EAST JERUSALEM — The Muslim Quarter in the Old City is quiet. Palestinian owners of the shops that remain open cluster on corners, watchful, drinking coffee and talking politics.
“In ’67, there was a policeman in every alleyway,” one says to another. Today a crowd of police and army officers gather at a fork in the cobblestones. Several dozen Orthodox Jewish men emerge from an alley nearby. They have come from praying at the Western Wall. The security forces escort them to the gates.
The extra security measures have been put in place following several days of violence in this divided city.
On Saturday night in the Old City a young man stabbed several members of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family, leaving two men dead and injuring a woman and a toddler. The attacker, a 19-year-old Palestinian man from a village near Ramallah in the West Bank, was shot dead by security forces. Later that night a Jewish Israeli teenager was injured in another stabbing and far-right Jewish activists roamed the streets chanting "Death to Arabs."
The violence is spreading. A 13-year-old Palestinian child was shot dead by Israeli security forces during clashes near Bethlehem on Monday. The night before, 18-year-old Hutheifa Suleiman was killed by Israeli forces during clashes in Tulkarm, in the West Bank.
Following the stabbings, Palestinian men under the age of 50 were blocked by the Israeli government from entering the Old City for two, unless they could prove that they lived or worked within the city walls.
The Old City is many things to many people — market and tourist trap, hallowed space and battleground. The decision to bar Palestinians from the whole of it, rather than just the Al-Aqsa compound, was an unprecedented move.
Tensions have been brewing for several weeks over the contested Al-Aqsa mosque compound, the third holiest site in Islam from which the Prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended into heaven. It is also sacred ground for the Jews who know it as Mount Moriah, the holiest site in Judaism. It is from the dust of Mount Moriah, according to some interpretations, that Adam is said to have been brought into existence and where the second temple stood before it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.
The root of the violence
At the root of tensions in the city is a long-lasting battle over the fate of the holy site. Many Palestinians fear that the Jewish state is trying to change the status quo around Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock. For more than 90 years the area has been administered through an Islamic trusteeship supported by Jordan known at the Waqf. People say they fear that the government ultimately wants to have separate visiting hours — so that Jews and Muslims can both visit the compound to pray. Muslims worry the state will eventually tear down Al-Aqsa and rebuild the second temple.
A number of right-wing Israeli groups have sought to stoke these fears over the years. In 2000, former prime minister Ariel Sharon's visit to the site was widely believed to have been one of the sparks that ignited the second intifada.
“Little by little they (the Israeli government) want to get their hands on Al-Aqsa,” says Haitham Taweel, a 25-year-old hotel worker from the Old City.
In New York for the United Nations General Assembly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied these claims: “Israel wants peace with the Palestinian people that unfortunately continue to spread crass lies about our policy on the Temple Mount. I will demand an end to this wild incitement.”
Friday prayers across the street from Damascus Gate in #Jerusalem. These worshippers are praying here because men under 40 are not allowed to enter the Al-Aqsa mosque compound today following recent tensions between Israeli security forces and Palestinians.
A photo posted by Laura Dean (@lauraincairo) on
Back in Jerusalem, many Palestinians are not convinced.
“They respect Muslims in front of public opinion,” says Hani Abu Ramooz, 43, who owns a small shop in front of Damascus Gate.
“Nothing is staying as it is,” says Ahmed Muna, 24, assistant manager at a bookshop in East Jerusalem. Jews have long been able to come into the compound, but only in small groups and accompanied by Israeli and Palestinian security forces.
“In the last year Israeli soldiers would stand by the Aqsa gates and watch who goes in and how long they stay,” says Muna. “If you stay too long they call you a trouble maker and put you on a list of people who is not allowed in in the future.” One of the causes of the clashes, he says, was that on a few occasions authorities closed the site to Muslims for hours at a time and let Jews in. When some Muslims who had remained inside the mosque saw Jews in their holy space, they grew angry.
What people are afraid of is something they call “taksim al-makany” — division of place — and “taksim al-zamany” — division of time. In other words, the compound would be divided into an area for Muslims and an area for Jews, and each would have designated hours to pray.
Hajj Ibrahim, age 80, leans on his cane and drags on his cigar. He resents the silence of the regional Muslim communities. “We Arabs are the kufar (unbelievers), because we don’t help each other. If there are changes [at Al-Aqsa] it’s because the Arab countries don’t help. They want to take over Al-Aqsa while the Palestinians are sleeping. The other Arab countries are already sleeping. Is it only a Palestinian mosque?” Muslims come from all over the world to pray at Al-Aqsa.
Young men not welcome
Even before the stabbings, young men were barred from praying at the holy site. On Friday, men and women streamed out of the Damascus gate after midday prayers at Al-Aqsa. Many of the men walked slowly with canes, mopping at shining foreheads in the September heat.
Across the street, under the watchful eyes of young Israeli soldiers in uniform, an imam led the prayers for Jerusalem’s youth.
Ayman Tamimi, 25, lives in the Old City, where he works in a shoe shop. He tried to pray at Al-Aqsa on Friday but soldiers at the entrance turned him away. “It’s important to try,” he says. Many people speak of the importance of staking such a claim. They feel if Palestinians decreased the pressure, the Israeli government would waste no time destroying their holy place.
“When you go in you feel psychologically at peace,” says Zoheir Zallam, 64, Tamimi’s colleague. “That’s why I go every day. I tell the Palestinian police there they are guard dogs and I tell the Israeli security that their end is near. But they don’t pay any attention to me. I’m an old man.”
Rule on the Temple Mount
One mainstream Jewish view is that Jews shouldn’t be on the Temple Mount at all, because they may inadvertently tread upon holy spaces where mortals should not be.
In the second temple, according to scripture, there were rooms where only priests were allowed and the “Holy of Holies,” where only the high priest was permitted to enter once a year on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.
Since no one knows exactly where these chambers were, most rabbis advise people not to go to the Temple Mount. Many also discourage visits because they're incendiary. Others see it differently.
“We believe that God promised that this place is for the Jews. He built it, not us,” explains an Orthodox Jewish woman walking with her family near the contested site. She declines to give her name.
“I think you want me to say that we should take it, but it’s not like that. We believe that God decides when we will get it. We don’t know when that will be. In the meantime we can be here together, the Arabs and the Jews, I don’t think they have to go.”
Her husband turns as if to disagree with her, but their two small children start to cry and they disappear through a doorway with a Star of David above it.
“That house used to belong to a Palestinian Christian woman, but under Ariel Sharon she was kicked out,” says a man sitting nearby.
Conflict over the site is older than the state of Israel itself.
Outside Damascus Gate a Christian woman handing out Bible pamphlets in Arabic stands as a reminder that this place is not only holy to Muslims. Few people pay her much notice.