Fears mount over rising Al-Aqsa tensions as Ramadan nears

No single event has a greater potential of triggering a regional war than an incendiary incident at Al-Aqsa during Ramadan — especially against the backdrop of Israel's brutal war in Gaza

Israeli police officers monitor Palestinians performing Friday prayers outside the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Occupied East Jerusalem on January 19.
Israeli police officers monitor Palestinians performing Friday prayers outside the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Occupied East Jerusalem on January 19.

Fears mount over rising Al-Aqsa tensions as Ramadan nears

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan will soon be upon us.

In Jerusalem, even non-Muslims, such as myself, have, year after year, witnessed the expressions of sanctity, solemnity, and devotion to God, as expressed in the daily rhythms of communal and solitary life, that are unique to Ramadan.

However, in recent years, Ramadan in Jerusalem has come to be associated with rising tension at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and with the potential eruption of violence ever-present beneath the surface.

This was evident in 2021, when the last round of violence between Israel and Gaza was triggered, among others, by events at Al-Aqsa. It was no coincidence that the war erupted on the final day of Ramadan.

In the past two years, Pesach (Passover), Easter and Ramadan were celebrated simultaneously, aggravating the cyclical tensions and causing each of these holy days to be punctuated by sporadic violence.

This year, Ramadan will take place in the shadow of the war and carnage in Gaza. Even in the weeks prior to Ramadan, Al-Aqsa had figured prominently in the calculus of Gaza's war and its "day after".

Read more: Gaza's "day after" poised to bring more strife than stability

The chronic volatility of events at and in relation to Al-Aqsa/the Temple Mount can only be understood in the context of the status quo in occupied East Jerusalem.

For years, events in Jerusalem in general and at Al-Aqsa in particular have been driven by extreme religious actors who “weaponise” faith.

The extreme Temple Mount movements that seek to allow for Jewish prayer at Al-Aqsa, considered fringe groups not long ago, are now mainstream. In fact, some members of Netanyahu's cabinet are openly aligned with them.


Israeli settlers storm Al-Aqsa complex in Jerusalem to mark Jewish New Year Hundreds of Israeli settlers on Sunday forced their way into the flashpoint #AlAqsa Mosque complex in occupied #EastJerusalem to celebrate the Jewish New Year #RoshHashanah

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Similarly, there are iterations of extreme political Islam that have become more vocal over the defence of Al-Aqsa.

And finally, we have the “end-of-days” evangelical Christians who are no less radical and inflammatory than their Jewish and Muslim counterparts.

More than ever in recent memory, these different groups have been driving events and dominating the discourse in Jerusalem. As a result, traditional religious movements whose moderation allowed for a reasonable cohabitation of faiths in Jerusalem have been marginalised.

The growing tensions caused by religious radicalisation are not entirely new. For more than a century, it has been the real or perceived threats to the integrity of sacred space at Al-Aqsa – the site which Jews see as the Temple Mount – that has sparked violence.

But what erupts in Jerusalem doesn’t stay in Jerusalem — clashes in the holy city invariably send shockwaves throughout the region and beyond.

An underlying cause

There is a specific Jerusalem/Al-Aqsa dimension to the war in Gaza. Opinion polls made throughout the occupied Palestininian territories and the Arab world have consistently found that a majority of those polled see the desecration and threats to Al-Aqsa as one of the most important underlying causes of the war.

The minutes of meetings among Hamas leadership recently released by Israeli intelligence have revealed that the threat to Al-Aqsa was one of the two major motivations for launching the attack at this time (the second being the opposition to Israeli-Saudi normalisation).

Read more: Arab normalisation with Israel loses appeal amid Gaza horrors

It needs to be said from the outset that many of the perceived threats were reckless rumours that simply did not exist. However, as comforting as it would be to attribute this all to malicious “fake news”, that is not always the case.

While many of these claims are maliciously spread by extremists to stoke rage among the public, events in recent years clearly indicate that some of these claims are not without merit, and there is indeed reason for Muslim concern.

Let’s examine some of these claims.

The threat to Al-Aqsa was one of Hamas' two major motivations for launching the 7 October attack. Muslim concern is not without merit.

Excavation under Haram al-Sharif

The claim that Zionists are excavating under Haram al-Sharif (the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound) is false. If there were, we would know, as would the rest of the world.

However, the fear is not entirely far-fetched. In the 1980s, East Jerusalem settlers tried to access the esplanade through underground shafts.

Discovered by the Waqf, subterranean rock battles between the settlers and Waqf guards ensued. As a result, the shafts were sealed with concrete and never re-opened.

However, while there are no excavations that violate the perimeter of Al-Aqsa, major excavations are taking place immediately adjacent to (but not within)  the containing wall of the esplanade.

In addition, massive excavations have been taking place for years under the Muslim Quarter of the Old City — near but not at Al-Aqsa. The late Israeli geographical historian Meron Benvenisti described these excavations as such:

"Unplanned and costing both human life and many millions of sheqels, a vast network of tunnels were created which allow for a visit to subterranean Jerusalem, that extends from what has become known as the City of David to the northern ramparts of the Old City."

"This underground city weaves a fabricated narrative – a Disneyland, really – that is designed to expunge thousands of years of non-Jewish history and create a purportedly direct link between the Second Temple Period until today."

"In this manner, sewage ditches and mouldy cellars are transformed into sacred sites and fabricated historical Jewish sites, with those who traverse it not encountering the embarrassing reality that reveals an Old City and Temple Mount teeming with Palestinians, in which the "city square" is once again devoid of Arabs." 

So, while the claim that there are excavations under Al-Aqsa is false, the excavations that are being carried out nearby should elicit great concern.

While the claim that there are excavations under Al-Aqsa is false, the excavations that are being carried out nearby should elicit great concern.

Israel intends to demolish Al-Aqsa

The claim that Israel intends to demolish the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock and replace them with a Jewish temple is also false.

Any possible threat to the structures on the esplanade – whether the physical structures of Al-Aqsa and the Noble Sanctuary or the dozens of secondary sacred sites that dot the Mount – is consistently viewed by the Israeli intelligence and security communities as one of the greatest threats to Israel's vital interests.

Nonetheless, Israeli intelligence operatives spend sleepless nights worrying about even the possibility of this happening, for good reason.

In the past, there have been groups of Jewish terrorists who have planned to carry out such an attack. Fortunately, the plan was thwarted in time.

In the past, those who called to build a synagogue or even to rebuild the Jewish Temple were seen as a lunatic fringe.  Today, there are those in positions of authority in Israel who no longer hide such intentions.

So, while the prospect of any physical harm to Al-Aqsa is remote, concern over it is valid.

Palestinians near the Dome of the Rock in occupied east Jerusalem on February 19.

Israel violates the status quo at Al-Aqsa

The claim that Israel is violating the status quo at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound is partially true. It is more accurate to say the status quo has eroded. However, it has not completely collapsed.

One of the difficulties that makes things somewhat ambiguous arises from the fact that there are varying interpretations of the term.

The term "status quo" has never been formalised and put in writing. Netanyahu best articulated the "bare-bones" definition of the status quo: "Muslims pray on the Temple Mount; non-Muslims visit the Temple Mount".

While accurate, this isn't the best way to characterise the complexities of the status quo. A somewhat more detailed definition of the status quo would be something like this:

"Al-Aqsa/the Temple Mount is exclusively a place of worship for Muslims that is open to the respectful visits of non-Muslims, in accordance with the autonomous authorities of the Waqf, and in accordance with the decorum at the site".

We propose using this description as the benchmark to measure deviation from the status quo.

While the prospect of any physical harm to Al-Aqsa is remote, concern over this is valid.

Jewish prayer increasingly allowed

Traditionally, Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount was strictly prohibited. However, in recent years, Israeli police have become much more permissive in allowing Jewish visitors to pray.

Initially, the police turned a blind eye to "silent prayer" that was becoming less silent and more vocal. The claim that Israel is maintaining the status quo regarding Jewish prayer is more than disingenuous. It is false. The numbers are small, the locations contained, but the prayers are taking place.

Eroding authority of the Waqf

After the 1967 war, Israel allowed a great deal of autonomy for the Jordanian Waqf, and matters were handled with minimal Israeli interference. This arrangement was later alluded to and enshrined in the 1994 Israel-Jordan Peace Agreement.

Today, that autonomy, as well, has been eroded. Israel has increasingly limited the authority of the Waqf, insisting that even the most mundane activities, such as minor or routine maintenance, receive the consent of the Israeli authorities.

While in the past, the Waqf played a key role in maintaining order on the Mount, Israel itself has undermined the Waqf's ability to do so.

There is a corollary to the decline of Waqf's authority, like the presence of the Israeli police. In the past, the police were posted on the perimeter of the Mount, with only a symbolic presence on the esplanade itself.

The police would enter the Mount only in extremis — that is, when there were violent incidents that the Waqf could not alone contain. 

While several years ago, the police were among the most stabilising elements at Al-Aqsa, today, their role has changed dramatically.

They are no longer perceived as a "fair broker" but rather as being in legion with the various Temple Mount movements, serving their interests over those of the Muslim worshipers. 

Customarily, tens of thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel attend Friday prayers weekly

Arrogant decorum

The issue of how visitors to Al-Aqsa comport themselves during the visits is the least known but possibly the most impactful component of the status quo.

One example will suffice.

In the years following the 1967 war, hundreds of Israelis would visit Al-Aqsa daily and without incident.  It was not necessary for the visitors to be accompanied by Waqf guards or police. It was simply unnecessary.

Today, the groups of Jewish visitors associated with the Temple Mount movements are accompanied closely by Israeli police details, which in turn are accompanied by the waqf guards.

But what changed?

Years back, when Jews would visit the Mount, the manner in which they behaved sent a clear message: "We are your guests".

Today, the visitors (best exemplified by Ministry of Internal Security Ben Gvir) comport themselves in a way that sends an entirely different message: "We aren't your guests. We're the landlord, and you are our tenants. We're here to collect the rent. You should get ready to be evicted".

An arena for triumphalism

Over the years, the Al-Aqsa/the Temple Mount has become an arena of ultra-nationalist triumphalism. Succinctly, ten years ago, it was the least occupied location in East Jerusalem — the rare, perhaps unique, safe space for Palestinians.

Today, Al-Aqsa is the most occupied place in Jerusalem, where the hand of Israeli rule is heaviest.

Ten years ago, Al-Aqsa was the least occupied place in Jerusalem; today, it is where Israeli rule is the heaviest.

Gaza war backdrop

So where does this all leave us at a time when brutal war rages, when the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem are both near a boiling point and Ramadan approaches?

Since the outbreak of the war on 7 October, occupied East Jerusalem in general and Al-Aqsa in particular, have been surprisingly "calm".

That calm is deceptive.

The reasons why the West Bank and East Jerusalem have not, as many expected, erupted into violent protests are complex and not fully understood. Regardless, there are a number of factors that have helped maintain stability at Al-Aqsa.

Both the Israeli police posted at the gates and the tens of thousands of Muslim worshipers have been displaying restraint. In particular, the police have been notably less aggressive than in the recent past.

There are clear signs that while Ben Gvir is instructing the police in East Jerusalem to be "tough", he has been stripped of his authority over the police in and around Haram al-Sharif, and the orders to the police emanate from the Prime Minister's Office.  

The results are palpable.

The numbers of Muslim worshipers and non-Muslim visitors have both declined sharply. The police allow only small groups of Temple Mount activists to visit at any given time and are far less tolerant of inflammatory behaviour.

The causes that have reduced the number of Muslim visitors are highly problematic. The West Bank is under lockdown, and Al-Aqsa is totally inaccessible to West Bank Muslims. Customarily, tens of thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel attend Friday prayers weekly.

However, since the outbreak of the war, their attendance has been minimal. In occupied East Jerusalem, entry has been allowed only for men above the age of 45.

Israeli police stand guard as Palestinian Muslims perform the Friday Noon prayer on a street in occupied East Jerusalem on February 23, 2024, as age restrictions have been imposed to access the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

On Fridays, younger Palestinians have been stopped at checkpoints well outside the Old City. Many have chosen to pray on the streets, and clashes with Police have ensued.

The relative calm in East Jerusalem and the West Bank is deceptive. The carnage of bloodshed in Gaza, the increasingly heavy hand of the police, the daily grind and humiliation of Israeli rule, and above all, the hopelessness have created the build-up of white-hot rage just below the surface.

Read more: Tensions mount as economic crisis grips West Bank

Left unattended, the eruption of this rage is only a matter of time. The dynamics described surrounding Ramadan and Al-Aqsa make these concerns all the more acute.

Measures taken to reduce the number of visitors to Al-Aqsa succeeded in maintaining quiet, but continuing to do so during Ramadan will likely have the opposite effect.

Years of the steady erosion of the status quo at Al-Aqsa cannot be reversed, nor the damage repaired, by one decision or series of decisions. It will require a protracted, painstaking process in which good faith stakeholders quietly restore the equilibrium.

However, the war in Gaza and the current regional tensions will not wait. This requires immediate and resolute engagement. No single issue or event has a greater potential of triggering a regional war than an incendiary incident at Al-Aqsa during Ramadan.

In Israel, some of the lines have already been drawn.

The notoriously racist Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben Gvir, has weighed in on the issues of Al-Aqsa and Ramadan, leaving little doubt that the risks of violence do not concern him. Indeed, it is not impossible that the eruption of violence is precisely what he seeks.

Ben Gvir is insisting that strict limitations be placed on access to Al-Aqsa during Ramadan, proposing that Palestinian citizens of Israel be allowed access only to men above the age of 40.

Stricter yet undisclosed limitations are to be imposed on the residents of occupied East Jerusalem. The Muslim residents of the occupied West Bank, who are already under closure, will be completely barred from entering Jerusalem and worshipping at Al-Aqsa.

Years of the steady erosion of the status quo at Al-Aqsa cannot be reversed by one decision. Restoring the equilibrium will be a painstaking process.

In contrast, both the IDF and the Israeli intelligence community are pushing back, asserting that this kind of collective punishment is not only unwarranted but dangerous.

Not only do they reject these blanket restrictions, but they assert that it is both possible and imperative to provide access to Al-Aqsa from the West Bank, and that, alone, failing to do so risks triggering widespread violence.

So far, Netanyahu has tentatively backed Ben Gvir.

Were this not already volatile and complicated enough, Hamas is reportedly insisting on including the issue of Al-Aqsa in the hostage release/ceasefire talks.

The potential consequences of an eruption of violence against the backdrop of the war in Gaza are being treated seriously by Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, and by the major players in the international community.

However, all that might not suffice.

Fortunately, the current circumstances may have created new and potentially stabilising opportunities.

Netanyahu has prioritised normalisation with the Arab world, making him as attentive as ever to voices in the Arab League in general and among the Gulf states in particular.

No one can tell Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf states that Al-Aqsa is none of their business. He will need to listen.

The stars have aligned in such a way that the process of normalisation can be harnessed in a way that will advance the desperately needed cessation of violence, perhaps decisively.

Finally, securing the integrity of Jerusalem and all of its holy sites — particularly Al-Aqsa — must figure prominently in any "day-after" scenario in Gaza.

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