The legal status of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem is a contentious issue in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. The recent raid by Israeli police on the mosque, which led to the arrest of Palestinian worshippers, sparked retaliatory rocket attacks from Gaza and Lebanon, resulting in a brief escalation of violence. To understand how a single police raid can lead to a war, it is essential to comprehend the status quo governing the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
For Palestinians, the matter is straightforward. Under international law, Israel does not have sovereignty over East Jerusalem, and therefore, it does not have sovereignty over Al-Aqsa. As such, international law dictates that Israel is not authorized to implement any status quo. The Palestinians and the Waqf, the Jordanian-appointed body that manages the Al-Aqsa compound, believe that the status quo is rooted in the site’s administration under the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans dictated that Muslims have exclusive control of Al-Aqsa.
However, Israel sees things differently. Despite international law not recognizing any attempt by an occupying power to annex territory it has occupied, Israel believes that it has sovereignty over East Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. For Israel, the status quo refers to a 1967 agreement formulated by Moshe Dayan, a former Israeli defense minister. After Israel occupied East Jerusalem, Dayan proposed a new arrangement based on the Ottoman agreement.
According to Israel’s 1967 status quo, the Israeli government allows the Waqf to maintain day-to-day control of the area, and only Muslims are permitted to pray there. However, Israeli police control the site’s access and are responsible for security, and non-Muslims are allowed to visit the site as tourists. While no Israeli law prohibits Jews from praying at Al-Aqsa, the Israeli Supreme Court decided that the prohibition is justified to maintain peace.
Recent changes to the status quo have further complicated the situation. Between 1967 and 2000, non-Muslims could buy tickets from the Waqf to visit the site as tourists. However, after the Palestinians’ second Intifada broke out in 2000 following former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s contentious visit to Al-Aqsa, the Waqf closed the site to visitors. The site stayed closed to visitors until 2003, when Israel forced the Waqf to acquiesce to the entry of non-Muslims. Since then, non-Muslim visitors have been restricted by the Israeli police to limited hours and specific days.
In 2015, a four-way agreement between Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and the United States reaffirmed the 1967 status quo. However, since 2017, Jews have tacitly been allowed to pray in the compound, primarily due to pressure from religious Zionists represented in Israel’s government by hardliners like the far-right Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir. This has led to increased tensions and clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police.
For Palestinians, Al-Aqsa is the last small corner of Palestine not under full Israeli occupation. They see any changes to the status quo as an attempt to “make the compound Jewish and to dismiss the Muslims and Islam from Al-Aqsa.” Palestinians take pride in resisting Israel’s occupation of the site, and losing Al-Aqsa would be devastating for them.
In conclusion, the legal status of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound is a complex issue that has been at the center of the Israel-Palestine conflict for decades. The differing interpretations of the status quo by Israel and Palestine have led to tensions and violence. Any changes to the status quo must be carefully considered to avoid further escalation of the conflict.