Guest Post – By Sul Nowroz – 7th April 2023
Wednesday 5th April early morning – 450 men were restrained using white plastic hand ties and forced to lay face down on the ground. They were marched single file out of the building they had sought refuge in, some were grabbed around the neck and verbally abused while others sharply kneed in the thigh area. They were then detained. The process was designed to humiliate and de-humanise. By Thursday morning 397 of the men were released, barred from returning to the building for seven days, 47 were transferred to Ofer military prison and the remaining six continue to be detained locally.
The men were Palestinian. The building was their place of worship, the sacred Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
The first indications of Wednesday’s unprovoked attack on Al Aqsa appeared on Telegram, the messaging platform, late on Tuesday night. Several channels chattered about a growing police and military presence outside the compound grounds, a 35-acre site called al-Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary.
The men, women and children inside the mosque were unaware. They were performing itikaf, a spiritual retreat to a mosque during which worshippers close themselves off from the outside world and spend an extended period in prayer and contemplation. Itikaf can last for days, and Islamic scholars have suggested it is a practice the Prophet Muhammad performed during Ramadan. It is a highly significant ritual during which heightened levels of consciousness are achieved.
Outside was anything but spiritual. Heavily armed Israeli security forces broke a decades’ long agreement forbidding them to enter the compound. The compound is not only unique in a religious context but also in how it is administered. Since 1187 the al-Haram al-Sharif site has been managed as a waqf, an endowment dedicated to Muslim religious purposes and practices. This legal status has been recognised by all the region’s colonisers – the Ottomans, the British, and since 1967 Israel. The agreement means Israel provides security outside the compound and the waqf is responsible for what happens inside.
Wednesday was not the first time the agreement has been violated by Israel. In May 2021 it launched an assault on Al Aqsa. Using tear gas, stun grenades and general thuggery it emptied the mosque and injured over 300 Palestinians. In April 2022 there were two further attacks resulting in an additional 200 injured. When not using violence to overrun the mosque, Israeli security forces regularly and blatantly escort illegal settlers, as defined by UN Article 49 of the Geneva Convention, around the compound grounds to emasculate the Palestinian population. Israeli check points, intrusive searches and lengthy delays into the sanctuary are also frequently used to create a cruel form of psychological torment.
Once in the compound the security forces took up positions at the mosque’s various entrances, as well as on its roof. This was clearly going to be a show of force. Telegram lit up. A loudspeaker was used to order the worshippers to leave, or they would be removed by force. The demand had no legal grounds, and the worshippers were no threat.
These were bullying tactics, shabbily dressed in state uniforms, aimed at ridding the compound of Muslims in order to allow a highly contentious illegal settler tour the following day, during which they wanted to sacrifice an animal inside Al Aqsa. The tour had attracted much attention; extremist illegal settler groups publicly pledged to pay £550 to anyone detained trying to get a sheep into the mosque and £5,500 to anyone who managed to slaughter the sheep once inside.
When do you reach your limit? When does a protracted loss of dignity and the gradual curtailment of religious practice become too much? For a group of worshippers at Al Aqsa that moment was early on Wednesday morning, when they refused to interrupt their itikaf for the illegal settler tour to take place the following morning.
And so, the state thuggery started: the mosque was thrown into darkness, windows were broken, stun grenades were tossed into the prayer area and doors kicked open. Screams were heard as furniture was hurled at cowering worshippers. Some were savagely beaten using butts of guns and batons, while others were kicked by army issued boots. Rubber bullets were fired at unarmed civilians. Phone footage captured the brutality. The scenes are disturbing, and the behaviour of the security services barbaric. The mosque’s medical clinic was ransacked, and worshippers can be seen trying to run from the violence, while others, in a vain attempt to defend themselves, start to release fireworks that were in the mosque.
On seeing the footage, the UN’s Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, was said to be “shocked and appalled by the images he saw … of the violence and beating by Israeli security forces.”
By 3am any form of Palestinian presence had been subdued. Footage emerged of men and boys, lying face down on the floor, hands bound behind their backs, with only inches between them. The carpet is hardly visible due to the density of bodies. Medical personnel were not allowed in despite numerous visible injuries. Footage later emerged of the males walking in single file out of the mosque as they were slapped, pulled by the neck, and kneed in the thigh area by uniformed security forces. In a chilling act a square white sticker was placed on the chest of each detainee detailing their number.
By 4:30am security forces were clearing the area outside of the mosque of civilians, and many were chased, assaulted, and detained.
By 5am Muslims under the age of 40 were banned from the compound.
By 10pm on Wednesday the security forces attacked the mosque for a second time using stun grenades and rubber bullets.
Palestinians are alert to the dangers of normalising violations. The illegal annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967 is rarely acknowledged today, the 300 illegal settlements and 700,000 illegal settlers remain largely unchallenged by the international community, as is detention without trial for Palestinians, which has led to 20% of the total Palestinian population and 40% of the male population being imprisoned by the State of Israel at one point in time.’
But perhaps what occupied the worshippers in Al Aqsa on that early Wednesday morning was the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron. On 25 February 1994, during the month of Ramadan, Israeli-American mass murderer Baruch Goldstein entered the mosque and killed 29 Palestinian worshippers and wounded 125. The Israeli government response to the tragedy, in a twisted logic, was to crack down on Palestinians, expelling many of them permanently from streets near Jewish settlements in Hebron. The government subsequently claimed 60% of the mosque and transformed it into a synagogue. In May 2020 a further parcel of land was expropriated from the presiding waqf to provide an access route into the synagogue. By August 2022 the mosque was banned from making the azhan, or call to pray, on Saturdays, and during Jewish religious holidays Muslims are not allowed to use the mosque. Citing security concerns Israeli forces went onto erect a series of checkpoints around the mosque and banned all non-Jews from several of the main roads near the complex.
What the Palestinians experienced this week at Al Aqsa is the steady and deliberate erosion of the very essence of what it means to be Palestinian, and that’s something that should alarm and unnerve all of us.
©2023 Sul Nowroz