Al Aqsa prayers peaceful after Jordan-Israel talks

Concerns that recent Israeli actions would lead to clashes after the sermon led Jordan to negotiate with Israel

Prayers outside the Lion's Gate entrance to Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem. AFP
Prayers outside the Lion's Gate entrance to Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem. AFP

Friday prayers at Al Aqsa compound in Jerusalem passed peacefully after talks between Jordan and Israel eased tensions caused by an order to close part of the site.

Israel’s closure of a building at the Gate of Mercy and the arrest of senior officials from the Waqf council that manages the Haram Al Sharif led to a month of disputes.

Thousands of worshippers attended noon prayers on Friday as Israeli police patrolled in force, fearing that the sermon would end in protests that could turn violent. However, the crowds dispersed peacefully after prayers.

The Associated Press quoted a Jordanian official who confired that Amman – the custodian of the sacred compound – held "intensive talks" with Israeli authorities this week to defuse tensions.

Palestinian Muslim worshippers pray during Friday noon prayers near the Golden Gate (background), also known as the Gate of Mercy, inside the Aqsa mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem, on March 8, 2019. The compound is the third-holiest site in Islam and a focus of Palestinian aspirations for statehood, but it is also the location of Judaism's most holy spot, revered as the site of the two biblical-era Jewish temples. Jews are allowed to visit but cannot pray there and it is a frequent scene of conflict between the two sides. / AFP / AHMAD GHARABLI
Palestinian Muslim worshippers pray during Friday noon prayers near the Golden Gate (background), also known as the Gate of Mercy, inside Al Aqsa mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem. AFP

The Waqf, a Jordanian-

appointed body that oversees Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, staged periodic prayer-protests since late February to call for the reopening of the building.

Israel shut the building at the Gate of Mercy in 2003, claiming it was being used by a heritage organisation with ties to Hamas.

The Waqf says that because this heritage group is now defunct, the trust should regain full access to the building. According to Waqf secretary Bassem Abu Labda, the body has unsuccessfully petitioned the Israeli authorities for the past 16 years to reopen the area.

Last month, when a delegation from Jordan toured the dilapidated hall to inspect water leaks and discuss renovation plans, the Waqf for the first time did not clear the opening with the Israeli authorities, Mr Abu Labda said.

Israel responded by placing a chain over the door, prompting outrage from Palestinian worshippers. Demonstrations have since developed into stand-offs with Israeli police.

Israel has barred several high-ranking Waqf officials from the compound and arrested dozens of Palestinians on suspicion of inciting violence at the site. Waqf chairman Sheikh Abdel-Azeem Salhab and his deputy were both arrested on February 24.

Jordan’s Islamic Affairs and Holy Places Minister Abdel Naser Abu Elbasal condemned Sheikh Salhab’s arrest, calling it a serious escalation and accusing Israel of “playing with fire”.

That the closure of one building containing some offices and a small library can spark such a reaction reveals the sensitivity and potency of the site, revered by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and Jews as the Temple Mount.

The walled compound, home to Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock has been the source of major confrontations.

With a few exceptions, a tenuous calm has prevailed at the compound, in large part due to intricate security arrangements between the Israeli authorities and the Waqf. But any change in the status quo can inflame tensions.

When Israel installed metal detectors at the site in 2017 after a deadly attack in July that year by Arab gunmen, mass Palestinian protests erupted which resulted in bloodshed. Leaders across the Arab world accused the Israeli authorities of encroaching on Islamic rights at the shrine.

“An event like this can be a lightning rod,” said Betty Herschman from Ir Amim – an activist group that focuses on Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem.

“It’s in everyone’s interest to resolve this crisis and protect the entirety of the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary.”

Updated: March 9, 2019 10:14 PM


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