permits. Dire economic conditions have forced Arab, and especially Christian, families to leave, while Israel rarely gives building permits to Arab residents and has taken measures to destroy entire neighborhoods close to the Noble Sanctuary.
Supporting Arab residents of East Jerusalem must become a priority for Arab and Muslim countries. Their steadfastness is the only barrier standing between Israel and its designs to change the status of Al-Aqsa Mosque and other holy places.
Unless a real commitment is made to support Jerusalem’s Arab residents, Israel will eventually break through this barrier. Supporting Jordan’s custody of the Noble Sanctuary is a must to prevent Israel from adopting unilateral measures that affect the legal status of the compound.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.