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Israel isolates Al-Aqsa
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 26 - 08 - 2010

Despite the opening of peace talks next week, Israel continues its silent war against Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third holiest shrine, writes Khaled Amayreh from the occupied city
Consistent with the established Israeli policy of denying non-Jews free access to their respective places of worship in East Jerusalem, Israeli occupation authorities have placed stringent restrictions on the entry of Muslims into East Jerusalem.
Muslim males below the age of 50 and females below 45 have been turned back at Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks. The extreme measures infuriated Palestinian officials who denounced Israel for "religious intolerance" and an "assault on religious freedom".
"Israel presents itself to the world as a democracy. However, the truth is that Israel behaves like an authoritarian and racist country that practises religious discrimination and denies non-Jews basic religious freedom," said Mohamed Habbash, minister of waqf (Islamic endowment) in the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA).
Habbash denounced Israeli justifications for denying hundreds of thousands of Palestinians access to Al-Aqsa Mosque, especially during the holy month of Ramadan, as racist and unacceptable. "Israel cries out to the seventh heaven whenever Jewish religious or human rights are impinged upon. However, the same Israeli state feels at ease violating the religious rights of Muslims to worship at Al-Aqsa Mosque.
"This is an Islamic site, it has been an Islamic site for close to 1,400 years, and so-called 'precautions' are only a pretext to keep as many Muslims as possible from accessing Al-Aqsa Mosque," Habbash added.
There are two main entry points through which "security safe" Palestinians are allowed to enter Jerusalem. The first is the Bethlehem terminal to the south; the second is the Qalandia checkpoint to the north. At both points of entry, thousands -- perhaps tens of thousands -- of Palestinians of all ages were seen trying, often desperately, to get to Jerusalem.
The trip is a formidable challenge. Most people set out shortly after dawn in order to get early to the checkpoint. Those looking "old enough" are allowed to proceed unhindered, even without submitting their identity cards for a security check. However, middle-aged and younger people have to go through a special corridor for a meticulous security check. Very often, people are turned back.
Those turned back are reminded that Jerusalem, the would-be capital of their would-be state, is still under Israeli occupation and that they cannot even freely access Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam's holiest shrines.
In Jerusalem itself, the city has morphed into a garrison town as thousands of Israeli soldiers and paramilitary police are deployed in the vicinity of Al-Aqsa. In addition, cameras are installed in every corner and alleyway, monitoring every movement, as a large blimp does the same from above.
Jerusalem is not what it used to be. Israeli occupation authorities have encouraged fundamentalist Jewish groups to seize several buildings surrounding Al-Aqsa Mosque. The quiet seizure of Arab homes and other buildings by Jewish fundamentalists has reinforced Muslim fears that Israel harbours evil designs on the Islamic sanctuary.
Indeed, Israel does not deny that its ultimate goal is to build a Jewish temple on "the former site" of the Islamic shrine. Muslims, both in Palestine and abroad, warn that the demolition of Al-Aqsa Mosque would spark untold violence, encompassing the entire region, and put paid to any semblance of peace efforts between Israel and the PA.
At the Al-Aqsa Mosque esplanade there were but a few non-Palestinian Muslims present on the second Friday of Ramadan. Earlier, a number of Muslim officials, including the new head of Al-Azhar, the prominent Sunni Islam academy in Cairo, called on Muslims to visit and pray at the Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem.
The call was also echoed by Habbash. But some do not agree. "I don't think it would be appropriate for our brothers from the Arab and larger Muslim worlds to come and pray in the shadow of Israeli guns. These people should come to Jerusalem as soldiers and fighters to liberate Jerusalem, not as disgraced pilgrims," said Ahmed Qawasmi, an Islamic cleric from the Hebron region.
Meanwhile, the imam of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Sheikh Mohamed Hussein, called on Palestinians to converge on the mosque "in the hundreds of thousands". "This is the way we demonstrate our commitment and bond to the First Qibla [direction to which Muslims turn during prayer] and the third holiest sanctuary."
On similar occasions two decades ago nearly half a million people would converge on Jerusalem for Friday's congregational prayers.

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