JERUSALEM: For Muslims, the Al Aqsa Mosque is an icon of Palestinian statehood and their third holiest site - one, they believe, is increasingly under threat by Israeli authorities. For the Jews, the mosque sits within their holiest place – the Temple Mount, from where they are prevented from praying.
The Temple Mount compound that houses the Al Aqsa Mosque has been at the centre of a row between Palestinians and Israelis and violent clashes are increasingly becoming regular there. The Al Aqsa Mosque compound is also a major sticking point of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a move the Israeli government hoped would calm tensions, it agreed that non-Muslims would be prohibited from praying here, but many Jews are against this arrangement.
Rabbi Yehuda Glick campaigns for non-Muslims to be allowed to pray here and his activity had him nearly assassinated in 2014. Like many religious Jews, he too wants to pray at the site of the ancient Jewish Temple.
“This is the main entrance to the Temple Mount, the holiest place in the world. Millions of people coming from all over the world,” said Yehuda Glick, chairman of the Temple Mount Heritage Foundation. “I used to come here every single day, three to four times a day; today I’m limited from going because the police claims that if I ascend, this will justify Islamic radical violence and therefore I do not ascend at this time.”
But despite the ban, recent rumours that Jews were trying to pray at the Temple Mount compound saw Muslim clerics in mosques and on social media urging young Arabs to defend the site Many heeded the call, resulting in violent clashes - not only here - but across Israel and the West Bank.
Sheikh Omar Al Kiswani heads the Islamic authority that oversees the running of the compound. He is adamant that only Muslims should be allowed to pray here.
“This is the place from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended to the heavens and was imposed to pray in the skies of this holy compound,” said Sheikh Omar. “This is a proof that this place is a heritage to Muslims and explains the significance of the site’s sanctity to Muslims because it's our doctrine.”
He added: “This is a private place for Muslims and non-Muslims have no right to visit unless it was approved under the authority of the Waqf (Islamic Trust).”
Israel took over the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in 1967 from Jordan. Since then, a series of agreements have been in place defining the relations of power between Jews and Muslims. For years, Islamic authorities complained Israel have been breaching the accords and covertly attempting to take it over by allowing Orthodox Jews to visit.
The Americans have suggested allowing cameras to monitor activity on the site. But the Muslim authorities say they will agree only if the cameras are not inside the mosques and the video stream does not reach Israel.
Observers believe this is only a temporary solution. “I don’t think that this is a solution, I don’t think it will hold for a long time,” said Oded Eran, former Israeli ambassador to Jordan. “If there are certain elements that are interested in once again provoking attention on the Temple Mount either as a way to get Israel smeared or criticised, they will find a way in spite of the cameras.”
Tempers are running high - and neither side trusts the other. This violence is nothing new. Time and time again this site has been the driving force behind violent acts between Israelis and Palestinians.
In fact some on both sides argue it is the very core of the conflict. Administered by Islamic authorities and secured by Israeli forces, this compound remains one of the most volatile sites in the Middle East today.