Israel bars former grand mufti of Palestine entry to Al-Aqsa
Palestinian political movements condemned on Tuesday the Israeli police's decision to bar Ekrima Sabri, an imam and the former grand mufti of Palestine, from the Al-Aqsa compound in occupied East Jerusalem.
On Saturday, Sabri was ordered to report to the al-Qushla police station in Jerusalem's Old City for questioning.
Sabri told local media that an Israeli police officer accused him of “incitement” during a sermon he held the day before.
Sabri has been giving Friday sermons at Al-Aqsa Mosque since 1973. He has previously been banned from entering the sacred compound in the Old City several times before, particularly in 2000 as the Second Intifada erupted.
He is a notable Jerusalemite figure, known for standing up to the daily incursions into the Al-Aqsa compound carried out by Israeli settlers who enter the area under the protection of Israeli police and intelligence services.
'We believe that the Israeli judicial system is part of the occupation that aims to snatch land from Palestinians and push them out of the city'
- Khaled Zabarqa, Sabri's lawyer
Khaled Zabarqa, Sabri's lawyer, told Middle East Eye that the decision was oral and not written.
"It is a temporary and administrative decision, and not judicial. It does not explain what laws the decision was based on, nor the reasons behind it, and Sheikh Ekrima Sabri did not have the right to defend himself," Zabarqa said.
Palestinian figures and institutions in Jerusalem do not appeal or make representations around issues relating to the Al-Aqsa compound in Israeli courts, he noted.
"We believe that the Israeli judicial system is part of the occupation that aims to snatch land from Palestinians and push them out of the city. Thus, we do not deal with it as we believe it has no sovereignty over what happens in Al-Aqsa," he said.
Zabarqa said that a political agenda lies behind the Israeli police's decision to bar Sabri, and is an attempt to empty the Al-Aqsa compound of symbolic and influential figures that shape public opinion.
It is a precursor, he warned, to efforts to re-close the Bab al-Rahma prayer area, which Palestinians opened in early 2019 after 13 years of closure.
‘Great Fajr Campaign’
Last Friday, Israeli police attacked Palestinian worshippers inside the Al-Aqsa compound after they had finished performing the Islamic dawn prayer known as Fajr in Arabic.
Hundreds had flocked to the site, responding to the ongoing “Great Fajr Campaign”, which urges people to pray at dawn at both the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron in the occupied West Bank.
The two mosques are flashpoint sites between Palestinians and Israeli settlers. Jewish prayer is forbidden in the Al-Aqsa compound that Jews believe is the site of the Second Jewish Temple destroyed in antiquity, though they often controversially flout the regulations.
Hebron's Ibrahimi Mosque was divided to accommodate Jewish worship following a 1992 massacre that saw an Israeli settler murder 29 Muslim worshippers.
Despite the harsh winter and rain, hundreds of Palestinians have been going on a daily basis to perform the dawn prayer since early January.
According to the campaign, the goal is to show Palestinian devotion to the holy places and highlight their rejection of Israeli settler presence.
However, dozens of Israeli police stormed the compound on Friday and dispersed Palestinians violently, using batons and firing rubber-coated bullets.
Israeli police have reportedly begun erecting makeshift checkpoints near Ras al-Amoud's Gethsemane Church, as well as in the Beit Hanina and Silwan neighbourhoods, to prevent Palestinians from going to the dawn prayer.
Sabri told Al Jazeera that these heavily attended dawn prayers “angered the Israeli occupier, and sent a letter that the Al-Aqsa compound is only for Muslims and that Jewish ambitions in the place have evaporated".
"They were angered to see this, the huge crowds and that’s why they interrogated me,” he added.
In response to the Israeli crackdown, Palestinians in Jerusalem have created the Friday of Hope Dawn campaign, urging worshippers to maintain the large crowds seen at the Al-Aqsa compound on 24 January.
The Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) party condemned the Israeli police for shutting Sabri out of the site.
It said in a statement that the “occupation forces protect settlers’ groups breaking into Al-Aqsa as part of a plan to impose time and location divisions inside the compound. At the same time, these forces bar Palestinian religious figures from entering their shrines of worship”.
A delegation from the Joint List, a political alliance of Palestinian citizens of Israel, visited Sabri at his home in Jerusalem on Tuesday.
It said that barring Sabri from Al-Aqsa is a “pathetic attempt to deter our people and our families, and will not stop them from connecting with the holy Al-Aqsa Mosque”.
The Hamas movement that governs the besieged Gaza Strip also issued a statement saying that the Israeli police's decision “will not change the Arab identity of Jerusalem, which will remain the capital of Palestine”.
'Occupation forces protect settlers’ groups breaking into Al-Aqsa as part of a plan to impose time and location divisions inside the compound'
- PFLP statement
Last week, 343 Israeli settlers entered the Al-Aqsa compound under the protection of Israel's security forces.
Israeli settlers regularly enter through the Moroccan Gate, which leads to the Western Wall plaza. They often perform Jewish prayers on the site in contravention of regulations that prohibit anything other than Muslim prayer there.
Some right-wing Israeli activists have advocated for the destruction of the Al-Aqsa compound to make way for a Third Temple.
Palestinians fear settler tours inside the Al-Aqsa compound may erode their claims to the area, and further extinguish their aspirations for full rights and a state of their own, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
According to the Waqf, a religious trust that runs Al-Aqsa, around 29,610 Israeli settlers entered the compound in 2019.
The status of the Al-Aqsa compound has been one of the most sensitive issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since Israel occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967.