The agreement signed between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and King Abdullah regarding Jerusalem came at a highly sensitive time.
Jerusalem’s holy places, and especially Al Aqsa Mosque, have been under an escalating threat from radical forces, some of whom are now senior members of the Knesset and government ministers in Israel.
Ever since the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem, the large compound comprising Al Aqsa Mosque was the target of radical Jewish zealots who wish to rebuild the Jewish temple on what they consider to be its site and which is under the Aqsa Mosque. Jews claim that the ancient temple was built on Mount Moriah, where Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son.
For years, this messianic Jewish passion was neutralised by a Jewish religious edict. Because Jews believe that the area of Al Aqsa Mosque most probably lies on top of the ruins of the Jewish temple, devout Jews were forbidden to set foot in the mosque so as not to “defile” it.
A sign to this effect was placed at the entrance of Bab Al Magharbeh, the only one that Al Aqsa guards are not protecting and which Jews often use to enter.
In recent years, however, this all-encompassing edict that indirectly provided for relative peace in the Noble Sanctuary’s compound was revised. It was declared that certain areas of the mosque could be visited because, according to this ruling, they are definitely not on top of the location of the Jewish temple.
This decision complicated the situation. Every time Jews enter these locations, Muslim worshipers gather to stop them and the Israeli army usually interferes.
With time, an understanding took place. Jews, like all foreigners, are allowed to enter the mosque at times allocated for tourists, on condition that they do not pray.
So in recent years, Jewish “tourists” would enter and leave at certain times. However, the questions then were whether these Jewish “tourists” also pray and what constitutes prayer. Is it physical movement, is it mumbling words, or both?
Jordan has always had a direct role in protecting Islam’s third holiest mosque. Guards working for the Jordanian Waqf Authority are stationed (along with armed Israeli police) at all but one entrance to the mosque.
The Jordanian-Israeli peace agreement includes a clause reaffirming Jordan’s role. Article 9 of the Wadi Araba agreement, signed in 1994, states that “Israel will give high priority to the Jordanian historic role in these shrines”.
The situation in Jerusalem and the most recent agreement notwithstanding, for an effective defence of Muslim and Christian sites in the holy city, there is need for more than declarations and agreements.
Politically, the city of Jerusalem suffers from an unprecedented low level of political coordination and activities. Israel has succeeded in denying Palestinians any political role, in violation of US commitment, in the 1990s, that Israel will respect existing Palestinian political institutions.
The Orient House, the chamber of commerce and other leading institutions of Palestinian activity have been closed by Israeli orders based on the emergency laws adopted from the British mandate period. This has meant that the only Arab/Islamic institution allowed to work in Jerusalem is the Jordanian Waqf Ministry, but its role needs to be revolutionised.
With Israeli and Jewish groups pouring millions of dollars and utilising the latest technologies, PR activities and political muscle, the waqf is absolutely no match.
Recently, Queen Rania’s Madrasati-Palestine programme was attached to the Waqf Ministry and this has introduced some new blood and fresh young faces and ideas. But overall, the Waqf Ministry in Jerusalem suffers from old age and its management needs to be revamped.
Much more is needed to upgrade the Palestinian, Arab and Islamic response to the Israeli and Jewish machine dedicated to reverse Islamic presence and to Judaise the holy city on account of its inhabitants and its religious sites.