What is Al-Aqsa, and why does it matter?
Jerusalem is home to one of the world’s most sacred religious sites. Jews refer to the site as “the Temple Mount,” or “Beit Hamikdash.” Muslims call it “the Noble Sanctuary,” or “Haram al Sharif.”
Why is it sacred for Jews?
The Temple Mount is the most sacred site in Judaism. Jews believe that two biblical temples were once located there.
The first temple was destroyed by Babylonians in 587 BC, while the second one was burned by Romans in 70 CE.
The site is now home to the Western Wall, which Muslims call the Buraq Wall. Jews consider the wall an extension of the Temple Mount.
They believe the inner sanctuary of the temple houses the Ark of The Covenant, the chest that conserves the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written.
Why is it sacred for Muslims?
The site is the third most sacred place in Islam after Masjid al Haram in Mecca and Masjid an Nabawi in Medina.
The compound houses the Dome of the Rock which was built in 691 CE during the Umayyad Caliphate.
The building encloses the Foundation Stone, a rock from which Muslims believe the Prophet ascended to heaven.
In the Jewish tradition, it is that rock on which prophet Abraham has prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac.
Why is Al Aqsa a source of political conflict?
In order to answer this question, we need to go back in time.
Since Arabs conquered Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187, Muslims have controlled access to the Aqsa compound. But Israel seized the area from Jordan in the Six-Day War in 1967.
The then Israeli Defence minister Moshe Dayan and Muslim leaders agreed that the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, an Islamic religious trust, would continue to administer the Haram al Sharif.
They also agreed that Jews would be allowed to enter the site as tourists—but could not pray there.
The idea of Jewish prayer on the site is anathema among many religious Jews.
Under Halacha, Jewish law, they must not enter the area because of the sanctity of the Temple. Jews walking through the site would be at grave risk of inadvertently treading on the ground of the Holy of Holies in error, the scripture says.
That is why religious Jews pray at the Western Wall, a remnant of the Second Temple’s outer courtyard.
Although Jews are not allowed to pray on the site itself, Israel’s strict control over the area is the main source of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The entire area is still administered by the Waqf today, but all of its gates are controlled by Israeli police.
“For Muslims and world cultural heritage, It is very disturbing that Jerusalem is being controlled by Israel,” historian Ekrem Bugra Ekinci told TRT World.
“This area is very critical. There is a longstanding unrest in that area as Muslims have been forced out their homes, and Jews formed a state,” he added.
Israeli police occasionally restrict Muslim men under a certain age from entering partitions of the site, citing security concerns.
Sometimes, they block all access to the site for Muslims of all ages and non-Muslims alike.
In October 2016, UNESCO condemned the Israeli government for restricting access to the site.
Palestinians argue that Israel’s policies towards the compound are aimed at limiting Palestinian presence in the area.
“The current right-wing Israeli government, instead of trying to calm down the situation, is intensifying its efforts to change the image of the city for the benefit of the Jews,” said former Palestinian Authority minister, Ziad Abu Zayyad.
“It is supporting and encouraging attempts to demonstrate Jewish presence in al Haram al Sharif, and supporting increased settlers’ outposts inside the Arab neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem.”
Recently, an Israeli Magistrate court ruled that Jews should be permitted to pray at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound.
This brought Israel under fire by the International community.
“Claims put forward this week by the Israeli magistrate's court — that Al Aqsa is a holy place for Jews — is completely false and not supported by evidence,” said Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, the grand mufti of Jerusalem.
The Jordanian government also criticised the verdict.
It is unknown what larger effect the move might have on the longstanding status quo at Al Aqsa, as Israel’s Ministry of Justice did not provide more information on the ruling.
The other issue is Israel’s archaeological excavations. Some Palestinians argue that the excavations may cause damage to the Al Aqsa compound.
“We fear the Al Aqsa Mosque could collapse in the event of a natural — or artificial — earthquake,” said Ahmad al Ruwaidhi, the representative from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Palestine.
However, Ekinci said he thinks the situation is a little bit exaggerated in order to keep the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the international agenda.
He said cities may disappear in time due to natural disasters, and new cities are built on the ruins. There are two or three more cities lying under today’s Jerusalem, just like Troy, the ancient city in Turkey, he added.
“The archeological works by Israel are not being held under Al Aqsa. They are being held under Jewish territory, which is home to Jews for many years.”
“I don't think that these archaeological works threaten the Aqsa compound. In fact, I find it positive. We will be able to see the historical phases of Jerusalem.”