Jordan to Safeguard Jerusalem’s Islamic Holy Sites - if They’re Still Standing

Plans to preserve and strengthen the Islamic character of Jerusalem may have their merits, but do they have to go hand in hand with alarmist warnings that the Al-Aqsa mosque could be destroyed at any minute?

Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher
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Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher

Earlier this week, when most of Israel was powering down for the final holiday of the week-long Passover festival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordanian King Abdullah II had a power meeting in Jordan. They signed an agreement reaffirming Jordan’s historic role as a custodian of the holy sites in Jerusalem, a role it has played since the 1924 as part of a gentlemen’s agreement.

The main reason, according to a statement released by the palace, was to be a barrier toward attempts to “Judaize” Jerusalem and protect the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

“In this historic agreement, Abbas reiterated that the king is the custodian of holy sites in al-Quds and that he has the right to exert all legal efforts to preserve them, especially Al-Aqsa mosque,” the statement said. “It is also emphasizing the historical principles agreed by Jordan and Palestine to exert joint efforts to protect the city and holy sites from Israeli Judaization attempts.”

The move is largely symbolic, the Associated Press reported, but the reaction to the deal is worth more than a passing glance. Prominent Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab, who splits his time between Jerusalem and Amman, said that the deal came at highly sensitive time, suggesting that the sort of Jewish extremists who in the past were itching to get rid of the Al-Aqsa Mosque to make way for the Third Temple are now holding sway in Netanyahu’s government.

“Jerusalem’s holy places, and especially Al Aqsa Mosque, have been under an escalating threat from radical forces, some of whom are now senior members of the Knesset and government ministers in Israel,” Kuttab wrote earlier this week in The Jordan Times, in a column also published in Al-Arabiya English, owned by the Saudi-owned pan-Arab satellite channel. In the article, he says that Israel has softened its ruling on whether Jews can pray near the Temple Mount, opening the door to radicals. He argues that the Jordanian Waqf’s role should be revolutionized to keep up with Israeli efforts.

“Much more is needed to upgrade the Palestinian, Arab and Islamic response to the Israeli and Jewish machine dedicated to reverse Islamic presence and to Judaise the holy city on account of its inhabitants and its religious sites,” Kuttab wrote.

The slogans that the Al-Aqsa Mosque is in danger aren’t new, though they usually come from those with more of an Islamist bent. The Israeli security establishment was so perturbed by repeated claims to this effect made by Sheikh Ra’ad Salah, the head of the Islamic movement of the North, that they banned him from coming to Jerusalem. But that only seems to have increased suspicions that Israel is trying to hide something nefarious. Other than the idea of radical Jews hatching another insane plot to blow up the Temple Mount, a la the Jewish Underground in 1980, there have been repeated reports in the Islamic world that ongoing Israeli excavations in the Old City will “accidentally” cause Al-Aqsa to collapse.

I, like most journalists, never know quite what to make of this, but have spent many an interview listening to Palestinians express their concerns on this issue. I always nod, sometimes wondering if they really think Israel wants to destroy Al-Aqsa and bring on the apocalypse, sometimes feeling sad that people are living in fear of their holy site being destroyed, and sometimes wondering whether this is just a good catchphrase that helps bring international attention – including a new $1 billion plan approved by the Arab League last week. According to the Qatari initiative, member states will help preserve the city’s “Arab and Islamic character of the city and reinforce the steadfastness of its people," according to a draft resolution.

It’s easy to support such a plan, because Israel alone can scarcely do good in East Jerusalem. When it ignores neighborhoods and infrastructure it is neglecting the city’s Arab inhabitants; when it builds and develops it is accused of cementing the occupation. But does preserving and strengthening the Islamic character of the city have to go hand in hand with alarmist warnings that the third-holiest Muslim site in the world could be destroyed at any minute? And at a time when West Bank unrest already threatens to morph into something bigger, wouldn’t it be better if someone didn’t shout fire in a crowded theater?

But before I join the chorus of worrywarts, I will note that some analysts see the Jordanian-Palestinian agreement inked on Sunday as a harbinger of something good. According to this AFP story on the Palestinian Ma’an news website, it was no coincidence that the deal was signed directly after the visit to the region of U.S. President Barack Obama. "It might be a sign for the start of efforts led by Obama to resume peace talks as it shows that the Palestinian Authority and Jordan have creative solutions for Jerusalem," Oraib Rintawi, head of the Al-Quds Centre for Political Studies, told AFP. "It boosts Jordan's role in the Jerusalem question, giving legal and political means to tackle the issue internationally with the recognition of the Palestinians and Israel."

A Muslim worshipper praying during the first Friday prayers of Ramadan, in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, Friday, Aug. 13, 2010. Credit: AP

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