Inside the Jordanian monarchy's relationship with Al Aqsa

Amid Zionist expansion a century ago, Palestinians entrusted the Hashemite royal family with the site

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On a summer weekend in 1951, Jordan’s King Abdullah I made a routine trip from Amman to Jerusalem to pray at Al Aqsa mosque when he was shot dead at the entrance of the building.

The prayer was being broadcast live and the shots fired at the royal by a trainee tailor, 21, echoed across the airwaves.

Most of Old Jerusalem in the eastern part of the city was under Jordan’s control at the time, and the assassin was tried and executed. Jordan later lost East Jerusalem, along with the West Bank, to Israel in the 1967 war.

The king was the first ruler of modern Jordan and great-grandfather to the current monarch, King Abdullah II, who inherited power in 1999 from his father, King Hussein.

Their Hashemite family, which traces its lineage to the Prophet Mohammed, came from Hejaz in Arabia.

The motive was never fully established for King Abdullah’s assassination.

The killing occurred three years after the establishment of Israel, when the first wave of Palestinian refugees crossed to Jordan.

Many players in the Middle East may have wanted to eliminate the man whose ambitions extended beyond Jordan to a larger kingdom over Greater Syria.

This vision could be traced back to his father, Sharif Hussein of Makkah, who had sought territorial unity in the Middle East.

While King Abdullah’s political scheme was not realised, his assassination at the gates of Al Aqsa, one of Islam’s holiest sites, reinforced a link between the Hashemites and the mosque.

But the ties date back to the time when Palestinian religious leaders gave Sharif Hussein custodianship over Al Aqsa in 1924.

The trusteeship bolstered the political influence of the monarchy as Jordanians of Palestinian origin grew to constitute a large proportion of the kingdom’s 10 million people.

“Al Aqsa was placed in the trust of the Hashemites because they were regarded as having means of support in face of an imminent danger,” says Azzam Khatib, director of the Jerusalem Waqf, or religious endowments.

That danger was the Zionist expansion into Palestine.

“The Hashemites had the power to preserve this trust: politically and physically. They raised money to renovate Al Aqsa,” said Mr Azzam by telephone from Jerusalem.

He termed the custodianship hereditary, reinforced by the Hashemite relationship to the Prophet.

“The Hashemites have stayed the course since 1924,” said Mr Azzam.

But safeguarding Al Aqsa has been challenged by Israel’s lurch to the right in the last two decades, manifested by various actions at the compound housing the mosque.

Muslims call the compound Haram Al Sharif.

A visit to the compound in the year 2000 by Ariel Sharon, Israel’s opposition leader at the time and later prime minister, was partly responsible for the second Palestinian intifada.

More instances of wider violence have occurred in subsequent years because of what Palestinians and many Arabs regarded as Israeli intransigence linked to Al Aqsa.

Israeli far-right provocations

One of the most recent was a visit to the compound by Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s National Security Minister.

It was one of Mr Ben-Gvir’s first public actions since he became a member of the new, far-right government that took office in Israel on December 29, 2022.

Jordan condemned the visit as a “scandalous” breach of international law.

The kingdom called on Israel, as the occupying power, to preserve the status quo at the compound and respect Jordan’s custodianship of the site, which includes its management.

UN Security Council members stress Al Aqsa mosque status quo

Representatives participate in a Security Council meeting at United Nations headquarters, Thursday, Jan.  5, 2023.  (AP Photo / Seth Wenig)

Israel does not explicitly acknowledge Jordan's custodianship, nor is the role directly mentioned in the 1994 Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty.

The treaty says Israel “respects the present special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in Muslim Holy shrines in Jerusalem” and that Jordan has a “historic role in these shrines”.

The Jordanian position, however, is accepted and supported internationally. It received a further diplomatic boost at a UN Security Council meeting in January.

UN Assistant Secretary General Khaled Khiari said at the meeting that all parties should “uphold the status quo, in line with the special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan”.

Beyond protecting the Al Aqsa, some in Palestine wanted Sharif Hussein to become the Muslim caliph as the Ottoman Empire was being dismantled.

The British and other Arab leaders thwarted Sharif Hussein’s drive for a wider Arab federation. Baathists and other Arab leftists, also became hostile to the Hashemites, particularly in Syria.

When Sharif Hussein raised money to renovate Al Aqsa, contributions came from across the Arab Middle East, and from as far as India, but not from Syria.

He died in Amman in 1930 and was buried next to Al Aqsa.

Updated: April 05, 2023, 5:34 PM