Occupied East Jerusalem – Shouts of “Allahu Akbar! [God is greatest!]” reverberate from the gates of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. One voice travels farther than the rest; bellowing across the centuries-old stone homes and the narrow, cobble-stoned alleyways in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.
The voice is emerging from the never-tiring throat of 64-year-old Nafisa Khwais, a Palestinian grandmother turned activist from the Mount of Olives, just east of the Old City walls. “People always ask me where my voice comes from,” Khwais tells Al Jazeera. The tote bag hanging from her shoulder, along with her wallet and key chain, has the iconic image of the Dome of the Rock imprinted across it. “It comes from my love for Al-Aqsa. It’s a love that is much bigger and stronger than my body.”
Keep readinglist of 3 items
Khwais is a member of the Murabitat, a group of women, numbering in the hundreds, who have dedicated their lives to the protection of Al-Aqsa from right-wing Israeli incursions, which they believe are aimed at eventually taking complete control over the compound. Israel banned the Murabitat in 2015, describing them as “a major cause of tension and violence”, and most of them have since been slapped with recurring restraining orders that prohibit them from entering one of Islam’s holiest sites.
As more Murabitat are banned from the site, the number of Jewish settlers visiting over the years has increased exponentially. The Palestinian women now position themselves outside the gates of Haram al-Sharif, or the “Noble Sanctuary,” chanting protest slogans and confronting Israeli forces and Jewish ultranationalists.
This year, as Ramadan and the Jewish holiday of Passover overlapped, Israeli forces have repeatedly raided the holy compound, with videos showing police beating Palestinian worshippers with clubs and rifles inside Al-Aqsa Mosque. Numerous Palestinians were injured by rubber bullets and hundreds have been arrested.
Palestinian groups responded by firing dozens of missiles into Israel from Gaza and southern Lebanon. Israel has since carried out air raids on the besieged Palestinian territory and Lebanon.
Israel also imposed a closure on the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip for the duration of Passover, preventing many Palestinian Muslims from attending prayers at Al-Aqsa during Ramadan. Therefore, Khwais says she is forced to remain on high alert during the holy month.
“Al-Aqsa is in danger,” Khwais says. “When I open the window at my home, I see the Dome of the Rock in front of me. Since I was a child, I have heard the call to prayer. It is part of my natural upbringing. I will sacrifice my life to ensure it is protected.”
Once confined to the far-right fringes of Israeli society, far-right organisations promoting the destruction of the iconic Dome of the Rock and the construction of a third Jewish temple in its place are gaining political momentum. The Murabitat see it as their religious and sacred duty to guard the holy site.
“We sacrifice our blood and souls for Al-Aqsa!” Khwais roars in front of a group of Israeli police – each strapped with a machine gun – who patrol outside the gates of the compound. Up the street, Israeli flags flutter from apartment buildings where the Palestinian residents have been forcibly evicted and replaced by Jewish settlers.
“I don’t care about these soldiers,” Khwais says, resolutely. “For me, they are nothing but small children. Their strength comes from the gun, but my strength comes from God.”
‘Ascend the Mount’
The Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, also known as al-Haram al-Sharif, is holy to both Muslims and Jews, who refer to the site as Har ha-Bayit, or Temple Mount.
Jordan has been the official custodian of Christian and Muslim holy places in Jerusalem since 1924. Following the Third Arab-Israeli War, when Israel seized the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967, Israel accepted the continuation of this status quo agreement, which states that while non-Muslims are allowed to visit the Al-Aqsa compound, they cannot worship or pray inside.
The arrangement at the time was uncontroversial. For hundreds of years, Jewish religious authorities issued strict prohibitions on Jews visiting the compound, on the grounds that they could accidentally defile the purity of the site. Until relatively recently, these bans were accepted by the overwhelming majority of Israel’s Jewish public.
According to Mordechai Inbari, a professor of religion at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, this started to change during the Oslo peace negotiations in the 1990s.
Fearing the Israeli government may at some point transfer sovereignty of Al-Aqsa over to the newly created Palestinian Authority, a committee of settler rabbis issued a ruling urging all rabbis who held the exceedingly fringe view that it was permissible for Jews to enter the Temple Mount to “ascend the Mount themselves, and to guide their congregants in ascending the Mount”.
Their reason for promoting a ruling that was supported by a very small minority was political: to encourage masses of Jews to enter Al-Aqsa to pray in order to establish facts on the ground that would make it harder for Palestinians to ever assume sovereignty over the site, Inbari tells Al Jazeera.
Since then, this movement, led by a small group of individuals from Israel’s so-called “national-religious” camp – who are often referred to as “Temple Mount activists” – has been enormously successful.
Over the years, there has been a meteoric increase in visits by Jews to the compound, with right-wing Jewish Israelis challenging the status quo with increasing resolve and frequency. Last year, these visits hit a record high, with about 50,000 religious Zionists visiting the holy compound.
Last year, a survey found that exactly half of Jewish Israeli respondents support allowing Jews to pray at the Al-Aqsa compound, or the Temple Mount, with most saying they support it because it would send a message about Israel’s control over the site, rather than for religious reasons.
During the last few years, Israeli police have begun allowing for daily prayers to be carried out in the compound, hinting at a dramatic change in the status quo. The police, who just a few years ago would have ejected any person suspected of praying or even possessing a Torah, now look on passively and provide protection to the worshippers if Palestinians, like the Murabitat, attempt to confront them.
An Israeli police spokesperson, however, denied any change in policy to Al Jazeera, stating that there have been “no changes to the status quo,” and that any non-Muslim who attempts to pray in the compound is “immediately detained”.
At the start of the year, Itamar Ben-Gvir, an outspoken supporter of Jews praying at Al-Aqsa, provocatively visited the compound days after being sworn in as Israel’s minister for national security, as part of the country’s newly formed government – considered the most right-wing in its history. It was one of the highest-profile visits by an Israeli official since then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon did so in 2000, which sparked the second Intifada.
But for the Temple Mount activists, this discursive strategy that has successfully garnered general support for Jewish prayer at Al-Aqsa is part of a larger plan to eventually demolish the Dome of the Rock and build a third temple in its place.
In a similar process that transformed Jewish worship at Al-Aqsa from a fringe religious position to one that is supported by half of Jewish Israelis, Temple Mount activists hope that as Jewish presence and worship become normalised at the holy site, the idea of building the third temple will likewise become acceptable to mainstream Israeli society in the future.
‘They will destroy it’
The goal of the Murabitat is to make sure this does not go unchallenged.
Aida Sidawi, a 60-year-old Murabita, tells Al Jazeera that despite Israel often claiming that the group – along with the Murabitun, the movement’s male counterpart – was founded by the outlawed Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, it is actually completely decentralised and arose organically to defend the holy site.
“It was decreed by God,” says Sidawi, leaning against a stone wall near her home in the Old City, which is just a few minutes walk from Al-Aqsa. “No one founded it or organised it.” Its name is derived from the Islamic concept of ribat, which is outlined in the Quran. It refers to the act of remaining at the Muslim frontiers and waiting between prayers to defend against potential attacks.
“The ribat has been at Al-Aqsa since its establishment,” Sidawi continues. “But it has become more prominent as we are in more need of protection and Al-Aqsa is under greater threat.” Anyone who stays at Al-Aqsa with an intention to protect the site is considered part of Murabitun, she says.
“It is a religious duty,” she adds. “When there’s an Israeli incursion on Al-Aqsa, everyone instinctively knows what to do. They will come in the thousands. There are no phone calls or organising. Even people who don’t pray will travel here to defend it.”
Sidawi spends her days following WhatsApp groups and local news, and rotates into patrols outside the compound’s gates with other women. She admits, however, that the sacred movement’s activities are limited, particularly since most have now been banned from the site.
“We can’t do anything except rush the [Israeli] soldiers stationed outside Al-Aqsa and chant ‘Allahu Akbar’, because of the oppression that we are facing,” Sidawi says. “But God is greater and bigger than anything physical on this Earth. God is above everything. And this makes the Israelis scared because deep down they know this land does not belong to them – why else would they need so many police and security officials to come and protect them?”
It was the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron in 1994 that transformed the ribat from an unspoken religious duty into a formative practice at Al-Aqsa, according to Sidawi. Baruch Goldstein, a US-born Jewish settler and member of the far-right Kach movement, entered the mosque and opened fire on unsuspecting Palestinian worshippers during Ramadan, killing 29 and injuring more than 100 in that attack.
Following the massacre, Israel partitioned the Ibrahimi Mosque, with 60 percent of it being sealed off from Palestinians and converted into a synagogue. “We started to become more aware of the settlers’ intentions around Al-Aqsa,” Sidawi tells Al Jazeera. “The reality is clear. If we do not guard Al-Aqsa, then they will destroy it. And it will be forever lost.”
Sidawi’s perspective is a response to right-wing goals that are increasingly becoming a reality. Just a short distance from Al-Aqsa is the Temple Institute, located in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter.
Founded in 1984 by Israel Ariel, also a supporter of Kach, which was banned in Israel after its members expressed support for the Ibrahimi Mosque mass shooting, the institute’s goal is to recreate the second Jerusalem temple, which was destroyed nearly two millennia ago, and to shift Israeli public opinion into supporting its construction.
According to Inbari, the Temple Institute has become an influential force in the Temple Mount movement. It runs a museum that includes a detailed blueprint and model for a future third temple, a publishing house, and a project that seeks to produce and recreate items used in the ancient temple, which has included training four priests, reproducing their holy garments, and designing the alters. It has also created more than 60 sacred temple vessels that would be needed for worship in any future rebuilt temple.
“The Temple was central to ancient Jewish identity,” explained Yitzchak Reuven, the director of English language social media at the Temple Institute. “Out of the 613 Torah commandments, more than 200 were related to the Temple. It’s a huge part of Jewish identity historically.”
“When the Temple was destroyed it became less prominent in Jewish identity,” he told Al Jazeera. “Over 2,000 years of exile, the idea of building the temple was something far into the future and distant, whether for Jews in Poland, Yemen, or Iraq.” But Reuven believes that, since Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, those dreams of building a third temple are no longer so obscure.
“Our purpose is to educate and to try and show people the positive side of the temple, what it can offer us, and to create a longing for it again in the Jewish soul,” Reuven says. “Now that the people of Israel have returned to the land of Israel and the Temple Mount is in the sovereign hands of Israel, we need to address the issue of the temple.”
Reuven, who has often entered the compound to pray, said he has had his own past run-ins with the Murabitat, but that there are fewer confrontations now, given Israel’s ban on the group.
Despite the potential for a regional conflict if Islamic sites in the compound were destroyed, Reuven told Al Jazeera that he “feels that the establishment of the temple can only be achieved through peaceful means”.
When asked how he envisioned the destruction of one of Islam’s holiest sites being achieved through peaceful negotiations, Reuven released an edgy laugh. “Well, that’s the difficult part,” he said. “You would, of course, have to destroy the Dome of the Rock, or move it, or something. But I hope that religious leaders can sit down and find a way to see eye to eye.”
During the past decade, these once-obscure ideologies have entered the Israeli mainstream. Politicians, including government ministers, have echoed language about a third temple, and the education ministry sent thousands of students from state-religious schools to the institute’s programmes.
“There’s definitely a change in consciousness here in Israel,” Reuven said proudly. “The talk about the temple is much more prominent today than 30 years ago, whether it is just people talking on the streets, or in the media, or even among politicians.”
‘Paradise on Earth’
“Al-Aqsa is part of my soul,” Khwais says; her eyes immediately blur with tears. “Since I was a little girl it has been my home. Al-Aqsa is a promise. It is something given to us and we are entrusted with the responsibility to protect it. I don’t want anything in this world. I don’t want a house or a car. I only want my way to Al-Aqsa to be open.”
But Khwais, like the rest of the Murabitat, has been banned from entering Al-Aqsa for more than a decade. She says Israeli police have arrested and jailed her more than 40 times. Like all members of the Murabitat, Khwais has battle scars to prove her devotion to the holy site. She has been pepper-sprayed by settlers and beaten by Israeli police on numerous occasions, which resulted in her hand being broken in one incident. Another left her bedridden for about a week after Israeli police beat her with a metal baton.
Last year, during Israel’s annual flag march, in which tens of thousands of Israelis commemorated Israel’s 1967 military takeover and occupation of East Jerusalem by marching through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, waving Israeli flags and shouting racist chants, such as “Death to the Arabs,” Khwais was beaten by Israeli police and dragged down the stairs leading to Damascus Gate, from where the march was launched.
An Israeli police spokesperson was unable to provide a comment on the allegations.
“I will never become scared of them [Israelis],” Khwais says, wiping the remaining tears from her eyes. “I will gladly sacrifice my body for even a single piece of soil at Al-Aqsa.”
“When Israel bans me from entering Al-Aqsa, I feel sick,” she says. “Just now, I saw two Jews inside Al-Aqsa, yet I am Muslim, born here and raised by Al-Aqsa, and I cannot even enter.”
Never deterred, Khwais spends most of her waking days posted at one of Al-Aqsa’s gates, reciting the Quran, yelling at soldiers, and praying. She also transports elderly Palestinians to the holy site to ensure they continue praying there, investing in a five-seater golf cart. However, Israeli police confiscated it last year and revoked her driver’s licence. A few months ago her licence was reinstated and she was able to obtain another, albeit smaller, cart to resume the transport.
“Al-Aqsa is paradise on Earth,” Sidawi says. “Al-Aqsa is like a spring that brings blessings to all of its surroundings. When you enter Al-Aqsa, it doesn’t matter what worries you have in your mind, you will leave in complete peace – like you were born again.”
“Al-Aqsa is a key,” she continues. “You can open peace with it or you can open war. We all love peace and we all love life. But we will never allow them to take Al-Aqsa.”