Despite the so-called "silent intifada" raging not-so-silently in Jerusalem in recent days, the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) is voting next month on a bill which is said would support the division of the Al Aqsa mosque between Muslims and Jews. Known to Jewish people as the Temple Mount, Jews believe that Al Aqsa is constructed on the site of the remains of the Second Temple, destroyed in 70CE during the Roman siege of Jerusalem, and that the rock (under the Dome of the Rock) is where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. Jews pray facing towards the Temple Mount, as it is also the sight of the Holy of Holies, the most sacred site for Jews from the Temple Period, the inner sanctuary of the First Temple where the Ten Commandments were said to have been kept.
However, many Muslims believe that this same site is where the prophet Mohammad ascended into heaven with the angel Gabriel, and whilst Muslims today pray towards Mecca, they used to pray facing Al Aqsa, until a revelation from Allah to Mohammad told them to change.
It is the third holiest place for Muslims, and the holiest site for Jews, yet Jews cannot outwardly pray there. Today, Jews pray at the Western Wall below, closest to the "Holy of Holies". Jordan has been the custodian of Muslim holy sites in East Jerusalem since 1967; Jordan has said recently that "Al Aqsa and Jerusalem are red lines", warning that any measures taken by Israel to change the status quo in these areas may lead to a third intifada, which many believe has already begun. March 2013 saw Jordan's King Abdullah and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sign a historic agreement to protect Al Aqsa and all Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, also pledging a "common goal of defending Jerusalem together, especially at such a critical time, when the city is facing dramatic challenges and daily illegal changes to its authenticity and original identity". This comes at a time when directly next to Al Aqsa is the Palestinian area of Silwan, recently in the headlines due to the night-time settlement movement by 29 new Jewish families into the area. They believe that Silwan was the capital of the biblical King David's City, and formerly the Yemenite village from which Jews were evicted by the British during the Mandate period. Abbas has since announced that any Palestinian selling his property to Jews will be sentenced to hard labour for life.
Restrictions at Al Aqsa/ the Temple Mount have been exercised since 1967: From 7-11am five days a week Jews may enter the Al Aqsa compound but may not outwardly pray. In recent times, however, the IDF has escorted groups of extremist settlers (termed as "tourists" by Israel) into the compound, forcefully evicting Muslims praying there using stun and smoke grenades, despite the Wacf, Islamic clerics, being officially in control of the site. Clashes in Jerusalem's Old City have followed, with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal last week calling on all Muslims to "defend Al Aqsa". Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon entered in the Al Aqsa mosque in 2000 with 1000 armed guards, which sparked what became known as the Aqsa intifada. This week, Abbas stated. "It is our sacred place, al-Aqsa [mosque] is ours, this Noble Sanctuary is ours. They have no right to go there and desecrate it". He also said that Palestinians should use "all means" to counter the "onslaught" of Jews at Al Aqsa. It would appear that political leaders from both sides are stoking the flames, and it is the citizens, in the end, who suffer. This October Israeli security severely restricted access to Palestinians during this year's Sukot holiday to allow hundreds of settlers to visit the site. Palestinians under the age of 50 were often forced to pray in the road outside the mosque, leading to regular violent clashes. It should also be noted that most Palestinians, those from Gaza and those from the West Bank without a permit to enter Jerusalem, which is the majority, are not allowed access to Al Aqsa.
In responding to questions about the proposed Knesset bill, Israeli MK and Deputy Religious Affairs Minister from the right-wing Likud Party, Miri Regev, said that "We cannot have a situation in which a state cannot realise its sovereignty and people can't pray at sites holy to them". Details of the bill have not yet been revealed, but reports have claimed that it may lift the ban on Jews praying at the site, may extend visiting hours for Jews and may even divide the site between Jews and Muslims. Such an arrangement would be reminiscent of the conditions in place at the Ibrahimi mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, divided since the Baruch Goldstein massacre of 1994 when an extremist Jewish settler killed 29 Muslims while at prayer. Today, there are separate halves of the Mosque/Synagogue for Muslims and Jews, however also different entry conditions. Armed Jews may enter without leaving identity cards, however Palestinians must go through a metal detector and leave their identity cards with security officers until they come out.
Most reasonable people from the outside looking in would agree that it makes sense for both religions to share this holy place, that both have the right to practice their religion openly and freely, without infringing on the other's equal rights. However, in this land neither reason, nor sense, nor justice, prevail. This debate is being played in in the context of a country still at war, a country in which one people is subject to different rules than the other, and a country in which it is the powerful who make the decisions. Perhaps it is understandable that with Palestinians losing more and more with ever-growing settlements, and a two-state solution looking ever less likely, they are loathe to consider sharing a holy site with their enemy. Perhaps if the situation on the ground were different, if a peace agreement had been signed, a Palestinian state established alongside Israel, settlements stopped and some perhaps withdrawn, perhaps there might be some leeway for mutual respect, mutual freedom of religion and expression. But in the current conditions? Not a chance.