Nadav Shragai

Terror from the Temple Mount Mosques

Given the “Al Aksa is in danger” libel, the calls to come and defend the mosques even if it means sacrificing one’s life and shedding blood, and the violent language Muslim clerics have used within and outside the Temple Mount to radicalize their message, it comes as no surprise that sometimes the Temple Mount mosques are used for purposes of terror. Using the mount and its mosques as a terror base is legitimized by the notion that this base is “threatened” by the “enemies of Islam.” Since attacking the enemies of Islam is legitimate, so is planning attacks from the precincts of “threatened” and “endangered” Al-Aksa.

It comes as no surprise, too, that senior Muslim clerics (Sunni and Shiite), most of all the Sunni sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi and the Shiite Ayatollah Khomeini, have often affirmed the legitimacy of using mosques for military purposes and for terror against the enemies of Islam in the context of jihad (holy war).(1) Qaradawi, the spiritual patron of the Muslim Brotherhood whose views sit comfortably with Hamas, has spoken in the past of the imminent conquest of Europe.(2) He has pointed out that, since the earliest days of Islam, the mosque has played an important role in encouraging Muslims to embark on jihad and resistance against enemies of the Muslim community, those seeking to invade and rule it. Khomeini, for his part, stated that “the mosque is a fortress of the great jihad,” a place for warfare against Satan and the despots.(3) Experts at Israel’s Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center note that this outlook is based on the hadith that the Prophet Muhammad himself used the mosque for both military and political ends, beyond its function as a house of prayer for the believers.(4)

Like the “Al-Aksa is in danger” libel itself, the use of the Temple Mount compound for terror purposes began in the period of the grand mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, who was a pioneer in this regard as well. The mufti, who took part in stoking the Great Arab Revolt against the British of 1936-1939, was removed by the British from all his posts. When they tried to arrest him he found refuge in the Temple Mount mosques, and in October 1937 succeeded to escape from Palestine. As Dr. Dotan Goren of Bar-Ilan University notes, in this period the mosques served as a hiding place for weapons and tools of sabotage, and the Temple Mount compound became a haven for members of the Arab gangs that took part in the Great Arab Revolt. Indeed, in July 1938 a large quantity of weapons was found beside the Dome of the Rock, concealed within building materials meant for renovations at the site. The weapons included bombs, bullets, a rifle, and more.(5)

In those days hundreds of members of Arab terrorist gangs were able to infiltrate the Old City of Jerusalem. The British, in a military operation, entered the Old City and drove the gang members onto the Temple Mount. Attempting to prove that no weapons were hidden there, the Wakf invited the British to enter the mount – where they found, near the mosque, “a number of boxes that had been emptied of hand grenades.”(6)

The Temple Mount was likewise used for military purposes during the War of Independence. A report from November 1947(7) reveals that there was an Arab headquarters on the mount from which weapons were distributed. A guard was stationed at the entrance to the room where the weapons were stashed, and every Arab who came to obtain weapons paid a set fee or brought a guarantor of payment.(8)

During the First and Second Intifadas, too, the Temple Mount was used to incite riots and insurrection. Eventually it became clear that several Palestinian terrorist gangs had chosen the Temple Mount plaza as a regular meeting place. Gang members held parleys mainly during prayer hours, using the site’s sacredness for cover to plan operations.

On October 15, 1986, the most notable of these gangs carried out a grenade attack against Israeli recruits of the Givati Brigade at their swearing-in ceremony at the Western Wall. Dov Porat, the father of a soldier, was killed; sixty-nine others, including soldiers and their family members, were injured. The terrorists left leaflets in the vicinity inscribed by “the members of the Temple Mount gang, a company of the Muslim sacred guard in Palestine.” The text of the leaflets was religious, mainly verses from the Koran.(9) Within a short time the Shin Bet arrested the brothers Nasser and Tarek Halisi from Silwan village, which borders the scene of the attack. Their interrogation revealed that they were recruited by the PLO in Jordan in a religious context, and that the Temple Mount mosques were among the gang’s meeting places.(10)

The gang that kidnapped and murdered border policeman Nissim Toledano in December 1992 and traffic policemen Daniel Hazut and Mordechai Yisrael in March 1993 also used the Temple Mount and its mosques to plan their acts of terror. The gang members, who belonged to Hamas, each received three life sentences. Before he was sentenced, gang leader Mahmoud Issa told the judges: “The Koran obligates us to jihad. We, the Izzadin al-Kassam gang, carried out all the jihad operations in defense of the Koran. We are members of the people whose land was conquered and whose honor was humiliated…we could not stay quiet.”(11)

During the First Intifada in 1988, the preachers in their Friday sermons on the Temple Mount sometimes included passages from leaflets published by the United National Headquarters. On July 3 of that year, the preacher quoted from Announcement No. 22 on the “Blessed Holiday of the Sacrifice”: “The United National Headquarters praises the strike forces for their active role against the occupation forces, mechanisms, and ministries and against those who deviate from the will of the people.” Announcement No. 21, published a short time earlier, was called the “Blessed Al-Aksa Mosque Announcement.” It designated August 7 of that year as “Al-Aksa Day,” a “special day of escalation, in which the public will take part in all the mass activities to defend Al-Aksa; a day in which the strike forces will inflict blows on the enemy forces and the settler herds.”(12)

In April 1993, the Temple Mount mosques served as a meeting place where initial contacts were made between Fatah activists and Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists, aimed at strengthening the operational links between them. A month earlier Israel had expelled four hundred Hamas men to Lebanon after a severe wave of terror attacks by the organization. Also in those years, a ceremonial event was held on the Temple Mount in which a “Palestinian Declaration of Independence” was read out.(13) On the mount itself in 1995, Hassan Ariba of Abu Dis village that borders Jerusalem stabbed Israeli police officer Yitzchak Limai. Ariba fell upon Limai with cries of “Allah Akbar” and severely wounded him.(14)

During June and July 2008, Israeli security services arrested six Arab residents of eastern Jerusalem, some of them students at the Hebrew University, who were members of an extremist Muslim group that held meetings at the Al-Aksa Mosque. There they made plans to set up an al-Qaeda infrastructure and perpetrate terror attacks in Israel. One had looked into the possibility of shooting down the helicopter of U.S. president George Bush during his January 2008 visit to Jerusalem. The group’s leader was Yusef Sumarin, a former security prisoner who had been freed a short time earlier.(15)

Likewise, those who hatched the plot to fire a missile at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem in the spring of 2010, during a soccer game when crowds of people would be there, were tied to the Temple Mount. According to the charge sheet against Bassam al-Omri (convicted) and Moussa Hamada (his trial was still in progress at this writing), the two worked as Hamas representatives at the Al-Aksa Mosque for three years.(16) Their employer, Majid Jubeh, admitted in the framework of a plea bargain that he was in charge of a Hamas gang that worked for the Al-Aksa Committee on the mount.(17) Jubeh was sentenced to two years in prison. And on August 22, 2011, a severe attack in Jerusalem was prevented when Sayid Qawasma, a suicide terrorist who planned to blow himself up in the Pisgat Zeev neighborhood, was caught while hiding on the mount near the Al-Aksa Mosque.(18)

There is good reason to believe that the terror gangs’ use of the Temple Mount mosques and plazas to plan attacks was influenced by the atmosphere on the mount itself. Without the freedom to incite that, in effect, the Israeli authorities have granted to the various preachers and sermonizers, it is doubtful whether young Muslims would allow themselves – using the mosques as protection – to take the further step into actual violence. Matters came to a head in May 2011 after U.S. commando forces killed the arch-terrorist who was behind the Twin Towers attacks, Al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden. “Western dogs,” intoned the preacher at the Al-Aksa Mosque a few hours later,

have murdered a lion of the lions of Islam. The West today rejoiced over the killing of a lion of the lions of Islam….You [Obama] said that you personally gave the order to kill the Muslims. Know well, soon you will hang on a rope along with little Bush. From here, from the Al-Aksa Mosque, from the place of the next Islamic caliphate, we say to them: the dogs will not rejoice much longer over the killing of the lions.

Hours after U.S. commandos killed Osama Bin Laden, the preacher at the Al-Aksa Mosque intoned: “You [Obama] said that you personally gave the order to kill the Muslims. Know well, soon you will hang on a rope along with little Bush.”

Until the First Intifada broke out, for the most part Israeli and Jordanian influences moderated the tenor of the sermons delivered in the mosques each Friday. But when the intifada erupted, the rules of the game on the Temple Mount changed and the oracles of religion only looked for excuses to inflame their followers. The change was particularly apparent in statements about the intifada by the then mufti Saad al-Din al-Alami to the PLO’s official organ Filastin al-Thawra.

Al-Alami, chairman of the Supreme Muslim Council, swore in the interview to continue the uprising and framed it as a question of life and death for the residents. His support for the armed struggle was evident in a request he directed to certain Arab elements to obtain weapons rather than money, and in his appeal to the Arab peoples to pressure their governments to go to war against Israel. Al-Alami also told baseless atrocity stories: “The eyes of three Gaza youths were gouged out by IDF soldiers, after which they shot them.” He called the Israeli prisons “death camps,” and told of a “special torture implement that extracts the liquid from the eye, an implement now used in the Israeli prisons.” This, he explained, accounted for the rise in blindness cases in the territories.(19)

So long as Jordan ruled the Temple Mount (1948-1967), incitement of this kind was met by tough measures and substantial punishment by the authorities. The Israeli leadership, however, rejected a recommendation by security circles to expel al-Alami. The mayor of Jerusalem at the time, Teddy Kollek, told al-Alami in a reproachful letter that his statements were “distant from reality and include imaginary descriptions whose aim is to incite and damage the fabric of relations between the two peoples, Jewish and Arab.” Al-Alami felt sufficiently sure of himself to send Kollek a reply in which he did not retract his claims.(20)

Israel’s treatment of Sheikh al-Alami, who indeed favored an armed struggle against Israel, was symptomatic of the Israeli government’s behavior in general toward the senior religious figures on the Temple Mount. It was mainly marked by profound deference to the religious autonomy that had been granted them. In the Jordanian period, the authorities did not hesitate to impose strict limitations on the Muslim clerics of the mount. On the orders of the king and his emissaries, before presenting their sermons the khatibs (preachers) had to submit a copy to the local Wakf administration. Sermons that contradicted the official line usually drew a fine and sometimes even imprisonment. The Jordanian authorities also imposed stiff terms on khatibs who failed to bless the king at the end of the Friday sermon; in Muslim history, omitting the blessing of the ruler was considered a clear sign of disloyalty to him.(21)

In files of the Jordanian internal security service that fell into Israeli hands during the Six-Day War, the Israeli authorities found abundant evidence of the Jordanian regime’s harsh line toward members of the religious establishment; in comparison, the Israeli authorities treated them with kid gloves.

The Palestinian Authority – both in the Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) periods – also forbade West Bank preachers from giving sermons of a political nature, requiring them to submit the contents of their sermons for prior approval, and sometimes dismissing or even arresting preachers who are identified with Hamas.(22) Sheikh Jamal Muhammad Ahmed Bawatba, minister for Wakf and religious affairs in the government of Salam Fayyad, even hinted in 2009 that preachers would be dismissed “who do not adhere to the message of the mosque, and to the message of the [Wakf] ministry.” He added: “Recently a number of preachers and instructors in the mosques have negatively exploited the freedom that is given them….Someone who wants fame and election propaganda should go to the radio and TV stations.”(23) An article by journalist Ali Waked describes the struggle the PA wages against Hamas activity in the mosques. Waked notes the “reeducation” of preachers, and the expulsion from West Bank mosques of tens (according to other sources, hundreds) of Hamas-affiliated imams. A preacher at a Ramallah-area mosque told Waked: “We occasionally receive a notice from the Religious Affairs Ministry specifying the subject of the sermon for the week, and we are forbidden to deviate from that subject….We stopped dealing with politics a long time ago.”(24)

In the Arab and Muslim world, the use of mosques for military and political purposes prompts much harsher responses. After September 11, 2001, the Saudi authorities took action against mosques where members of al-Qaeda and other Muslim terror groups had taken refuge.(25) In July 2007, the main mosque of Islamabad, Pakistan, the “Red Mosque,” became a center of terror and incitement against the Muslim regime there, and the Pakistani army broke into it. About a hundred supporters of extremist Islam in Pakistan were killed in the operation including Abd al-Aziz Ayazi, deputy of the imam of the mosque. The Pakistani move was a response to mass-casualty terror attacks perpetrated by supporters of Ayazi.(26) In Egypt as well, the authorities acted against mosques that were centers of incitement and terror. They based themselves on a ruling by Muhammad al-Tantawi, sheikh of Al-Azhar University and considered a senior religious authority in the Sunni Muslim world. In July 2007, the website of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt noted that the sheikh had affirmed: “A state has the full right to attack mosques, seal them and even destroy them in the interest of maintaining state security.”(27)

Some may claim that what is permitted for a Muslim government and a non-Muslim one in countering incitement and terror from mosques is not the same. Israel, however, has behaved more mildly in this regard than even Western countries such as Britain, Germany, Italy, or Spain, which have not hesitated to take measures against mosques and religious figures when confronted with incitement and/or terror.(28)

Despite the severe incitement voiced by Temple Mount clerics over the years and particularly the “Al-Aksa is in danger” libel, Israel is very wary about taking the sorts of measures that Muslim and other Western countries take. Israel has often, however, set age limits for those who come to pray on the mount, based on intelligence information about likely disturbances. Such outbreaks have occurred periodically in recent years, reaching a peak with the throwing of stones, cinder blocks, and building materials at Jewish worshippers in the Western Wall plaza below the mount. This happened, for example, on September 29, 2000, when an incited mass threw stones – marshaled beforehand – at worshippers at the wall. It occurred in the presence of Palestinian Authority religious officials and security men, whom Israel had allowed to be there in the hope that this might preserve calm. Stones had also been thrown at worshippers at the wall during the First Intifada (for example, in April 1989 and in October 1990).(29) 

Israel’s liberal approach to the Temple Mount, and its leaders’ perplexity in the face of the incitement and violence that issue from there, were already evident years ago in a statement by Teddy Kollek who served as mayor of Jerusalem for almost three decades (1965-1993). Kollek wrote a biting but also somewhat desperate letter to the then director-general of the Wakf, Sheikh Abd al-Azim Salhub. Kollek reminded him that he personally, along with the City of Jerusalem, was among those who supported the post-Six-Day War decision to leave the mount in the hands of the leaders of the Muslim religion. “This policy,” Kollek noted,

stipulated a tolerant approach that enables each of the religions to run its religious affairs independently and without interference….In the past we have seen infractions of the public order of different magnitudes. In many cases we acted with restraint and even persuaded others to show tolerance. However, what has happened [Kollek referred to the throwing of stones at Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall in April 1989] violates all the rules of the game that were in place until today….Throughout the years I have preached tolerance and understanding between the religions and between the peoples, because I believe in this. But I do not consider it acceptable that a small group, wild and irresponsible, should prevent members of the other religion from freely practicing their religion. Tolerance has to run both ways. We cannot fight for the Muslims’ right to manage their affairs on the Temple Mount freely and without external interference, while you pay us back with a lack of the most minimal, elementary maintenance of control on the mount….I demand that you exercise the powers that were granted you to preserve law and order on the Temple Mount. I am profoundly apprehensive that if you are unable to do so, and if Jewish worshippers cannot pray at the Western Wall without harassment, the State of Israel will of course find a way to ensure freedom of religion at the holy places.(30)

In times of tension the Muslim worshippers at Al-Aksa have attacked the worshippers at the Western Wall, hurling stones at them as here in the mid-'90s. (Avi Ochayon, Government Press Office)

In times of tension the Muslim worshippers at Al-Aksa have attacked the worshippers at the Western Wall, hurling stones at them as here in the mid-’90s. (Avi Ochayon, Government Press Office)

 

The Western Wall plaza strewn with stones hurled from the Temple Mount after the Jewish worshippers were evacuated from the plaza, 1994. (Avi Ochayon, Government Press Office)

The Western Wall plaza strewn with stones hurled from the Temple Mount after the Jewish worshippers were evacuated from the plaza, 1994. (Avi Ochayon, Government Press Office)

 

In retrospect, Kollek’s letter indeed appears unique but also naןve. Kollek reproached the Wakf leadership for failing to put a lid on the violence while ignoring the fact that some of that very leadership was taking part, actively or passively, in that very violence. The main players on the Temple Mount – Jordan, the PLO, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and the Israeli Islamic Movement – have turned the mount, essentially a religious site, into a political ax to grind, and the libelous and inflammatory cry of “Al-Aksa is in danger” has served them more than any other tool.

Thousands of Muslim worshippers pray during Ramadan on the Temple Mount in front of the Dome of the Rock shrine. (Muhammed Muheisen, Associated Press)

Thousands of Muslim worshippers pray during Ramadan on the Temple Mount in front of the Dome of the Rock shrine. (Muhammed Muheisen, Associated Press)