Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Israel tightens grip around al-Aqsa mosque

A right-wing Israeli settlement group has been put in charge of two controversial new projects to develop the area around al-Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, the compound of holy sites that includes al-Aqsa mosque and the golden-topped Dome of the Rock.

Dome of the Rock

Elad received planning approval this month to develop a huge visitors’ centre, called the Kedem complex, in a former car park just outside the Old City walls in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan. While the visitors’ centre will give Elad a base less than 20 metres from the Old City, a second project could extend its reach to the retaining wall of al-Aqsa mosque itself.

Al-Haram al-Sharif compound has been the most contested piece of territory in the Holy Land since Israel occupied Jerusalem’s Old City in 1967, along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Tensions have been heightened recently, as extremist Jews have begun entering the compound in larger numbers, with quiet backing from Israeli officials. The groups have sought to overturn a long-standing rabbinical prohibition on praying on the Temple Mount.

Israeli housing minister Uri Ariel, a hardline settler himself, chose Elad to manage an area known as the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, immediately south of the Western Wall. Renovations there will extend the prayer area for Jews. Last week, the Jerusalem Magistrates Court put Elad’s management of the park on hold until it ruled on the deal.

Al-Aqsa Mosque

Yehudit Oppenheimer, director of Ir Amim, an Israeli group advocating fair treatment for Palestinians in Jerusalem, said the Kedem complex was the final piece Israel needed to secure its complete control over the area around al-Haram al-Sharif: “Now tourists will enter from Jaffa Gate [an entrance from West Jerusalem into the Old City], walk through the Jewish quarter, see the Western Wall, visit the City of David and get their information from the Kedem complex,” she told Al Jazeera.

She said the experience would reinforce both the idea of Israel’s physical control of the area and a hardline nationalist narrative associated with Israel’s far right. “The sites and signs will look Israeli; all the information and tours will consolidate an exclusively Jewish narrative,” Oppenheimer said. “Most Israeli and foreign tourists will have no idea that they are in Palestinian territory. It will feel to them like they are still in Israel.”

Israeli authorities have already given Elad large areas of Silwan, even though it is located in occupied East Jerusalem, to excavate an archaeological park called theCity of David, disrupting the lives of 35,000 Palestinians. Elad had helped some 300 settlers take over Palestinian homes in the area, creating armed encampments around the park, according to Ahmed Qaraeen, a Silwan community leader. More