Jordan's Unarmed Mosque Guards
The arrest this week at Al Aqsa Mosque of six civilian guards, who are paid employees of Jordan’s Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, is a worrisome development.
According to Palestinian sources, the unarmed guards prevented a French tourist from raising the Israeli flag while he was on the pavilion of the Dome of the Rock Mosque. Both the gold covered dome and the larger Al Aqsa Mosque, as well as the courtyards surrounding them, are part of what is called Al Haram Al Sharif — the Noble Sanctuary.
The complicated arrangement at the Al Aqsa complex, which Jews call the Temple Mount, includes joint armed Israeli police guards at all entrances along with unarmed Palestinian guards who are employees of the Jerusalem Awqaf Department, which functions under Jordan’s Awqaf Ministry.
Since the 2000 Intifada, which was focused on the situation in Al Aqsa, Israel has taken singular control over Bab Al Magharbeh, the largest entrance for non-Muslim visitors to Al Aqsa Mosque complex. Individuals entering the mosque during the prescribed hours using that gate don’t purchase passes from the awqaf department and are often the focus of worshippers and guards who use their physical presence to ensure that tourists abide by various understandings as to their behaviour while visiting the complex.
In the Jordan-Israel peace treaty, the two sides agreed that the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has a unique and special role as the guardian of Islam’s third holiest site. And both Israeli and awqaf department guards operate on the understanding that includes restrictions on the visiting hours (usually in the morning before the noon prayer). Visitors are also expected to dress appropriately and to travel in small groups — 15-20 persons — and, most importantly, not to make any provocative moves.
Israel has assured Jordan that it continues to honour this status quo and visitors to the complex, including Jews, will not be allowed to pray during the visit. For the most part the Israelis have adhered to this commitment, but the guards stay close to the morning visitors to ensure compliance.
The incident on Monday appears to have caught the guards off guard. The French tourist reportedly walked up to the Dome of the Rock and tried to raise an Israeli flag. When confronted by the unarmed guards, he is said to have hit them with a sharp object. Photos of one of the guards with blood gushing from his head have been posted on various media outlets.
In recent months, the awqaf department has been increasing the number of its employees working as guards throughout the mosque complex. This allows for closer observation of violations to the status quo. Right-wing Israeli rhetoric repeatedly attacks the Israeli government and police for what not having sovereignty over the mosque area, which they feel they proudly took when they occupied Jerusalem in 1967.
Ironically, this week awqaf department let go of three of the newly appointed guards, an act which caused some controversy. Officials in Amman said the guards were on a three-month trial period and were not performing well so they were not hired permanently. This reflects a much more robust role for Jordan in ensuring that Al Aqsa Mosque has the needed manpower to protect it from rogue elements that might attempt to change the status quo.
The tensions in Jerusalem are usually high, but this week they have matched the outside heat. The heinous arson attack on the Dawabsheh family in Duma near Nablus by individuals who wrote the word “revenge” in Hebrew and spray painted the Jewish star has elevated emotions especially.
The fact that Israeli officials described the incident as a “terrorist” act will most likely increase tensions, as radical Jews might try and make a public display of their position.
Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian issues such as the status of visitors to holy sites should be resolved at a political level. It is a political failure when the conflict is being fought out on the grounds of Al Aqsa Mosque between Jewish extremists and awqaf guards. The sooner the understanding is made clear and implemented fairly and honestly, the better we can avoid individual actions by extremists from blowing up this powder keg.