Thursday, February 08, 2007

Flashpoint at the Al Aqsa mosque

Israeli soldiers have blocked the entrance to East Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site. Security forces manning barricades are now checking Palestinians' identification, allowing only men over 45 years of age and women near the site. The action is an attempt to prevent wide access to the site and demonstrations against a hill demolition near one of the mosque’s entrances in order to build a road for Jewish settlers and pilgrims.

The problem is that the al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques sit above the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, Judaism's holiest site and the only surviving part of the Second Temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. The Israel Antiquities Authority has now authorised a bridge to connect the Dung Gate in Jerusalem's Old City to the Mugrabi Gate, located next to the Western Wall and leading to the Temple Mount itself.

Archeologists working on the site claim the work does not directly touch the Al-Aqsa mosque. Yural Baruch, the Archaeologist in charge of the works said “you can see all the ruins. This is the continuation of this excavation in this area. This is nothing connected to the political.” However the Arab states community sees it differently.
Palestinians are concerned it is part of a plan to demolish their religious identity. Qatar’s Peninsula reported that the Islamic Scholars Union (ISU) has warned any attack on the mosque will be a spark which will inflame the whole Islamic world. "It is high time Muslims performed Jihad in the light of the crisis of the mosque and the internal fighting among the Palestinians," a statement published by the union said.

Al Aqsa is the second oldest mosque in the world. Only the Kaaba in Mecca is older. It was built in the 7th century after the completion of the nearby Dome of the Rock. Caliph Al-Walid built a mosque to the south of Dome and called it al-masjid al-aqsa, which means "the farthest mosque".

While the Dome of the Rock was constructed as a mosque to commemorate the Prophet's Night Journey, the building known as Al-Aqsa Mosque became a centre of worship and learning, attracting great teachers from all over the world. The building was damaged many times over by earthquakes and rebuilt and re-enforced each time. When the First Crusaders invaded they set up the Kingdom of Jerusalem and turned the mosque into the Royal Palace of Solomon which served as the palace of the Kings of Jerusalem and then the home of the Knights Templars.

Jerusalem would have many different rulers over the centuries. Saladin took the city back from the Crusaders. It passed into the hands of Egyptian Ayyubids, then the slave dynasty of the Mamelukes before finally falling to the Ottoman Empire in 1517. It would remain in Ottoman hands until the Turkish defeat in World War I. Under the British mandate, the Balfour Declaration gave in principle support for a Zionist state in Palestine. But they also promised the country to the Arabs for their support in the war. The British withdrew in 1948 and left problem to the newly formed UN to resolve. They proposed two separate states in Palestine.

But the two sides could not agree and the situation deteriorated into what Israel called the War of Independence. Five Arab countries Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Transjordan, and Egypt all sent troops to crush the Jews. But aided by Jewish volunteers from around the world (called the Machal) the young country fought back strongly. Arab forces also laid siege on Jerusalem but it was lifted before the UN negotiated a ceasefire. The ceasefire line established through the 1949 Armistice Agreements between Israel and Jordan cut through the centre of the city.

Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War and asserted sovereignty over the entire city. But worse was to follow for the Al Asqa mosque two years later. A deranged Australian tourist deliberately set fire to the mosque. The fire caused $9 million worth of damage and gutted the south-eastern wing of the mosque and destroyed a priceless one-thousand-year-old wood and ivory pulpit that was a gift from Saladin. Israeli firemen put out the fire despite attacks by Muslim bystanders, who also cut some of the fire hoses. Two days later Dennis Michael Rohan was arrested for arson. Rohan was a follower of a Christian evangelical sect known as the Church of God. He “hoped to hasten the coming of the Messiah” by his act of arson. To this day, Palestinian authorities still blame Israel for the fire.

The mosque remains a highly contentious symbol in the world’s most politically, culturally and religiously divided city. The current excavations have the power to create a major international incident. Ten years ago an Israeli Government decision to dig open a tunnel beside the Al-Aqsa Mosque led to rioting and the deaths of 100 people. The man in charge of archaeological works around the mosque at the time Meir Ben-Dov, advised against the current work proceeding saying Jerusalem has "three religions so you have to respect everyone and every religion in this city.”

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