Your Source for NPR News & Music
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
KTEP is currently undergoing maintenance at transmitter site. We are operating on low FM power.

Tension at Al-Aqsa Mosque is deepening with each day of the Israel-Hamas war

Palestinian women pray outside the Dome of the Rock in East Jerusalem during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, on April 3.
Samar Hazboun for NPR
Palestinian women pray outside the Dome of the Rock in East Jerusalem during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, on April 3.

JERUSALEM At 7 a.m. every weekday, the large green doors of the mosque at the Al-Aqsa compound, usually wide open, close with a bang as Palestinian worshippers shutter themselves inside. Israeli police begin to take their positions in front of the mosque and around the Dome of the Rock, in preparation for the arrival of dozens of nationalist and religious Israeli Jews.

One frequent visitor is Yehuda Glick, a leader in the movement pushing for Jewish prayer at the compound. The U.S.-born rabbi and right-wing former Israeli lawmaker comes in with a group. They stop at the stairs leading to the Dome of the Rock and begin to pray.

Years ago, Glick was arrested for coming here to pray. Now he walks in, protected by police.

"Bless the state of Israel, God almighty, please unite our hearts to rebuild your temple," Glick says, referring to a third temple that some Jews hope to build where the Dome of the Rock — one of the holiest sites in Islam — now stands.

"This is what we are here for: to make sure this is a house of prayer for all nations. And when I come here, we always pray, that's what we do here," Glick tells NPR.

Israeli Jews visit the Al-Aqsa compound under police escort on March 21.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
/
Maya Levin for NPR
Israeli Jews visit the Al-Aqsa compound under police escort on March 21.
Yehuda Glick, a New York-born Israeli activist in the movement for Jewish prayer rights at the Temple Mount, stands in front of the Dome of the Rock on March 21.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
/
Maya Levin for NPR
Yehuda Glick, a New York-born Israeli activist in the movement for Jewish prayer rights at the Temple Mount, stands in front of the Dome of the Rock on March 21.
Yehuda Glick gives a tour to Christian tourists, during which he led them in prayer, in front of Al-Aqsa Mosque on March 21.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
/
Maya Levin for NPR
Yehuda Glick gives a tour to Christian tourists, during which he led them in prayer, in front of Al-Aqsa Mosque on March 21.

Last week, on the last Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, tens of thousands of Muslims attended prayers at Al-Aqsa. Videos show groups of people chanting, "With our souls, with our blood, we will sacrifice it all for you, Al-Aqsa." Israeli police dispersed crowds with tear gas from drones and said they arrested eight men, four of them citizens of Israel, "for incendiary chants and supporting terrorism."

The daily interactions between Palestinians, Jewish activists and Israeli police at one of the world's most sensitive religious sites have long been a flashpoint of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the war in Gaza has brought these tensions to the forefront, with far-reaching implications for Israel and the region.

Just blocks away from the mosque, in her home in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, 59-year-old Palestinian Aida al-Sidawi has been banned by Israeli police from going to Al-Aqsa for six months.

"Perhaps because when settlers come to Al-Aqsa, I stand close and watch them, sometimes I say 'Allahu akbar!' [God is great] if I see them singing, dancing or praying," Sidawi says.

She's part of a group of mostly older Palestinian women known as the Murabitat (which means "bonded ones"), who see themselves as protectors of the mosque, largely by being present especially in the hours when Jews are expected to visit.

Since Oct. 7, when the Palestinian militant group Hamas led an attack in Israel, killing 1,200 people and sparking the war in Gaza, Israeli police have arrested or banned many of the women from going to Al-Aqsa.

"Al-Aqsa is the key to peace and the key to war. If they [Israelis] keep their hands off Al-Aqsa, everything will quiet down, just like it used to be," Sidawi says.

Far-right Israelis are challenging the status quo over the holy site

The esplanade that is home to Al-Aqsa, and the Western Wall, which supports it, are revered by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and by Jews as the Temple Mount, where the Second Temple stood before it was destroyed by the Romans.

After Israel began its occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, the country agreed to continue an arrangement aimed at maintaining religious balance: Jews would pray at the Western Wall and Muslims would pray at the Al-Aqsa plateau. Non-Muslims would be allowed to visit Al-Aqsa at certain hours but were barred from praying there.

That remains the official Israeli government policy. But in recent years, as Israeli far-right factions have taken powerful positions in government, there has been a steady challenge to the status quo.

Most notably, in 2022, Itamar Ben-Gvir was appointed national security minister, with oversight of the police. Ben-Gvir often advocates for the Temple Mount to be strictly Jewish and his wife is one of the leaders of the Temple Mount movement.

"Tell me, 25-30 years ago, did we have any issues here? No," Sidawi says. "There were no break-ins [by Israeli Jews]. When the settlers tried to come in to pray they would be blocked by the police."

Analysts say Israeli police, which used to have a moderating presence on the site, now mainly protect Jews who go there to pray. They say the officers often restrict Palestinian and Muslim access arbitrarily, especially younger men — some of whom have clashed with police at the site.

In recent years, when Ramadan and the Jewish holiday of Passover overlapped, police raids on Al-Aqsa sparked further conflict, with militants in Gaza and Lebanon firing rockets at Israel.

"On a daily basis, Israel violates the status quo by any interpretation," says Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli attorney and expert on Jerusalem. "There are often displays of Israeli nationalistic triumphalism on the Temple Mount."

Abe Truitt, a spokesperson for Beyadenu, a group that lobbies for "Jewish sovereignty at the Temple Mount," says the movement has been under pressure during Ramadan not to go to the Temple Mount "in order to deter any further escalations" due to the war in Gaza.

"There are only Muslim shrines and no dedication to the Jewish shrines underneath them. I would say that if you look at it in current terms, there is no balance," Truitt says.

Palestinians make their way to cross the Qalandia checkpoint from the West Bank to Jerusalem on the third Friday of Ramadan, March 30. Israel placed restrictions on Palestinians attempting to get to the Old City's holy sites during the Muslim holy month.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
/
Maya Levin for NPR
Palestinians make their way to cross the Qalandia checkpoint from the West Bank to Jerusalem on the third Friday of Ramadan, March 30. Israel placed restrictions on Palestinians attempting to get to the Old City's holy sites during the Muslim holy month.

For Palestinians, Al-Aqsa is life or death

For many young Palestinians, Ramadan — which began March 11 and ends this week — was the first time in nearly six months that they were allowed to enter Al-Aqsa.

Since Oct. 7, Israeli police have heavily restricted Palestinian entry, allowing only the elderly population of the Old City in. For Ramadan, Ben-Gvir advocated for a near-blanket ban on Palestinian Muslims, including Israeli citizens, from entering the holy site. He was overruled by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the War Cabinet, as senior national security officials were wary of further escalations during the war, with limited troops available.

"The Temple Mount is the explosive barrel of the world, it is appropriate that we handle it carefully," says Mickey Levy, a member of Israel's legislature, the Knesset, for a centrist party and a former chief of Jerusalem police. "It is appropriate that people who are professionals with a lot of experience make the decisions and not some minister or another who wants to set the area on fire."

Muslim worshippers and Palestinian families break their fast during Ramadan at the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in East Jerusalem, on April 3.
/ Samar Hazboun for NPR
/
Samar Hazboun for NPR
Muslim worshippers and Palestinian families break their fast during Ramadan at the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in East Jerusalem, on April 3.
Palestinian families break their fast at the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in East Jerusalem, on April 3.
/ Samar Hazboun for NPR
/
Samar Hazboun for NPR
Palestinian families break their fast at the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in East Jerusalem, on April 3.
Palestinian women pray inside the Dome of the Rock in East Jerusalem, on April 3.
/ Samar Hazboun for NPR
/
Samar Hazboun for NPR
Palestinian women pray inside the Dome of the Rock in East Jerusalem, on April 3.

Just before sunset during Ramadan, thousands of Muslims begin to make their way to the compound, buying dates, falafel or freshly baked bread from Old City vendors along the way, before breaking their fast on one of the many lawns and gazebos around the Dome of the Rock and the mosque. Children run around, playing catch and soccer.

A group of three young women are taking selfies with the Dome of the Rock in the background. They speak on the condition that NPR use their first names only, out of fear of Israeli police.

"This is my home and this is my paradise. We love the atmosphere here, we come as much as we can, even with all the difficulties Israel places in front of us," says 23-year-old Tamara. She took a 2 1/2-hour bus ride to get here from her home in Nazareth, Israel.

"We're always afraid that something is going to happen to this place, it is everything to us," says Ameera, 26, who is from East Jerusalem. "Of course, we come here to pray, but also to be in peace and comfort and be together, because these are things we don't have outside."

The arena is full of young men and women, many from inside Israel who are making a point of being here. Many Palestinians say Al-Aqsa is the single most critical issue in their lives.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, 18-year-old Bisan goes to her local mosque for the traditional Ramadan nightly prayers. Israel did not relax restrictions for Palestinians in the West Bank for Ramadan. Girls and women between the ages of 10 and 50 and men and boys between the ages of 10 and 55 are not allowed to visit the mosque.

Muslim worshipers pray outside of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem on March 15.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
/
Maya Levin for NPR
Muslim worshipers pray outside of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem on March 15.

"Everyone knows that Ramadan is not Ramadan without Al-Aqsa," Bisan says.

"You get sad because you can't go to Al-Aqsa and you think of why, and you get sadder for your brothers and sisters in Gaza," says Bisan. "And in recent years, we've seen more and more settlers going in and doing whatever they want, while we are banned. It's really painful."

A massacre 30 years ago continues to haunt Muslims

In 1994, in the West Bank city of Hebron, following years of tensions between Jewish settlers and Muslims over the Ibrahimi Mosque, also known as the Cave of the Patriarchs, American-Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein opened fire at Muslims who were praying there, killing 29 people.

After the shooting, the mosque — revered by Jews and Muslims as the burial site of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — was divided by Israel, turning the larger section into a synagogue. Palestinians now have to pass through multiple security screenings to access the smaller Muslim worship area.

Many Muslims fear the same will happen at Al-Aqsa.

"Goldstein was a Temple Mount activist, and the connection to the holy sites is very clear," says Eran Tzidkiyahu, a scholar at Hebrew University who is an expert on the Jewish-Muslim struggle over the holy sites. "The war in the background, the fact that our minister of national security [Ben-Gvir] is a known fan of Baruch Goldstein and even had a poster of him on his wall."

Analysts say that most Israelis, especially secular ones and those living in the city of Tel Aviv, don't take the Temple Mount movement too seriously and see it as a fringe group.

"But it is no longer so marginal if one of its members is the minister of national security," Tzidkiyahu says.

A Jewish man looks at a model of what the Temple Mount would have looked like before destruction on his way into the Al-Aqsa compound on March 21.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
/
Maya Levin for NPR
A Jewish man looks at a model of what the Temple Mount would have looked like before destruction on his way into the Al-Aqsa compound on March 21.
Israeli border policemen gather as Muslim worshipers arrive to the Old City of Jerusalem for Friday prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque on March 15.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
/
Maya Levin for NPR
Israeli border policemen gather as Muslim worshipers arrive to the Old City of Jerusalem for Friday prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque on March 15.
Israeli police check bags as they oversee the entrance to Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem's Old City on the first Friday of Ramadan, on March 15.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
/
Maya Levin for NPR
Israeli police check bags as they oversee the entrance to Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem's Old City on the first Friday of Ramadan, on March 15.

An existential issue for Israel

Tensions over the site have often boiled over into violence. Hamas named its Oct. 7 attack "Al-Aqsa Flood."

Analysts say the naming of the attack is significant: Hamas tried to anchor its justification for the attack on a larger cause by saying it is fighting not just for Palestinians, but for all Muslims, and by capitalizing on an acute fear around the mosque's status.

But it's more than a cynical mobilization of religious symbols, according to Tzidkiyahu. The issue of the Al-Aqsa Mosque has played a major role in Israeli national security for decades.

"I would say that the dynamic that was created around the holy site is one of the main reasons for the collapse of the peace process in the 1990s," Tzidkiyahu says. "So, it's not only about Israeli and Palestinian security, it's about American interests in the Middle East. It's about the wider region."

The collapse of the peace process has also brought about a dominance of religious nationalism on both the Israeli and Palestinian side, with the fight to have control over the holy sites at the root of it.

Regarding the current war in Gaza, the lawmaker Levy says there is a direct link between that and what's happening on the Temple Mount.

A view of the Dome of the rock in the Al Aqsa compound with the old city of Jerusalem behind it on March 21, 2024.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
/
Maya Levin for NPR
A view of the Dome of the rock in the Al Aqsa compound with the old city of Jerusalem behind it on March 21, 2024.

"This is Yahya Sinwar's dream, to unite arenas," he says, referring to the Hamas leader in Gaza. "This must not happen. It is in our interest to let the [Israeli military] concentrate on Gaza and prepare for a war in the north if it comes. Events on the Temple Mount could cause a wide-scale war on a religious basis. And this is very dangerous"

"We need to stand up to the extremists in order to preserve the status quo," he says "and not allow those extremists, on both sides, to damage the status quo."

Nuha Musleh contributed to this story from Jerusalem; Alon Avital contributed from Tel Aviv.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Related Stories