Sitting on a site sacred to Muslims, Jews and Christians, the Al Aqsa Mosque compound is a primary flashpoint in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
Palestine’s Foreign Ministry has condemned Israel’s far-right national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s visit to the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem, calling it an “unprecedented provocation”.
Earlier, the Palestinian group Hamas, for its part, said it would hold Israel responsible for any consequences of Ben-Gvir’s visit on Tuesday.
“Any escalation in Al Aqsa Mosque will explode the situation and the occupation government will be responsible for this,” Hamas spokesperson Abdel-Latif al Qanoua said in a statement.
Israel’s opposition leader and former prime minister Yair Lapid had also warned on Monday that Ben-Gvir’s planned entrance to the compound would lead to violence and called it a “deliberate provocation that will put lives in danger”.
The growing number of entries by ultranationalist Jews into the complex and repeated raids by Israeli security forces, which have occurred within the Al Aqsa Mosque’s prayer hall in the past two years, have resulted in confrontations between Israeli security forces and settler groups on one side and Palestinians on the other.
Let’s examine why Ben-Gvir’s move was seen as ‘provocative’.
Located in the Old City of the occupied East Jerusalem, the Al Aqsa Mosque is the world’s third-holiest site for Muslims, following the Masjid al Haram in Mecca and Masjid al Nabawy in Medina.
For Jews, the site is known as the Temple Mount, a holy site believed to be the location of two ancient Jewish temples.
Israel occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where Al Aqsa is located, during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
Since then, Israeli violations against the site have continued unabated, making Al Aqsa a flashpoint between Muslim worshippers and Jews who want to claim full control of the site, with some hardline groups wishing to rebuild a temple in its place.
In a move never recognised by the international community, Israel annexed the entire city of Jerusalem in 1980, claiming it the self-proclaimed Jewish state’s “eternal and undivided” capital.
Al Aqsa compound, according to Islamic belief, held the first Qibla (direction in which Muslims pray).
Al Aqsa Mosque was one of the first mosques, according to Islam, built after the Kaaba, the black cube-shaped building in Mecca where Muslims undertake the Haj and Umrah pilgrimages and offer their prayers.
The mosque also marks the destination of Prophet Muhammad’s Isra.
In the 7th century, Prophet Muhammad travelled from the Masjid al Haram to Al Aqsa, which means “farthest” in reference to its distance from Mecca, in one night.
There, he led the previous messengers of Allah in prayer and ascended to heaven from the Dome of Ascension on a journey called Miraj.
The site is also holy for Jews as two ancient temples once stood at the site, which is also home to the “Foundation Stone,” the starting point of the world’s creation according to observant Jews.
The first was built by King Solomon and later destroyed by the Babylonians, while the Roman Empire destroyed the second after standing for around six centuries.
For Palestinians, Al Aqsa is significant beyond its religious importance. It is also a cultural hub and a symbol of resistance. It has thus been a prevailing target of Israeli aggression.
Palestinians also routinely encounter obstacles while attempting to enter Al Aqsa, as Israel has maintained a security force surrounding the complex, systematically denying Palestinians entry.
Despite this, Al Aqsa Mosque compound continues to draw tens of thousands of Muslims who congregate there to pray, grieve, and observe holy days.
Under a sensitive status quo agreement to which Israel is a party, Jordan acts as the site’s custodian through an Islamic organisation called the Waqf. Israeli personnel working in coordination with the Waqf maintain security at the compound.
Under the agreement, Jews and Christians are permitted to visit the Al Aqsa Mosque, but only Muslims are allowed to pray inside, and only Jews at the Western Wall. However, Israelis have long bypassed this arrangement, visiting the mosque in greater numbers and praying there.
Israel has also been carrying out excavations around the mosque’s vicinity, which Palestinian experts warned damaged Al Aqsa’s foundations.
According to Palestine, the Israeli raids are meant to partition the mosque between Muslims and Jews, much like how the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron was divided in the 1990s.