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

Fresh violence at the holy site in East Jerusalem raises fears of another major Israeli-Palestinian clash

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Israeli security personnel using force against worshippers at Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City on Friday has sparked fears of an escalation into another full-blown conflict like the one seen during the holy month of Ramadan last year.

Palestinian witnesses and officials said Israeli forces raided the mosque at dawn as worshippers gathered for prayers and that at least 152 people were injured by rubber-coated bullets, stun grenades and batons.

Israeli officials said dozens of masked men carrying Hamas and Palestinian flags marched to the compound and were planning to attack Israeli police with stones.

They claimed the raid was launched after the prayers were over and crowds started throwing rocks and stones towards the Western Wall, which Jews believe to be part of an ancient temple that once stood at the site.

The unrest follows a wave of gun attacks by Palestinians in Israeli cities and towns that have killed 14 people in the last month. At least 25 Palestinians have been killed in the same period after Israeli forces launched a security operation in the occupied West Bank in response to the shootings.

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. Known as Al Haram Al Sharif to Muslims and Temple Mount to Jews, the compound includes Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock mosque.

Muslims believe that the Prophet Mohammed travelled from Makkah to Jerusalem and ascended to heaven from the site. Jews consider the Temple Mount the most sacred place in Judaism as they believe it was once the site of two holy temples.

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

Violence at Al Aqsa during Ramadan last year was one of the factors leading up to the 11-day war between Israel and militant groups in Gaza. 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 last year 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 Jewish settlers in the area, followed by a spate of arson attacks and stabbings by Arab and Jewish mobs.

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 Jewish 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, an Islamist group 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. An 11-day war erupted, killing at least 256 people including 13 in Israel.

Among the victims were 68 children in Gaza and two in Israel.

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 celebration, which falls on May 28 this year, 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 via the Damascus Gate. They usually sing patriotic songs, but last year some youths were 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 denounced 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 compound. Flanked by security guards, his controversial visit played a major role in sparking the second Palestinian 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 Palestinian intifada, or uprising. The first one began in 1987 over Israel's occupation of the Gaza Strip 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: April 18, 2022, 7:21 AM
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