The Al-Aqsa crisis marks a new chapter in the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation


As momentous as images of crowds praying in the streets of East Jerusalem in July, in defiance of shocking displays of police brutality, were those that came days later, as thousands of Palestinians poured into the Al-Aqsa mosque compound to celebrate an unlikely accomplishment – a successful pushback by the Palestinian public against what they denounced as further Israeli encroachment on Palestinian rights.

On 14 July, three Palestinian-Israelis from the town of Umm al-Fahm carried out a shooting attack at one of the entrances of the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, killing two Israeli police officers – who happened to be Palestinian Druze with Israeli citizenship – before Israeli forces killed them inside the compound.

Israel closed off Al-Aqsa for nearly three days following the attack, marking the first time that the mosque had been shut down for Friday prayers since the 1960s. When the holy site was reopened, however, Palestinian Jerusalemites were outraged to discover that Israel had installed metal detectors and security cameras at the entrances of Al-Aqsa, despite the compound being under Jordanian custodianship.

Thousands of Palestinians refused to enter the Al-Aqsa compound, choosing instead to pray in the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem in protest. Many more demonstrated in solidarity in the occupied West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and in neighbouring countries, until Israel capitulated and removed all new security measures at Al-Aqsa on 27 July.

While the events unfurling at Al-Aqsa have by and large been reduced to a rejection of metal detectors, the demonstrations have served as a reminder of the complex symbolism of Al-Aqsa within the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict amidst ever-tightening Israeli measures in the occupied territory, while sparking hopes for a turning point in popular Palestinian engagement.

Al-Aqsa – a religious and national symbol for Palestinians

Al-Aqsa is the third holiest place in Islam, and it is also believed to be the site where the First and Second Jewish Temples once stood. However, Palestinians have rejected simplified narratives attributing the uproar solely to religious sensitivities surrounding the site.

“Al-Aqsa has always been a symbolically important building, both historically and religiously,” Jawad Siyam, the director of the Wadi Hilweh Information Center in East Jerusalem, told Equal Times. “In the 1980s and 1990s, the first to defend it were secular Palestinians.”

Siyam added that Palestinian Christians had also come out in support of Al-Aqsa, perceiving the crisis as Israeli infringement on freedom of worship as part of a broader policy of “Judaization” in Jerusalem at the expense of non-Jewish heritage of the city.

“Even Christians were participating, because they know that if today it’s the mosque, tomorrow it could be the church,” Siyam said. “Secular or religious Palestinians, Hamas or Fatah, we all agree on one thing, and it’s that All-Aqsa is a red line.”

For Farid al-Atrash, a prominent Palestinian lawyer, activist, and the chairman of the Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR) in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, it was not surprising that the situation at Al-Aqsa garnered such widespread popular support – even though the vast majority of Palestinians in the occupied territory are barred from entering Jerusalem.

“Al-Aqsa is still a big symbol for Palestinians from the West Bank, even if they don’t have access to Jerusalem, because it is in the capital of the Palestinian state,” al-Atrash told Equal Times, adding that Palestinians saw the demonstrations as part of the broader struggle to “defend our Arab and Palestinian heritage”.

Israel keeps the pressure on Palestinians

The toll of 13 days of unrest was heavy: nine Palestinians were killed by Israelis, including six people who were shot dead in clashes. Meanwhile, three Israeli settlers were killed in a stabbing attack in the central occupied West Bank at the height of the demonstrations.

While Israeli officials said the crisis in Jerusalem was “coming to an end” since the removal of its security apparatus in Al-Aqsa, security forces have continued to crack down on Palestinians who participated in the demonstrations – detaining 100 Palestinians in the Al-Aqsa compound on 27 July alone.

“Israel politicians need to tell their people that they are not weak, and show that they are arresting Palestinians, that they are beating them,” Siyam said, adding that the Wadi Hilweh Information Center had recorded the detention of 440 Jerusalemite Palestinians, 77 of them minors, in July alone.

Siyam also pointed out that while Israeli forces were violently repressing Palestinian protesters in the streets, Israeli parliamentarians were pushing forward a bill seeking to make any division of Jerusalem under a two-state process near impossible.

For Israeli professor Ido Zelkovitz, who heads the Middle East studies department at Yezreel Valley College in Israel, the events at Al-Aqsa should have made Israeli authorities realise the changing nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, given the wavering influence of traditional political parties on Palestinian youth.

“From the Israeli perspective, I think the lesson has been learned that, in a new age of politics when social media replaces local leadership, if you want to put an end to crisis you need to develop dialogue with local [Palestinian] leadership and with civil society,” Zelkovitz told Equal Times.

However, Zelkovitz added that the events had likely steered Israeli politics even further to the right.

“Due to the fact that Israeli citizens of Palestinian origin launched the [14 July 14] attack…Israelis, even from the left side of the political divide, are thinking of the possibility of not only a land swap, but also a population swap,” as part of any future two-state solution, he said. This means that Israel would not only seek to permanently annex illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory, but to transfer some of the 1.8 million Palestinian citizens of Israel to a newly formed Palestinian state.

A victory of the people?

For many Palestinians though, one thing is clear: the outcome of the Al-Aqsa crisis marks a momentous feat of public mobilisation amidst ever-increasing Israeli repression. The achievement is seen as all the more significant due to the limited influence of traditional political factions in the protest movement.

The emergence of such a strong popular movement is in part credited to the ongoing divisions between Fatah, the ruling party of the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.

While the conflict between the two parties and growing disillusionment over the Palestinian ruling class have contributed to the growth of more localised independent resistance, al-Atrash said that political unity was necessary to push the Palestinian struggle forward.

“I believe that on-the-ground activism is one of the most important ways to resist this occupation, but we need to adopt it as a general, national mode of resistance,” he said. “For this to happen, one of the most important thing to do is to end internal Palestinian divisions.”

“We were successful in removing the metal detectors, and that is a symbolic victory telling Israelis that they cannot do what they want, whenever they want,” al-Atrash said. “I consider this a victory for the non-violent popular resistance.”

Siyam also hailed the message sent to Israel by the demonstrators’ ability to achieve change, as other recent mass Palestinian movements have often struggled to obtain tangible results.

“Israel cannot be the only one making the decisions, because we are on the ground,” Siyam said. “For Israel to succeed completely, it would have to kill all Palestinians.”

While comparisons have been rife between the events of July and the wave of unrest across the occupied Palestinian territory in late 2015, al-Atrash was reluctant to describe the Al-Aqsa protests as a sequel to the popular revolt a year and a half earlier.

“I don’t see this as a continuation of the 2015 intifada, because Palestinians are always defending, protecting, and protesting against all Israeli procedures and violations against religious sites, lands, and homes,” he said.

Siyam also stressed that the issue of Al-Aqsa was only one facet of the longstanding Palestinian fight against the Israeli occupation.“There is no one Palestinian struggle. In some areas we are protesting against settlements, in others against the separation wall,” Siyam said. “We know [Al-Aqsa] is not going to liberate Palestine, but it is giving us positive energy to move forward.”

Al-Atrash concurred: “If the occupation goes on, the resistance will go on.”