Who are the Jewish groups who enter Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa compound?

Al Jazeera looks at the hardline ‘Temple Mount’ Jewish groups and why Palestinians protest their presence.

Muslim worshippers perform Friday prayers outside the Dome of Rock Mosque at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Friday, March 31, 2023.
Muslim worshippers perform Friday prayers outside the Dome of Rock at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem during Ramadan [File: Mahmoud Illean/AP Photo]

Occupied East Jerusalem – Last week, Israeli forces assaulted Palestinian Muslims at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in an effort to make way for groups of ultranationalist Jews entering the site under police protection.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, which includes the Al-Aqsa Mosque (al-Qibli Mosque) and the Dome of the Rock, is in Jerusalem’s Old City, which sits on the eastern, Palestinian, side of Jerusalem.

Jews refer to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound as the “Temple Mount” and some believe that it is where the first and second ancient Jewish temples once stood.

Despite international law prohibiting the annexation and continued Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, Israel has claimed sovereignty over the entirety of Jerusalem, including the Old City and the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, but the claims are considered unlawful and have not been recognised by the majority of the world’s countries.

Under agreements with Jordan, security and administration inside the compound were managed by the Jordanian Waqf (Islamic endowments authority). Meanwhile, Israel was responsible for security around the compound, facilitating the entry of non-Muslim visitors in coordination with the Waqf, and abiding by Jordan’s rules to ban Jewish hardline groups it considered provocative.

Non-Muslim prayer at the mosque is banned, as it has been for centuries.

This status quo largely persisted until the 1990s. Over the past three decades, Israel has enforced greater control over the site, including by controlling who enters and exits, restricting Palestinian access, conducting violent raids inside, and increasingly facilitating the entry of Jewish hardline groups who, since 1967, have publicly stated their aim to take over the compound, destroy the Dome of the Rock, and build a third temple there.

In the 1980s, the far-right “Jewish Underground” group plotted to blow up the Dome of the Rock, while in 1990, Israeli forces shot dead 17 Palestinians and injured 150 others at the site during protests against an attempt by the “Temple Mount Faithful” Jewish hardline group to lay the cornerstone for a temple there.

Among other developments, including Israeli government excavations under the compound aiming at finding remains of the second temple – which have affected the foundations of the Islamic buildings on the site – Palestinians have long feared the destruction of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, and the spatial and temporal division of the site, similar to Israel’s conversion of half of the Ibrahimi Mosque into a synagogue in the Palestinian city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank.

Tensions eventually came to a head in 2000, when then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon entered the compound, flanked by 1,000 officers, in a parade of power, unleashing the second Intifada (uprising), also known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada.

Israel’s far-right government, which came into power in December 2022, includes top officials such as Itamar Ben-Gvir, a former follower of Meir Kahane, the founder of a group which has been proscribed as a “terrorist” organisation in Israel and the United States.

Ben-Gvir has said that the Al-Aqsa Mosque is there “temporarily” and that the “temple is still being quickly built in our days”.

During his first week in office, Ben-Gvir entered the site surrounded by Israeli forces in a highly criticised move that raised tensions and the prospect of another Palestinian uprising.

This year, for the second year in a row, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish festival of Passover converged.

On Monday and Tuesday morning, more than 2,000 Jews in 40 different groups entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound under the protection of Israeli forces.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Wednesday that Jews would not be allowed to enter the compound for the last 10 nights of Ramadan, a policy that has been followed in recent years to avoid confrontations.

Who are these groups?

The visits to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound have primarily been organised by Jewish hardline groups referred to as the “Temple Mount groups”.

While they have ranged in their strategies, they were all united by a general goal of changing the fragile status quo of the site as a Muslim holy site.

There are more than 20 Temple Mount groups, including ones that organise visits to the site and encourage Jewish prayer there, and others that are focused on “research” and “disseminating information”.

One of the oldest and most active groups is the Temple Mount Faithful, which was established in 1967 and organises visits by Jews to the compound.

On Monday, in a post about their visit to the site, the group said the purpose of the trip was to “demand the government of Israel open the Temple Mount to full Jewish worship” and “establish the third temple”.

Beyadenu, another key group, said that it intended to bring the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound under Jewish control. It said that, while it has “hundreds of supporters”, it must reach “thousands and tens of thousands of people to really bring the Temple Mount back to our control”.

Beyadenu runs a lobby group inside the Israeli parliament that includes several members of the Israeli government, including Ben-Gvir.

Another group that organised visits is “Return to the Temple Mount”, or “Khozrim La-Har” in Hebrew, which claims that the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound should “not be abandoned to foreign hands” and invited visitors to join the group if they “also promote the building of the temple”.

The head of Khozrim La-Har, Rafael Morris, told Al Jazeera: “One of the Zionist dreams is to build the temple and there is no reason that we shouldn’t do it today,” adding that he believes the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound is “100 percent Israeli land”.

Morris said in 2017: “When we can say the Temple Mount is ours and only ours and there isn’t room there for anyone else … then we can conquer not only the Temple Mount but Jordan, and Syria, too, and establish a real Jewish state over all the land of Israel.”

The Temple Institute organisation has also been central to the effort to mainstream Jewish visits and promote the building of the third temple.

The organisation said its “long-term aims are to build the third Jewish temple on the Temple Mount, on the site currently occupied by the Dome of the Rock, and to reinstate sacrificial worship”.

Francesca Albanese, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in the occupied Palestinian territory, said on April 6 that the “well-known desire of Israeli settlers to either destroy the mosque or forcibly convert all or part of the compound into a synagogue, as happened to the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, is a source of deep anxiety among Palestinians”.

What has been the role of the Israeli government?

According to Israeli media reports, Israeli authorities enable, assist and even fund some of the Temple Mount groups.

Israeli forces, directed by the Ministry of Defence, have also gradually allowed greater access to these groups and provided protection for them during the visits.

Consecutive Israeli governments have included senior officials who were themselves part of the Temple Mount movement.

In 2013, Israeli Army Radio reported that the state also allowed Israeli women who choose to forgo compulsory military service to perform their national service as tour guides and instructors with the Temple Institute.

While the Waqf has continued to operate with Israeli police to ban Jewish prayer, it can no longer limit the size of Jewish groups or the rate of their entry, nor can it block the entry of specific activists considered “provocateurs”.

At times, Israel has allowed Jews in groups of up to 50 to enter, including settlers and soldiers in army uniform, which was previously banned.

Bassam Abu Libdeh, the secretary to the Jordanian Waqf general manager, said: “Any steps by the Israeli occupation authorities – whether entering the compound, breaking and ruining things, or any provocation by them – is completely rejected.”

“The occupation does not respect the holiness of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. This mosque represents two billion Muslims,” Abu Libdeh told Al Jazeera.

“They do not respect any agreements that took place, neither with Jordan nor the Arabs,” he added. “They do not respect the Jordanian Hashemite custodianship over the Al-Aqsa compound,” despite the Israeli government’s insistence that it will maintain the status quo of the site.

Source: Al Jazeera