JERUSALEM — In a move Israelis believe will reduce tensions at one of the main flash points between Muslims and Jews in Jerusalem’s Old City, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon announced Wednesday that he was outlawing the Muslim civilian guards stationed at the al-Aqsa mosque compound.
The guards, known as Mourabitoun, or defenders of Islam, say they are there as Muslim volunteers to protect the site, the third-holiest in Islam, from Jewish extremists. But Israel says that over the past two years the guards have triggered violent clashes with Israeli security forces and observant Jewish visitors to the mosque compound.
Some religious Jews, who refer to the site as the Temple Mount, would like to see a change in the status quo in place for more than 40 years. They feel they have a right to pray there because it is Judaism’s holiest of holies. It’s the site of the first and second Jewish temples, and some would like to see a third temple on the site.
“The Temple Mount is a trigger,” said Avi Biton, head of the Israeli police unit in the Old City. “It is central to the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict, and over the last few years we have seen an increase in religious Jews wanting to visit there, which invokes strong emotions among the Muslims.”
Biton’s forces are on high alert as Israel heads toward the Jewish High Holy Days. Over the next three weeks, tens of thousands of Jews are expected to flood the walled city for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and other holidays. While most will be content to pray at the Western Wall, which runs adjacent to the mosque compound and is designated for Jewish prayer, some may also try to visit the area where the Muslim’s Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque stand today.
“There are some people who are pushing an agenda to stop Jews from going inside, and they are promoting all sorts of extremist theories,” Biton said. He acknowledged previous attempts by Jewish extremists to blow up the mosque, but he said the Mourabitoun are also inciters there to provoke trouble.
On Thursday morning, the mood at the holy site, which Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary, was peaceful. Although non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the two mosques, tourists from around the world walked freely through the leafy courtyard. It is the observant Jews who come for religious reasons who can stir tension.
Occasionally, small groups of yarmulke-wearing Jews shuffled past, surrounded by throngs of armed Israeli policemen. Muslim security guards, not the Mourabitoun but those appointed by the Waqf Islamic trust, which administers the site, kept a watchful eye.
“We totally reject this decision to ban the Mourabitoun from al-Aqsa,” said Sheik Omar Kiswani, director of the mosque compound. “Every worshiper is an Islamic guard, and all have the right to come here.”
He said the group’s actions — such as shouting “Allahu akbar” (“God is great”) and trailing closely after religious Jews who visit — were “peaceful ways of rejecting their presence.”
Rabbi Chaim Richman, international director of the Temple Institute, an organization whose mission is to prepare for the building of the third temple, held a different view. “They are paid mercenaries,” he said of the Mourabitoun. “They receive a monthly salary from extremist Islamic groups, and their goal is to make Jewish visitors miserable. They taunt them, hurl abuse and sometimes physically abuse them.”
Most visitors, Jews and Muslims, are not looking to cause trouble. Still, according to the Israeli police, one of the main challenges is keeping the peace during all the religious festivals — Jewish, Muslim and Christian — that bring hundreds of thousands of people to the Old City at different times of the year.
For the Jewish holy days this month, the police presence has been increased. The ancient city’s cobblestone streets are too narrow for patrol vehicles, but the whole scene is monitored from above by 320 security cameras.
In the old stone building that is now the headquarters of the Old City’s police unit, Officer Nofar Biton’s job is to watch the comings and goings at every religious site and all the winding passageways that connect them.
“There is at least one incident every day, and the friction is always at a high level,” she said, clicking her mouse to pull up live images of the mosque compound and various churches.
Her boss — the police commander, Biton — dismissed the smaller incidents, mostly scuffles and firebombings, saying the real fear is a bigger attack on any one of the sensitive holy sites.
“A terror attack on the mosque or at the Western Wall is not like a terrorist attack anywhere else,” he said. “These places are symbols. An attack on one of these sites is an attack on an entire nation or religion.”