Assaults on the Muslim holy site and Operation Al-Aqsa Storm
By Herbert Rothschild
It’s not hard to provoke deeply religious people. Simply desecrate what they consider holy. When the Hellenistic ruler Antiochus IV (175-164 BCE), in a campaign to suppress Jewish worship, set up a heathen altar (“the abomination that makes desolate,” Daniel 11:31) in the temple in Jerusalem and sacrificed swine in its courtyard, the sacrilege sparked the Maccabean revolt.
That temple, the Second Temple (the first was razed when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in 586 BCE), no longer exists. It was destroyed by the Romans when Jews tried to throw off their rule in 70 CE. A fragment called the Wailing Wall still stands on the Temple Mount in the Old City section of Jerusalem and is a sacred site for Jews. Also on the Temple Mount is Al-Aqsa Mosque complex, which includes the Dome of the Rock. For Muslims, this is the third most sacred site in the world. Supposedly, the Prophet Muhammad (“blessed be his name”) traveled from Mecca to the mosque in one night to pray, and then ascended to heaven.
Israel had recognized the importance of the site to Muslims. Under a status quo arrangement that prevailed for decades, Jews and other non-Muslims were permitted to visit there during certain hours but may not pray. Further, since Israel occupied the Old City following the 1967 Six-Day War, the following religious prohibition has been posted on signs around the area: “NOTICE AND WARNING: ENTERING THE TEMPLE MOUNT AREA IS STRICTLY FORBIDDEN BY JEWISH LAW DUE TO THE SACRED NATURE OF THE SITE – ISRAEL CHIEF RABBINATE.”
On Sept. 28, 2000, Ariel Sharon, then head of the opposition parties in the Knesset, led about 1,000 armed soldiers and police into Al-Aqsa compound. The government of Ehud Barak pleaded with him not to do it, but Sharon was not to be deterred from pursuing his political agenda. His intrusion provoked the second Intifada, his approval rating rocketed from 3% to 70%, and the following year the butcher of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon was elected prime minister. According to the New York Times, in 1998 Sharon had said, “There is no Zionism, colonization, or Jewish state without the eviction of the Arabs and the expropriation of their lands.”
In recent years, ultra-nationalist Israelis have been staging less well-organized affronts at the site. Their goal is to eradicate the complex entirely. Last year, Bentzi Gopstein, founder and leader of the ultra-nationalist Lehava, posted on social media a call to Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem to unite on “Jerusalem Day” on May 29 and break into Al-Aqsa and start dismantling it to make space for building the Third Temple on the site. That didn’t happen, although the month before Israeli settlers had stormed the site repeatedly and performed Jewish prayers there.
This year, assaults on Al-Aqsa intensified and included Israeli security forces. On April 4 and 5 of this year, they stormed Al-Aqsa Mosque, assaulting and arresting worshippers. On April 4, dozens of heavily armed officers entered the building, using stun grenades and firing tear gas into the Qibli prayer hall, where hundreds of worshippers were staying overnight to pray. Israeli troops beat worshippers with batons and riot guns, injuring dozens, before arresting several hundred. Twenty-four hours later, armed officers again stormed the mosque while some 20,000 Palestinian worshippers were performing nightly Ramadan Taraweeh prayers. They fired rubber-coated bullets, tear gas and stun grenades to clear the mosque. The purported justification for these raids was that Israeli authorities don’t allow worshippers to practice Itifak — a non-mandatory religious act that is common during Ramadan and involves staying inside mosques overnight to pray, reflect and recite the Quran — except during the last 10 days of Ramadan. Palestinians refuse to honor this restriction on their religious freedom.
Then, on the last day of Rosh Hashanah (Sept. 17), Al Jazeera reported, hundreds of ultranationalist Israelis entered Al-Aqsa courtyard through the Morocco Gate and prayed. Israeli forces had imposed tight security measures that day, ejecting worshippers from Al-Aqsa Mosque and intensifying their presence around it, denying access to any Palestinian below the age of 50 in order to clear the way for the Israelis. Next, on the fifth day of Sukkot (Oct. 4), Israelis stormed the complex in groups through al-Mughrabi Gate. Police prevented young Palestinians from entering the mosque during the incursions, and the Israeli army forced Palestinians to shut down their stores in the Old City to allow Jewish prayers to take place.
The Hamas fighters’ breakout of their Gazan open-air prison and their terrifying ground assault on nearby Israelis took place three days later, on Oct. 7. Hamas named the attack Operation Al-Aqsa Storm. In a 10-minute speech on that day reported in The Times of Israel, Muhammad Deif, commander of Al Qassam Brigades, the Hamas military force, claimed that the operation was launched in retaliation for Israel’s “desecration” of Al-Aqsa Mosque and was a follow-up of previous warnings by Hamas.
Our news media have given us little help in accessing the information I’ve shared in this column. Both CNN and USA Today reported on the April events, and the New York Times reported on Hamas’s statement about the “desecration” of Al-Aqsa, although the story was hard to find among the many stories about the war it posted on Oct. 7.
But once one has this knowledge, what use is to be made of it? Certainly not to justify the terrible revenge Hamas fighters exacted on nearby Jews. But just as certainly, to give the lie to the Biden administration’s claim that the attacks were “unprovoked.” It’s a fair inference from the increasingly frequent Israeli assaults on Al-Aqsa — some officially tolerated, some officially staged — that provocation had become a policy. If, however, there is permanent desecration of the Muslim holy site, it won’t just be Palestinians that Israel will have provoked.
Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid Ashland.news board member. Opinions expressed in columns represent the author’s views and may or may not reflect those of Ashland.news. Email Rothschild at firstname.lastname@example.org.