What is the history of Jerusalem's Al Aqsa Mosque and why is it important?

Israel's far-right National Security Minister has visited the compound, despite Palestinian warnings this would cause 'an explosion'

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Israel's far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir briefly visited the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem on Tuesday, in a move condemned by Palestinians.

The Palestinian Foreign Ministry described his visit as “an unprecedented provocation”.

Mr Ben-Gvir was surrounded by a heavy security presence, after Palestinians warned that his visit would cause “an explosion”, Israel's public broadcaster Kan reported.

Why is the Al Aqsa Mosque so important?

Al Aqsa Mosque compound is a site considered holy by Muslims, Jews and Christians and is a focal point of Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

It is known as Al Haram Al Sharif by Muslims and includes Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock shrine.

Muslims believe that the Prophet Mohammed travelled from Makkah to Jerusalem and ascended to heaven from the site.

Israel captured East Jerusalem, including the Old City, from Jordan during the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 and annexed the area. Israel later declared a unified Jerusalem to be its capital, but that has not been recognised by the international community.

Violence at Al Aqsa during Ramadan was one of the factors leading up to the 11-day war between Israel and extremist groups in Gaza in 2021. Further flare-ups since then have been averted with the help of mediation by Egypt.

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What led to the 2021 Gaza war?

Palestinians demonstrated for several weeks starting in March 2021 over a potential Israeli court ruling to expel Palestinian families from homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in occupied East Jerusalem.

Israeli settlers in Sheikh Jarrah had laid claim to the properties, citing historical and religious grounds.

The Palestinian protests turned into confrontations with Israeli police and far-right Israeli settlers in the area, followed by a spate of arson attacks and stabbings involving Israelis and Palestinians.

Palestinians gathered at Al Aqsa Mosque to protest against what they described as Israel’s attempts to change the demography of East Jerusalem and assert Israeli control over it. Israeli police raided the mosque after Palestinians started throwing stones at them, according to Israeli officials.

The incident left dozens of Palestinians injured. Hamas, which rules Gaza and is considered a terrorist organisation by Israel, the US and several other countries, fired rockets into Israeli cities and Jerusalem.

Israel responded with air strikes on Gaza and an 11-day war erupted.

According to the UN, 261 Palestinians were killed, including 41 women, 67 children, and three people with disabilities, most in Israeli strikes. At least 130 were civilians. More than 2,200 Palestinians were injured.

Ten Israeli citizens and residents were killed by rockets launched by Palestinian armed groups, and 710 others were injured, said the UN.

Why is Jerusalem Day controversial?

Israel's annual celebration of Jerusalem Day, an official holiday that commemorates its capture of the entire city, has added to the tensions.

The event, which starts at sunset on May 18 in 2023, is seen as a provocation by Palestinians, who aspire to have East Jerusalem as the capital of their long-awaited state.

Israeli nationalists regularly stage a flag march that also takes them through the Old City's Muslim Quarter by the Damascus Gate. They usually sing patriotic songs, but in the past some marchers have been filmed chanting anti-Arab racial and violent slurs.

The march and prayers by Jews at the site have led to Palestinian-Israeli violence in the compound of Al Aqsa Mosque on several occasions.

Al Aqsa Mosque is administered by a waqf — an Islamic trust — that is funded and controlled by Jordan in a security arrangement with Israel after both countries signed a peace treaty in 1994. Under the arrangement, Jews are not allowed to pray in the grounds of Al Aqsa compound but can pray at the nearby Western Wall.

Last year, an Israeli court ruled that Jews could pray at Al Aqsa as long as they did so silently. The verdict was condemned by many Palestinians.

What are the controversial metal detectors at Al Aqsa?

In 2017, Israel introduced new security measures at Al Aqsa compound including the installation of metal detectors and security cameras.

The move followed two attacks in and around Jerusalem in which five Israelis were killed, including two police officers. The attacks followed the fatal shootings of three Palestinians by Israeli security forces.

The metal detectors sparked more unrest, in which six Palestinians were killed.

In protest, Muslims prayed in front of police barricades in the streets around the Old City. The detectors were removed after weeks of protests, violence and international pressure.

In 2000, the then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon, centre, visited Al Aqsa Mosque compound. His visit played a major role in sparking the Second Intifada. AFP

What is the Al Aqsa intifada?

A controversial visit to Al Aqsa Mosque by the late Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2000, when he was leader of the opposition, sparked what became known as the Second Intifada, or uprising. The first one began in 1987 over Israel's occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.

Protests against Sharon's visit ballooned into an armed conflict in which more than 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis were killed.

Updated: January 03, 2023, 10:29 AM
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