Middle East

Muslim mosque ‘sentinels’ make Israel anxious

Umm Hassan, 60, goes most days to Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque compound to protect it against "sacrilege" by Jewish visitors but soon she and other protesters will themselves be barred.

The black-robed woman in a headscarf is one of the Murabitat, or sentinels, who say they come on their own initiative to the Islamic holy place in Jerusalem's walled Old City.

The Murabitat and a men's group called Murabitun closely monitor Jews who are allowed, under police guard, to visit on five days of the week and shower them with loud abuse and religious oaths.

For Israel the two groups are among the main causes of tension at the flashpoint site, sacred to Islam and Judaism.

Many of their members have already been individually barred as alleged troublemakers but Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon has now outlawed the Murabitat and Murabitun, citing "state security" as the reason.

Under the new order, participants and anyone who organises or finances their activities could face trial.

Umm Hassan says she fights "without a weapon, but with God and the Koran".

Jews leave dancing after visiting the hilltop site, the holiest spot in Judaism.

Waiting for them are a few dozen women of the Murabitat waving copies of the Koran and shouting "Allahu Akbar (God is greatest)".

Between them stand Israeli police, some in riot gear, half-heartedly shoving at both sides in an effort to keep them apart and studiously ignoring abuse from both directions.

The scuffles have become a regular event on the mornings when non-Muslim visits are allowed — Sundays to Thursdays.

Jews, some barefoot from respect for the sanctity of the place, walk around the Al-Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock shrine on a route which rabbis have determined will not lead them to step onto ground where they believe once stood the "Holy of Holies", the inner sanctum of the biblical Jewish temples.

In accordance with Jewish religious law, men cover their heads and married women their hair.

– 'Defend Al-Aqsa' –

Muslims accuse Israel of seeking to change the facts on the ground at the holy site.

But right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly said he has no intention of disturbing the status quo, in which Jews are allowed to visit but not pray at the mosque compound.

"We must defend Al-Aqsa against the settlers; Al-Aqsa belongs only to the Muslims," says Umm Hassan.

For the Murabitat it is the Jews who are the troublemakers and banning the group from the compound "is to bar everyone from entering because every Muslim who enters or prays is a sentinel," says Khadijeh Kweiss, who is herself under a court order preventing her from entering for two months.

To Israeli police spokeswoman Luba Samri, the sentinels are tools of the hardline northern branch of Israel's Islamic Movement, whose firebrand leader Sheikh Raed Salah has had many brushes with the law.

Salah's movement, she told AFP, "finances them in order to achieve their political objectives under the cover of religion".

It is an allegation that both the Islamic Movement and the sentinels deny.

"The Israeli government considers Sheikh Salah… a major menace due to his leadership of the 'Al-Aqsa is in Danger' campaign, which it sees as an incitement," said a recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) think-tank.

Sheikh Ekerna Sabri, who regularly delivers the Friday sermon at Al-Aqsa, accused Israel's defence minister of trying to "empty" the mosque complex of Muslims.

"His decision is invalid," Sabri told participants of a rally in the northern Israeli city Umm el-Fahm. "We will not fold."

The ICG said many of the Murabitat were middle-aged Arab citizens of Israel.

"Their citizenship gives them more protection than Palestinians from the occupied territories and their gender and age give them practical advantages, as the Israeli police tend to treat them less roughly than young men."

The ban on the sentinels comes just ahead of religious holidays when many Jews are likely to visit the Temple Mount, on which Al-Aqsa mosque sits.

by Sarah Benhaida

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