Palestinians, led by Jerusalem clerics, succeeded in opening the Umayyad prayer area at the eastern Bab Al-Rahma (Mercy) Gate at Al-Aqsa Mosque, despite a decision by the Israeli occupation to barricade it 16 years ago.
Worshippers celebrated the reopening of the prayer area in throngs outside, chanting “God is Great,” “With our blood and souls we martyr ourselves for Al-Aqsa” and “This is our mosque.”
Khalil Al-Tafakji, director of the maps and geographic information systems department at Orient House in Jerusalem, said that Al-Rahma Gate is holy for Jews, since radical Jews believe the Messiah will enter through it when he appears at the End of Days.
Al-Tafakji said Israel is probing Palestinian reactions, and plans to maintain an Israeli presence there. “It has plans to build a synagogue in that area, which is common and public knowledge,” he said.
Al-Tafakji predicted the dispute will continue because Zionist scheming is determined to rebuild the Temple Mount on Al-Aqsa Mosque, warning that we have entered a standoff to see who will blink first, especially after the formation of a joint Palestinian-Jordanian Council, called the Supreme Islamic Council, which unified all efforts to address the issue.
He continued that Israel is carrying out massive arrests every day and pressuring the Islamic Council to block opening Bab Al-Rahma. Members of Jerusalem’s Religious Endowments Council entered the building and prayed there, and later the director general of endowments was taken in for questioning, and the police closed the entrances to the building.
There is also international pressure and Israeli elections are drawing near, which both have a great impact on the situation, especially after Palestinians blocked an Israeli plan to install security gates at the entrance leading to Al-Aqsa Mosque in 2017.
Resilience and strikes by Jerusalem residents forced the occupation to remove the gates after they were installed. Again, last week, prayers and protests were held around Al-Aqsa.
The police, meanwhile, raided dozens of homes in East Jerusalem and arrested around 60 locals in the early hours of Friday, most of them youth who frequently visit the mosque.
The detainees were released a few hours later and given orders banning them from the mosque. The police also arrested three senior Palestinian activists on suspicion of being involved in storming Al-Rahma building.
Khaled Al-Zabarqa, a lawyer who accompanied the detainees, said that senior diplomatic sources in Jordan contacted Israeli and international officials demanding the release of detainees. “The detentions demonstrate Israel’s hysteria which has crossed many red lines,” said Al-Zabarqa.
Hossam Badran, a member of Hamas’s politburo, said that “occupation forces will not admit defeat on the Bab Al-Rahma issue, and therefore arrest senior officials from Religious Endowments after a wave of arrests of youth.”
Israel also decided to ban Sheikh Raed Daana, the imam of Beit Hanina (one of the Jerusalem imams), from Al-Aqsa Mosque for six months after he was arrested in Bab Al-Amud (one of the gates of the Old City in Jerusalem that leads to Al-Aqsa Mosque), because he led worshippers in noon prayers at Bab Al-Rahma inside Al-Aqsa Mosque at the beginning of the crisis. Israeli forces took Daana to a police station for interrogation.
Palestine’s Chief of Justice and Presidential Adviser on Religious Affairs and Islamic Relations Mahmoud Al-Habash, condemned Israel’s kidnapping of the Chairman of the Awqaf Council in Jerusalem Sheikh Abdel-Azim Salhab, and Deputy Director of Jerusalem Awqaf Sheikh Nageh Bokayrat, who were banned from Al-Aqsa Mosque.
“The kidnapping and arrest of religious figures in Jerusalem, and the many activists who played a prominent role in the battle over security gates and Bab Al-Rahma, is evidence that the radical right-wing government of the occupation is moving ahead with its plot of Judaicisation of Jerusalem,” declared Al-Habash.
“But there is legendary resistance and steel determination by Jerusalem residents and our Palestinian people at Al-Aqsa, led by Religious Endowments, Muslim and Christian clerics there, spearheaded by Sheikh Salhab and his steadfast brothers.”
The chief justice continued that, “arrests, intimidation and harassment of Jerusalem leaders will not deter our resolve and determination to defend our holy places and our Al-Aqsa Mosque, no matter the price, pressure and challenges.
Jerusalem will remain a Palestinian, Arab and Muslim city, and the jewel in the crown of Muslims. It will always be our eternal capital in the independent state of Palestine.”
Al-Habash said that banning Jerusalem’s religious leaders from Al-Aqsa Mosque “is a serious warning of what the occupation state is plotting in the dark against the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque, by banishing the witnesses of truth and defenders of our Jerusalem and our Al-Aqsa Mosque.”
He called on the world community “to be alert to the situation the occupation is embroiling us in through organised terrorism of the radical right-wing government which sponsored the vicious attack on Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the land and the people.”
Al-Habash added: “Everyone must heed the alarm bells about what is happening in Jerusalem, including arrests, intimidation, restrictions on freedom of worship and violations of holy sites. Our Palestinian people reject these actions, as do their leaders, all free people and Muslims of the world.”
During the Crusades, Bab Al-Rahma was opened once a year on Easter because Christians believe that Jesus entered the area through this gate. When the Ayyubids came to power, they bolted the gate and it became a Muslim prayer spot called Bab Al-Rahma prayer area. Under the Ottomans, the gate was completely blocked with rocks while renovating the walls of Jerusalem.
In the 1980s, the gate was used by the Muslim Religious Endowments until the Islamic Heritage Committee used the gate as an office between 1992-2002.
In 2003, two employees of the Islamic Heritage Committee discovered Israeli digging sites next to the gate. Soon, the committee was dismantled and Bab Al-Rahma was closed permanently under the pretext that it houses an illegal institution.
The occupation positioned a police checkpoint on top of the gate and has since renewed the closure annually.
In 2018, a decree banned the presence of Jerusalem residents around the gate, which triggered anger among locals especially since settlers said they want to remove the gate altogether from Al-Aqsa Mosque and divide the area among Muslims and Jews, and take control of Bab Al-Rahma tomb.
On 17 February, the newly elected Islamic Religious Endowments Council decided to hold noon prayers in the prayer area and inspect its condition, which antagonised the occupation who responded by barricading the gate with iron chains. Jerusalem residents were furious and decided the status quo cannot continue and that the area should be reopened for prayer.
Bab Al-Rahma is on the eastern wall of Al-Aqsa Mosque which is also part of the Jerusalem Wall, and is the oldest gate of the existing city and appears in the Madaba map, the oldest map of Jerusalem which was discovered during excavation works in 1897 as a floor mosaic in a church built in the Sixth Century in the city of Madaba in eastern Jordan.
Since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967, assaults on Islamic sites have not ceased. Recently, there has been Israeli incitement by officials, parties and religious leaders, including daily raids by settlers.
Israel’s plot of aggression is both obvious and violates the “current legal status” of Jerusalem and its holy sites. This is part of an assault not only on Al-Aqsa Mosque, but also other mosques in the occupied West Bank.
These include Al-Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron; annexing Bilal bin Rabah Mosque in Bethlehem under the pretext it is the tomb of Rachel, the wife of the prophet Jacob; confiscating Youssef’s shrine in Nablus, which was previously an Islamic mosque housing the mausoleum of Sheikh Youssef Dwaikat from the town of Balata, and converting it into a Jewish holy site after the 1967 invasion.
This in addition to scores of Palestinian mosques in territories occupied in 1948 being violated and converted into restaurants, bars and dance clubs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: New battle in Jerusalem