Inside the Outlawed Group of Muslim Women Patrolling the Temple Mount

The authorities have outlawed the Mourabitat, a group of women considered a key player in the violent clashes on the Temple Mount, but its members intend to keep up what they define as holy work.

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Fatema Salaime says she doesn’t understand why the Israeli authorities think she is being provocative when she prays, holds her Koran and calls out “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”).

“We come here, to Haram al-Sharif, to study and pray,” says Salaime, referring to the holy site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. “I see the soldiers – some of them are younger than my children – and they think they have the power because they have guns. And when I hold up my Koran and say ‘Allahu Akbar’ to the soldiers and policemen, it is to remind them that the real power belongs to God. We must all – Israelis and Arabs – be modest, not arrogant.”

Once a week, the 63-year-old retired schoolteacher takes a chartered bus from her home in the Lower Galilee and, along with other women from the region, rides for nigh-on three hours to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. There, she spends the day studying and praying, often while fasting.

Salaime is part of the Mourabitat, an organization of women who – together with a parallel men’s group called the Mourabitoun – have taken it upon themselves to create an ongoing presence to protect the Al-Aqsa Mosque from what they are convinced are Israel’s intentions to seize the site.

The Mourabitat and Mourabitoun were outlawed last month by the authorities, who view them as partly responsible for the recent outburst of violence on the Temple Mount. But in rare conversations with Haaretz, two Mourabitat activists insist the group is not even a formal organization and that they are motivated solely by their deep religious faith and devotion to Al-Aqsa.

The terms Mourabitat and Mourabitoun roughly translate to “defenders of the faith,” and come from a phrase in the Koran that obliges every Muslim to be a defender of Islam’s holy places.

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The Mourabitat is made up of some 1,000 women, most of them Israeli citizens from the Galilee, along with some residents of East Jerusalem. In the eyes of the authorities, the organizations were founded and are funded by Sheikh Ra’ad Salah, head of the radical northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel. According to news reports, Salah pays each member up to 4,000 shekels ($1,040) per month.

Under arrangements in place since the end of the Six-Day War in 1967, Jews are prohibited from praying on the Temple Mount, and the area is administered by Muslim religious authorities. Israeli officials believe Salah is deliberately, and misleadingly, attempting to incite violence by claiming that Israel intends to change the current situation.

The site has been relatively quiet in recent weeks, but the situation remains tense. Less than a month ago, riots on the Mount fueled the latest outbreak of violence across the country. On the alleyways leading up to the site and in the mosque itself, the Mourabitat – their voices shrill and angry as they confronted the security forces – were a constant presence.

Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told Haaretz that restraining orders were issued against specific women, not against the organization itself, and that the goal of the police is to maintain the status quo. “Based on intelligence information,” says Rosenfeld, “we know if the women are intending to cause trouble at any given time. Right now, they are definitely being less provocative. But we are constantly assessing their activities.”

Salaime – her hair carefully covered in a soft, cream-colored scarf and wearing a finely tailored, deep cranberry-colored coatdress – agrees to meet on a bench on a street not far from the Old City’s Damascus Gate, the site of several recent knife attacks. For now, the violence that was incited, at least in part, by events on the Mount, has moved to the streets below.

Speaking softly in hesitant Hebrew, she says it is “silly and insulting to think that I would take money from the sheikh – or from anyone else – to come and pray. Every one of us contributes, according to their ability, to pay for the bus. Sometimes, someone charters the bus in memory of a loved one, or as a gesture of charity and goodwill.

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“Praying at Al-Aqsa is who I am; it is my heart, myself. I don’t need money to pray – my reward, the only one I need, comes from God. Everyone is obliged to protect Al-Aqsa. It is the minimum I must do, because the Jews want to take over the Temple Mount,” she says.

Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have publicly and repeatedly declared that Israel has no intention of changing the status quo at the holy site. Last week, Netanyahu ordered the police to prevent all non-Muslim politicians, including government ministers and Knesset members from his own Likud party, from visiting the area.

Yet Salaime remains convinced that the authorities intend to take over the site. “Not all Jews want to throw us out,” she says. “But the settlers and the government want to build the Third Temple.

“That is why they are digging under the mosque – so that it will become unstable,” she adds, repeating an unsubstantiated accusation frequently made by Salah.

“Islam does not prohibit prayer – by individuals – on Haram al-Sharif. Even now, if you come to pray sincerely to your God, we will welcome you. But the settlers come to be provocative, to try to take Haram al-Sharif away from us.”

Is she scared by the violence? “No,” she says firmly. “It is up to Allah when I live and die.”

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Suha, a 23-year-old dental technician from East Jerusalem who declined to give her last name, also considers herself part of the Mourabitat.

“How do I know you’re not from the Shin Bet [security service]? Or that you just want to get me in trouble?” she challenges Haaretz’s correspondent, speaking in fluent Hebrew.

She says she isn’t afraid of visiting Al-Aqsa, despite the current wave of violence. “I’ve faced the Israeli occupation all my life. And it would be an honor to die as a shahida [martyr] – defending Islam’s holy place.”

Her hair tightly covered in a carefully pinned scarf that matches the colorful shirt she wears over her jeans, Suha says she visits Al-Aqsa several times a week with a group of around 10 other women.

Most days, she sits inside the mosque studying and praying, while men from the Mourabitoun patrol outside. “When they see Jews who come to cause trouble, they call us, and that’s when we women go into action. We try to chase them away,” she says. “Sometimes, we try to prevent them from coming close, by walking through the streets of the Old City.

“We’re not even an organization but you declared us illegal – that’s so ridiculous,” she says. “It’s like saying that prayer is illegal.”