Newspaper article International New York Times

Muslim Women Join Feud over a Holy Site ; Groups Flock to Guard Compound in Jerusalem against Praying Jews

Newspaper article International New York Times

Muslim Women Join Feud over a Holy Site ; Groups Flock to Guard Compound in Jerusalem against Praying Jews

Article excerpt

The women say it is their role to protect the integrity of a Jerusalem site known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount.

The women, covered face-to-toe, surrounded the Jewish group walking through the contested holy site in Jerusalem. "The army of Muhammad is coming!" the women shouted.

One woman covered her face with a poncho as she chanted against the Israeli police, who were guarding a group of religious Jews visiting the sprawling compound that Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary, home to Al Aqsa Mosque. Another woman concealed her face with a fur stole. Tourists quickly vanished.

The chaotic scene, which has become routine at the sacred site, was led by a group of women known in their community as Muslim garrison soldiers, or mourabitat. They say it is their role to protect the integrity of the Noble Sanctuary from religious Jews who want to pray at a contested site that is held sacred by both.

"We are guardians for the sake of God," said a 57-year-old woman named Mona, who, like the others, would not provide her last name for fear of arrest.

"Everybody must protect Al Aqsa so the Jews don't take it," said the woman, wearing John Lennon-style eyeglasses, her maroon head scarf firmly pinned on. "They have their eyes on it."

The women are the most striking element of a mixed Palestinian effort to strengthen their hold on the compound. They fear Israel seeks to seize or divide the property, and they do not trust the assurances of the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, that he will continue to bar non-Muslims from praying there.

The 37-acre compound in Jerusalem's walled Old City is the holiest site in Judaism and the third holiest place in Islam. Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad's mystical journey took him from Mecca to the Noble Sanctuary, and from there to the heavens. And it is for Jews the site of the First and Second Temples. Israel captured the compound -- along with the rest of the Old City -- from Jordan in the 1967 war but returned administrative oversight to Jordan. Israel maintained security and the ban on non- Muslim prayer.

A small group of religious Jews has for years sought to pray at the site, and more Jews have visited in the past few years, increasing tensions that burst into violence last fall. In a rare move, Israel closed the compound for a day, prompting Jordan to recall its ambassador, who returned only in February.

Reinforcing Muslims' own claim to the site, in 2010 an organization called the Israel-based Islamic Movement began busing in thousands of Palestinians for prayers, encouraged school excursions and urged Muslims to marry at Al Aqsa through an organization that it established. It also started study circles on the stone platforms scattered throughout the site, paying participants $300 per month to keep vigil all day. …

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