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Al-Aqsa vs Israel: The Lurking Danger Beneath

Posted: 12 Mar 2014 10:14 AM PDT

Al-Aqsa vs Israel: The Lurking Danger Beneath

OPINION by Ramzy Baroud – Something sinister is brewing around and below al-Aqsa Mosque in occupied East Jerusalem, and it has the hallmark of a familiar Israeli campaign to strip the Mosque of its Muslim Arab identity. This time around, however, the stakes are much higher.

The status of al-Aqsa mosque is unparalleled within the context of Muslim heritage in Palestine itself. It is also the third holiest Muslim shrine anywhere. But equally as important, it is a symbol of faith, resistance and defiance. Its story of struggle and perseverance goes hand in hand with the very modern Palestinian struggle for rights, freedom and identity. 

Praying at al-Aqsa at times seems like an impossible feat. Many Palestinians lost life or limbs simply trying to gain access to the mosque. 

In a statement released on March 7, the Palestinian Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs said Israeli forces carried out 30 attacks against Al-Aqsa Mosque and other holy sites during the month of February alone. 

Most of the attacks targeted Al-Aqsa itself. While the recurring violations at Al-Aqsa were, according to the statement, led by Jewish settlers, they have done so under the watchful eye, protection and support of the Israeli police and army. 

Most alarming about these attacks is their political context, which indicates that a great degree of coordination is underway between politicians, security forces and Jewish settlers. 

In anticipation of a Palestinian backlash, on March 04, an Israeli court sentenced Islamic leader Sheikh Rade Saleh to eight months in prison for ‘incitement’. The Sheikh is the most outspoken Palestinian leader regarding the danger facing Al-Aqsa. Why silence Sheik Saleh now when the attacks against al-Aqsa are at an all times high?

It was on February 25, 1994, that US-born Jewish extremist Baruch Goldstein stormed into the Ibrahimi Mosque in the Palestinian city of al-Khalil (Hebron) and opened fire. The aim was to kill as many Arabs as he could. 

At that moment, nearly 800 Muslim worshipers were kneeling down during the dawn prayer in the holiest month of the Muslim Calendar, Ramadan. He killed up to 30 people and wounded over 120. Exactly 20 years later, the Israeli army stormed al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest Muslim site, and opened fire. The timing was no accident. 

Like the rest of the West Bank, Al-Khalil is facing the dual challenge of armed Jewish settlers and Israeli occupation soldiers; the latter enforcing the military occupation, while providing further protection to the settlers. The settlers, extremists from the illegal settlement of Kiryat Arba, often attack Palestinian residents of the town with complete impunity. Interestingly, many of Kiryat Arba settlers are Americans, as was Baruch Goldstein. 

It was not enough that Israeli soldiers within the vicinity of the Ibrahimi Mosque allowed Goldstein – armed with a Galil rifle and other weapons – access to the mosque, but they opened fire on worshipers as they tried to flee the scene. Israeli soldiers killed 24 more and injured others. 

Goldstein, now a hero in the eyes of many in Israel, is often blamed solely for the massacre in al-Khalil. But in fact, it was a mutual effort between Goldstein and the Israeli army. 

This symbiotic relationship between the army and settlers, which dates back to the early days of the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, continues. 

While Israeli bulldozers dig into Palestinian land during the day, levelling mounds of ground and destroying olive groves for settlement expansion, heavy machinery burrows beneath the Old City of al-Quds, Jerusalem, at night. The Israelis are looking for evidence of what they believe to be ancient Jewish temples, presumably destroyed in 586BC and AD70. 

To fulfil “prophecy”, Jewish extremists believe that a third temple must be built. But of course, there is the inconvenient fact that on that particular spot exists one of Islam’s holiest sites: The Noble Sanctuary, or al-Haram al-Sharif. It has been an exclusively Muslim prayer site for the last 1,300 years. 

The Noble Sanctuary, located in Jerusalem’s Old City, is the home of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. The site has been under constant threat, attacks, acts of arson and military violence for nearly five decades. 

The few Muslim clergy – belonging to the Islamic Trust that manages the area, along with the custodianship of Jordan – are mindful of the ever-lurking Israeli threat that oftentimes turns deadly. 

It was no surprise that late Israeli leader Ariel Sharon chose that exact place to carry out his proactive ‘tour’ of al-Aqsa compound in 2000. Many unarmed Palestinians, mostly worshipers, died on that day. 

Thousands more were lost in the following months and years as the entirety of the occupied territories and Palestinian towns inside Israel exploded with unprecedented fury. Sharon was later elected Prime Minister of Israel. 

That same dangerous combination – rightwing politicians allied with religious zealots – is at work once more. They are eyeing Al-Aqsa for annexation; the same way the Israeli government is labouring to permanently annex large swathes of the occupied West Bank, to preclude any future settlement with the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas. 

The Israeli Knesset (Parliament) chose the 20th anniversary of the Goldstein massacre of Palestinians in al-Khalil to begin a debate concerning the status of Al-Aqsa compound. 

Right-wingers – which constitute the bulk in the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – want the Israeli government to enforce its ‘sovereignty’ over the Muslim site, which is administered by Jordan per the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty of 1994. 

Israeli MP Moshe Feiglin is the man behind the move, but he is not alone. Feiglin is a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, and has strong backing within the party, the government and the Knesset. 

A major backer of Feiglin’s initiative is Miri Regev, also a far-right Likud member. Regev is demanding that the government establish separate prayer times for both Jews and Muslims in Al-Aqsa Compound. 

The model she wishes to duplicate is no other than the Ibrahimi Mosque. “We will reach a situation where the Temple Mount will be like the Cave of the Patriarchs, days for Jews and days for Muslims,” she said.

Of course, Regev omitted the fact that 20 years ago to the day, a Jewish extremist and Israeli troops killed and wounded hundreds of Palestinians kneeling for prayer. 

On the next day following the Israeli government debate, a thundering sound was heard around 3.00 a.m. in the Wadi Hilweh neighbourhood of Silwan, located south of the Old City of Jerusalem. 

Residents heard the “sounds of heavy duty machines digging under their houses throughout the night,” Ma’an reported. Then, a large wall suddenly collapsed, while a few houses sustained damage. The Israeli underground network of tunnels is growing, as some of these tunnels connect Wadi Hilweh to the Western Wall to Al-Aqsa. 

While the danger of Al-Aqsa Mosque collapsing is very real, it is a representation of the mentality that rules Israel: one of annexation and military occupation, with no regard whatsoever to Palestine’s holiest site, also revered by over 1.6 billion Muslims around the world. 

Ramzy Baroud www.ramzybaroud.net is an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).His latest book is: My Father was A Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press).

Israeli jets hit Gaza after heavy rocket fire

Bases of Hamas and armed wing of Islamic Jihad targeted following most intense barrage since 2012 conflict.

Last updated: 12 Mar 2014

Thursday’s salvo, which police said hit all along southern Israel’s border with Gaza, caused no casualties [AFP]

Israeli fighter jets have hit a number of targets in the Gaza Strip in response to heavy Palestinian rocket fire into Israel earlier, Palestinian witnesses say.

Aircraft hit on Thursday night bases of the Palestinian territory’s Hamas rulers and the armed wing of Islamic Jihad, Al-Quds Brigades, which had claimed responsiblity for firing dozens of rockets into Israel in response to deadly air raids.

The rocket fire was the biggest wave of attacks since a major eight-day November 2012 confrontation between Israel and Hamas fighters, and prompted Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister, to warn of a tough response.

The latest escalation in violence came just hours after David Cameron, British prime minister, arrived on his first official visit to the region since taking office in 2010.

The witnesses, including an AFP news-agency photographer, said there were nine Israeli attacks throughout the coastal enclave on facilities operated by Al-Quds and Hamas’s military wing, the Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades.

There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Hamas bases evacuated

The Associated Press news agency reported citing the Israeli military that tanks fired at “terror infrastructure” in Gaza and confirming at least one hit.

An Israeli military spokeswoman told AFP that fighter jets has been in action over Gaza but did not elaborate.

Residents in the territory’s Beit Hanoun area said they saw an Israeli strike hit a rocket-launcher squad.

Hamas personnel, including fighters, had earlier evacuated all their bases, security sources in Gaza said.

The earlier Al-Quds barrage, which Israel said came from several sites and police said hit all along southern Israel’s border with Gaza, caused no casualties.

In Gaza, Islamic Jihad’s armed wing, the Al-Quds Brigades, issued a statement claiming to have fired “70 rockets” at Israel.

 Missiles fell around Sderot

It said it had fired the rockets in response to an air strike on Tuesday that killed three of its fighters in southern Gaza.

Al-Quds Brigades further said its bombardment would continue in response to Israel’s “aggression” in Tuesday’s air raid.

Hamas warned Israel against escalating the confrontation.

“We hold the occupation responsible, we warn of the consequences of any escalation and we reiterate that resistance is the right of the Palestinian people to defend itself,” Ihab al-Ghassin, a spokesman for Hamas, said.

As tens of thousands of people living in southern Israel rushed to seek shelter from the bombardment, an Israeli security source told AFP that Palestinian fighters had fired more than 60 rockets and mortar rounds.

The army put the number at “more than 30 rockets”, saying eight of them had struck urban areas, and another three were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system.

“This is the biggest attack on Israel since the 2012 Operation Pillar of Defence,” the Israeli military said on Twitter, referring to the 2012 confrontation that claimed the lives of 177 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and six Israelis.

Police raised the level of alert in the south, saying the rockets struck along the length of Israel’s border with Gaza.

Micky Rosenfeld, Israeli police spokesman, said one rocket exploded near a petrol station and another near a public library in the town of Sderot.

Rocket fire condemned

Thursday’s rocket salvo began shortly after Netanyahu and Cameron addressed the Israeli parliament.

Cameron condemned the rocket fire, saying: “Let me absolutely clear about these attacks from Gaza, we condemn them completely.

“These attacks are completely indiscriminate aimed at civilian populations and that is a demonstration of how barbaric they are”.

Jen Psaki, US State Department spokeswoman, said the US “condemns in the strongest terms today’s rocket attacks into Israel by terrorists from the Gaza Strip. … Israel, like any nation, has a right to defend itself”.

Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general, strongly condemned the multiple rocket attacks and “[deplored] the severe escalation of violence”, Stephane Dujarric, a UN spokesman, said.

“He urges all actors to exercise maximum restraint to prevent further incidents that could bring greater escalation and destabilisation in the region.”

Netanyahu’s warning

The rocket fire drew a stern warning from Netanyahu, who pledged to act “with great force” against those seeking to harm Israel, a statement from his office said.

“We will continue to strike those who want to harm us; we’ll act against them very forcefully,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying in a separate statement communicated by Ofir Gendelman, his spokesman.

Later, Netanyahu issued another warning.

“If there won’t be quiet in the south [of Israel], there will be noise in Gaza, and this is an understatement,” he said, in remarks relayed by his office.

Moshe Yaalon, Israeli defence minister, ordered the closure from Thursday of the Kerem Shalom goods crossing between Israel and Gaza and the Erez pedestrian crossing “until further security assessments”, a military statement said.

Last week Israeli special forces captured a ship in the Red Sea that was carrying rockets and other weapons that Israel says were supplied by Iran and destined for Gaza.

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