After Israel’s 1967 war with five Arab armies saw it gain control over East Jerusalem, the Jewish state did something unprecedented: it returned control of Judaism’s holiest site, the Temple Mount, to Jordanian authorities, in the interest of preserving regional religious peace. The move would appear to be the only time in recorded history that a religious group voluntarily ceded control over its most sacred shrine to another group which also venerated the area.
Since then, the site, where the First and Second Jewish Temples once stood, and where Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven, has been a flashpoint among Muslims and Jews. Under the Islamic Waqf, the religious body which governs the area, Jews are permitted to visit but not to pray, while Muslims face no such restrictions. But as the New York Times reports today, forbidding Jews to worship at their faith’s holiest spot isn’t enough for some Palestinian extremists, who have begun harassing Jews who dare to visit the site at all.
In a report titled “Palestinian Women Join Effort to Keep Jews From Contested Holy Site,” Diaa Hadid paints a disturbing picture of the daily humiliations suffered by Jews who set foot on the Temple Mount:
The women, covered face-to-toe, surrounded the Jewish group walking through the contested holy site in Jerusalem. “The army of Muhammad is coming!” the women shouted.
One woman covered her face with a poncho as she chanted against the Israeli police, who were guarding a group of religious Jews visiting the sprawling compound that Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call Al Aqsa, or the Noble Sanctuary. Another woman concealed her face with a fur stole. Tourists quickly vanished.
The chaotic scene, which has become routine at the sacred site, was led by a group of women known in their community as Muslim garrison soldiers, or mourabitat.
The group’s exploits have been happily posted to YouTube by their sympathizers for some time. Here is one such video from earlier this month, which captures Palestinian women and men hounding a small group of Jews as they walk quietly around the site:
The women tell the Times that they are afraid Israel will start allowing Jews to pray on the Mount–Judaism’s holiest shrine–which they consider unacceptable. This fear, however, is spurious. Setting aside the fact that allowing Jews to worship would seem to be completely unobjectionable to any believer in religious freedom, Prime Minister Netanyahu has explicitly and repeatedly committed to upholding the status quo ban on Jewish prayer–including in a video with an Arabic voiceover and subtitles.
Unfortunately, Palestinian media and leaders, including President Mahmoud Abbas, have openly stoked their people’s baseless fears, increasing regional unrest. Just last week, Palestinian MP Ahmed Abu Halabiyeh falsely warned that Israel was planning to evacuate all Muslims from the holy site and erect a Jewish sacrificial altar.
As the Times reports, women have taken an increasing role in the Palestinian fight against these alleged Jewish designs on the Temple Mount, owing to the public relations difficulty in confronting them and the fact that their full-body religious garb makes it hard for authorities to identify them:
The women arrive around 8 a.m. and stay until non-Muslim entry is stopped at 3 p.m. They exchange tips, like how to remain anonymous: Cover your face and change your clothes, including your shoes, before leaving the Israeli-guarded gates. In police interrogations, do not give away your friends’ identities and say you are a student.
On a recent morning, several dozen women gathered on stone stairs near the Al Aqsa entrance for tourists. They passed around tea and snacked on sesame seed-coated bread, ignoring the visitors, many of them with scarves wrapped around their legs in a hasty try at modesty.
They were keeping an eye out for Jews in religious dress, generally a tiny minority among the hundreds of non-Muslim tourists pouring through every day.
Suddenly a woman hollered — “Settlers!” — referring to religious Jews.
“God is great!” the women chanted, raising scarves and books to form a faceless choir. About 10 gave chase. About 10 men joined and surrounded the Jews. “The community of Muhammad does not kneel!” they shouted in Arabic…
The women broke into chants several times as the day passed. One older women, in particular, called Jews pigs and apes.
This account is not simply a vivid dispatch from another front in the Middle East’s many religious conflicts. It is also a sobering reminder of why many Israelis insist on ironclad security guarantees in any two-state deal with their Palestinian neighbors. After all, if Palestinian extremists cannot bring themselves to accept Jewish presence even at Judaism’s holiest site, it is hard to imagine them accepting a Jewish presence within any borders outside that site, without detailed and robust security arrangements to head off any unrest–and without responsible Palestinian leadership that calms the fears of its people rather than inflaming them.