Palestinian activist Hanady Halawani has lost count of the number of times she has been banned from visiting the holy Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Over a span of 15 years, she says she’s been arrested at least 24 times, much of the time due to her social media posts, in which she would update her followers on the latest developments unravelling at the flashpoint.
Her posts include videos of Israeli settlers performing prayers at the holy compound, in violation of the status quo. Other photos from the past summer show land and graves that have been dug up by Israeli authorities at the historic Bab al-Rahma cemetery, located just outside the compound’s eastern wall.
Protests over the summer last year by a small group of Palestinians were of no avail as the centuries-old graves of Muslim leaders reportedly lie in the way of a planned Israeli park.
Even when the site – known as Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) for Muslims and Temple Mount for Jews – may at times appear to be relatively calm, Halawani and other Palestinians know that this is an illusion.
They believe the fragile status quo is being gradually eroded as Israelis continue to take steps in asserting sovereignty over the site, with the goal of spatially and temporally partitioning the holy compound and eventually building the Third Temple over the ruins of Al-Aqsa, as propagated by the Temple Movement activists.
According to the status quo reaffirmed in 1967 between Israel and Jordan, the holy compound is administered by the Islamic Waqf endowment seated in Jordan. Non-Muslims can visit the site, but cannot pray there.
This coincided with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel’s declaration in 1967 that Jews are not allowed to the compound as it would desecrate the site’s holiness.
The latest unrest has broken out over the formerly abandoned building at Bab al-Rahma (Gate of Mercy or Golden Gate) in the Al-Aqsa compound.
For the first time in 16 years, Palestinians have reopened its gates, which had been closed under Israeli order, and hundreds have been praying at the site – their biggest achievement since forcing Israel to remove the unilaterally installed metal detectors from the compound in July 2017.
Israel closed Bab al-Rahma in 2003 alleging the site was being used by members of the outlawed Islamic Movement in Israel Northern Branch for political activities, an allegation denied by the Islamic Waqf.
Since reopening the building’s prayer hall, some 100 Palestinians have been reportedly arrested, including Sheikh Abdel-Azeem Salhab, head of the waqf, and his deputy after they joined Palestinians in prayer at the site.
After being arrested early in the morning last week from his home, Salhab was banned from Al-Aqsa for a week, which was an unprecedented move.
Halawani was also issued another ban following a house raid and arrest. Authorities claimed her presence at Al-Aqsa is dangerous and problematic.
“‘The most dangerous woman’ – that’s what they chose to call me to justify bringing a big army force to knock down the door of a defenceless woman. They searched every room in the house then beat me and forcefully dragged me on the floor before arresting me,” Halawani wrote on Instagram, adding that she’s been banned for another six months.
Reportedly days after the gate was reopened, an Israeli court ruled that several Palestinians arrested for praying at the site are not guilty of any crime as the structure no longer belongs to an alleged “terror organisation”, but to the waqf. Bab al-Rahma’s closure for 16 years under the claim of a court order turned out to be false, Wafa news reported.
Building the Third Temple
For years, Ir Amim has been issuing reports warning of the danger and growing prominence of Temple Movement activists.
Temple activists openly declare that ascension to the compound and praying at the site is central in their strategy of breaking the status quo, asserting Israeli control and serves as the first step in eventually building the Third Temple over Al-Aqsa.
The number of Jewish visitors to the compound has been breaking records over the past few years.
In the last Jewish year, 22,552 Jewish visitors ascended to the compound, which more than doubled compared with the number two years ago.
Ir Amim warned in 2017 that the Israeli police, who are supposed to prevent non-Muslim worship at the site, are now working in “close coordination” with temple activists and disregard Jewish worship that takes place, marking a “radical shift” in their relationship. Activists have been seen praying at the Muslim cemetery and adjacent to Bab al-Rahma.
“Given the deepening ties between the movement and the right-wing Israeli political establishment, there are rising suspicions in the Palestinian community that the state intends to establish a synagogue at the site,” Ir Amim noted.
“As a result, there is increasing pressure among some Palestinians to consolidate the Muslim presence at Bab al-Rahma in order to curtail any potential plans.”