Inside the Temple Mount: A Week With Palestinian Protesters in Al-Aqsa

After the murder of two Israeli cops, a popular Palestinians protest came together on the Temple Mount and prepared for a long summer. On Thursday morning they celebrated after Israel backtracked

Celebrating outside Al-Aqsa compound Thursday, July 27, 2017
Emil Salman

Despite the clashes around the Temple Mount on Thursday and the stun grenades thrown by police, the Palestinians were well aware that the pictures taken at the entrances to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound at 4:30 P.M. were Palestinian victory photographs. The protesters got everything they asked for, in less time than they expected.

In the two weeks since Israel responded to the murder of two policemen at one of the entrances to the Mount by putting up metal detectors and installing security cameras, Palestinians have staged genuinely popular mass demonstrations at all the entrances. Depending on the hour, these protests ranged from rioting to the atmosphere of a summer camp.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Palestinians came to the Mount every day over the past week. They were prepared for a long-term protest; they put up awnings and organized stocks of food and water. Their message throughout the week was: “We aren’t going anywhere.”

Praying outside Al-Aqsa Mosque Thursday, July 27, 2017
Olivier Fitoussi

But they didn’t end up having to stay long. In the days before Israel removed the metal detectors and cameras, Abd al-Rahman, a 13-year-old from Jerusalem, would wander among the demonstrators handing out books. He told Haaretz Wednesday he brought them from home to lend to people, so they’d have something to read between prayer services.

One of the books was an English-language copy of George Orwell’s “1984,” which he admitted he hadn’t read, but had been told it was “appropriate” for the situation.

On Wednesday afternoon, Rahman – a bit bored by the long summer vacation – was still planning to spend many more days at this summer camp, which turned violent nearly every night. He said he would come every day, until Israel removed the cameras and metal detectors, even if it took weeks. He added, optimistically, “But perhaps it will take only two days.”

Handing out candy to worshippers outside Al-Aqsa compound Thursday, July 27, 2017
Olivier Fitoussi

In the end, though, it took even less. Just a few hours later, police removed the last guard booth at the Mount’s entrances.

On Thursday morning, Rahman was still there with his books – celebrating. There was music and dancing. “They removed the cameras; we won faster than we thought,” he said.

At 12:30 P.M. on Thursday, the early afternoon service, hundreds of Palestinians were still praying outside the Al-Aqsa compound. Many said they were staying outside on orders from the Waqf until the last of the Mount’s entrances was opened.

But by the late afternoon service, at 4:30 P.M., thousands of Palestinians were back on the compound itself.

Muslim worshippers confront Israel Police officers at Lions Gate outside the Al-Aqsa compound Thursday, July 20, 2017
Emil Salman

Disturbances broke out around one entrance, the Gate of Remission, leading police to shut it until the last possible moment. Consequently, thousands of people were bottlenecked at Lions Gate (which leads to the Gate of Remission).

The crowd at Lions Gate began cursing Israel and the police, and demanding the liberation of Al-Aqsa, and this spontaneous demonstration by several thousand people soon became a violent clash, which the police dispersed with stun grenades. Several dozen Palestinians were reportedly injured.

Nevertheless, the Palestinians knew they had won. Kamel, 17, who had come especially from Ramallah on Thursday morning, said they were celebrating victory, but that they wouldn’t enter the site until the “interior cameras” had also been removed.

“I think it’s impossible for there to be two states here,” he added, without being asked. “All of Palestine is ours. The Jews have no rights here. They should go back to Europe and the United States.”

Kamel’s comment about the “interior cameras” provided an important insight into the atmosphere around the Temple Mount in recent days. Numerous rumors were flying among the protesters, some of them completely absurd – and these made it hard to figure out exactly what the protesters were demanding.

An older man named Saeed, for example, alleged on Wednesday that Israel was trying to completely change the status quo on the holy site.

His companion, also an older man, accused the Israelis of trying to photograph Palestinian women “both inside and outside,” expounding a detailed and ludicrous theory about how Israel had installed or would install special cameras that would show the female worshippers naked. To someone from the outside, it sounded like the stuff of conspiracy theories. But all the men around him were nodding in agreement, as if it was simply fact.

Shortly after he finished his fiery speech about the X-ray pictures, an elderly man dressed in clerical robes came by with a jar of honey. Each of the men dipped two fingers in the honey and licked them.

This wasn’t just a social ritual. They called each other “Murabitun,” a term for Muslim warriors who fight to protect holy places. They were waging a holy war, and they were taking this war very seriously indeed.

But as fast as these conspiracy theories spread, they disappeared just as quickly the moment the gates reopened. Men and women alike poured in by the thousands to pray on the Al-Aqsa compound. Israel removed all the security measures it had installed after the attack that killed the two policemen on July 14, and this was enough to persuade the Palestinians to enter again.

When Israel Police chief Roni Alsheich was asked on Thursday whether stationing metal detectors at the site was a mistake to begin with, he refused to answer. He said it was a political decision, and that it was not the police commissioner’s place to express opinions on political decisions. But he insisted the police “know how to do their job,” even when faced with political constraints.

Alsheich’s evasiveness was understandable. Off the record, though, senior police officers admit there are currently no security checks whatsoever at the Mount.

The situation there, a senior Jerusalem police officer said Thursday, has reverted to exactly what it was before the attack. There’s no effective way to inspect the tens of thousands of people expected to flock to the Mount on Friday, he admitted – certainly not by “wanding” them with handheld metal detectors, despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim earlier this week that police would be doing that.

Netanyahu might have ordered the police to use the wands. But everyone, including him, understands it’s not feasible given the masses of people who usually come to the site. Perhaps the police will check a few people who look particularly suspicious – but that, officers said, happened even before the attack. And we all know that this method wasn’t enough to prevent the policemen’s murder.