In Defense of Al-Aqsa: The Islamic Movement Inside Israel and the Battle for Jerusalem

Article excerpt

The past ten years have witnessed the collapse of Palestinian political authority and leadership in East Jerusalem. Evidence suggests that the Islamic Movement is beginning to fill this vacuum from within Israel. This article examines the growing involvement of the Islamic Movement of Israel in Jerusalem, both in terms of discourse and specific facts on the ground. It explores how the al-Aqsa mosque has been employed, particularly by Shaykh Ra'id Salah, as a symbol for political empowerment, a site for public contestation, and a focus for religious renewal. It debates whether their presence should be perceived as a growing strategic threat, part of an Islamizing trend, or rather as a consequence of weak local leadership, the unintended consequences of the separation wall and the non-recognition of the Hamas government.

Hear this Barak and [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert: Our journey to Jerusalem, which began in 2000 [with the eruption of second intifada] will continue and grow stronger. If until now 30 buses arrived at the Al-Aqsa Mosque [to defend it] each day, Inshallah 60 buses will arrive from now on.

- Shaykh Ra'id Salah, August 24, 2008

Jerusalem is an arena of conflicting and competing visions of both the past and the future. While Israeli political and military control over both halves of the city has not been disputed since its occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, there is no sense in which the Zionist imaginary of a Jewish city has been achieved or is irreversible. This has meant that alternative visions of the city, both ethno-national and eschatological in nature, continue to vie for dominance and act as mobilizing forces for dissident groups. This battle for the sacred is most famously played out on Jerusalem's ancient faultline: the Jewish "Temple Mount" [Har haBayit] or the Muslim "Noble Sanctuary" [al- Haram al-Sharif], the site of the Western (Wailing) Wall and the only visible remainder of the second Jewish Temple and the al-Aqsa Mosque, the place of Muhammad's legendary night journey to Heaven. While scholars have extensively charted the historic conquests and religious imaginings that imbue this revered 66 square acre compound,1 our interest is in its contemporary politicization as a dynamic symbol and site of Israeli- Zionist domination and Palestinian-Muslim resistance.

Since Israel's occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, the Western Wall (and Temple Mount) has become central to nationalist discourses of Yerushalayim - the "unified" "eternal" capital of a Jewish State - and integral as an iconic space for the performance of military ceremonies, political inaugurations, and national-religious festivals. 2 For Palestinians, the Haram al-Sharif (al-Aqsa mosque) has similarly emerged as a sacred national emblem. It serves as the emotive scene for the violent outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising or "Al-Aqsa Intifada" in September 2000 and a potent symbol to mobilize local, regional, and global opposition against Israel's "Judaization" policies in Arab East Jerusalem and ongoing occupation of Palestinian land. The mystification of the site has been exacerbated by the disintegration of secular Palestinian Authority (PA) control and traditional leadership structures in East Jerusalem, leading to growing emphasis on "sacred resistance" and Islamist discourses as a means of protecting the Palestinian presence and their religious rights within the city.3 By sacred resistance, we are referring to the use of religious sites, practices, myths, and narratives in the performance of oppositional acts which seek to challenge structures of power, hegemony, and ideologies that support subordination. The most proactive and tenacious force engaged in such activities within Jerusalem is the Islamic Movement (IM) inside Israel, in particular the Northern Branch headed by Shaykh Ra'id Salah.4

This article seeks to examine the emerging role and involvement of the IM in Jerusalem, both in terms of rhetorical discourse and specific activities on the ground. …