Maha Nassar is associate professor in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona. Her research focuses on the cultural and intellectual history of the modern Arab world. Nassar is author of Brothers Apart: Palestinian Citizens of Israel and the Arab World (2017).
“Al-Aqsa Is in Danger”: How Jerusalem Connects Palestinian Citizens of Israel to the Palestinian Cause
By: Maha Nassar
August 6, 2021
On May 8, 2021, thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel boarded buses and climbed into cars, headed toward Jerusalem. The holiest night of Ramadan was approaching, and they planned to break their fast in the Old City and join in special prayers at the Aqsa Mosque compound (also known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif and to Jews as the Temple Mount/Har Habayit). Like Palestinians around the world, they had grown alarmed at Israeli police and settler attacks against Palestinian residents and worshippers in Jerusalem during the holy month. But unlike other Palestinians, the vast majority of whom are effectively barred by Israel from entering Jerusalem, those holding Israeli citizenship have freer access to the city. Therefore, their intention to pray at the Aqsa Mosque compound was part of a collective affirmation that Palestinians would not relinquish their rights to the city.
But their convoys were halted when Israeli police vehicles blocked all inbound lanes of the main highway leading to Jerusalem. Undeterred, hundreds decided to complete the last few miles on foot. Scenes of fasting Palestinian Muslims walking under the hot afternoon sun in order to pray at one of their holiest sites soon went viral on social media, and Jerusalem’s residents set out in their own cars to give their fellow Palestinians a ride. After a few hours, the police relented, allowing the convoys through. That night, an estimated 90,000 worshippers prayed at the Aqsa Mosque compound.
Their intention to pray at the Aqsa Mosque compound was part of a collective affirmation that Palestinians would not relinquish their rights to the city.
Palestinian citizens of Israel are often discussed in terms of being a non-Jewish minority living in a Jewish-majority state. Yet this conceptualization can obscure the ways in which they see themselves—and are increasingly seen by other Palestinians—as part of one people struggling together against interconnected forms of Israeli settler-colonial rule. Examining Jerusalem’s growing centrality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, especially in the face of mounting Israeli violence and exclusion, sheds light on a key element of their political consciousness and helps explain why they cannot be discussed solely through the lens of Israeli politics and society.
Following the 1948 war, those Palestinians who managed to stay in (or return to) their homes in the newly established state of Israel became an oppressed, minoritized community. While most of them were eventually granted Israeli citizenship, for nearly two decades they lived under an Israeli military regime that restricted their ability to work, study, and travel freely. The Israeli government’s Custodian of Absentee Property took control over approximately 70% of land owned by Palestinians who remained in the state, including all the Islamic charitable (waqf) properties. Palestinians in Israel were unable to travel to Arab countries, while Palestinian refugees were unable to return home. Palestinian communist and nationalist activists in Israel sought to overcome this isolation, albeit with limited success.
Following the 1948 war, those Palestinians who managed to stay in (or return to) their homes in the newly established state of Israel became an oppressed, minoritized community.
Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem during the 1967 war paved the way for Palestinians in Israel to connect (or reconnect) with their fellow Palestinians. During the 1970s and 80s, Palestinian citizens of Israel traveled frequently to the Occupied Palestinian Territories to study and visit. As Islamic movements gained ground across the region, Palestinian citizens who sought religious training attended institutes in the West Bank cities of Nablus and Hebron. This not only deepened ties between Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line, but also ushered in a more widespread religious consciousness among Palestinian Muslims in Israel.
This consciousness was formalized with the establishment of the Islamic Movement in the 1980s. With a focus on social activism, charitable works, and educational activities, the Islamic Movement attended to the social, cultural, and religious needs of Palestinians neglected by the Israeli state. In the 1990s, the movement expanded its scope, reasserting the Palestinian claims over religious sites. It organized scores of volunteers to clean up and restore mosques and cemeteries, and it sought to regain control of confiscated waqf properties in the country.
Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem during the 1967 war paved the way for Palestinians in Israel to connect (or reconnect) with their fellow Palestinians.
Meanwhile, the Oslo Accords signed in 1993 between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) postponed discussions of the final status of East Jerusalem and the Old City. Instead, Israel began to use legal and bureaucratic means to quietly try to alter the status quo in the Old City. In 1996, for example, it opened the northern entrance to a tunnel that ran under the Western Wall that supports the Aqsa Mosque compound, leading to widespread protests.
Palestinians everywhere grew alarmed at these changes. With the PLO limited in what it can do in Jerusalem, the Islamic Movement stepped in. Shortly after the tunnel opening, the leader of the movement’s Northern Branch, Raed Salah, organized a conference in Umm al-Fahm (where he served as mayor). Convened under the banner “Aqsa is in danger,” the conference grew into an annual rally that drew tens of thousands of Palestinians from across the country to Umm al-Fahm’s main stadium. Each year, attendees listened to speeches, songs, and testimonials from activists and religious leaders (both Muslim and Christian) who reiterated the holiness of Jerusalem’s religious sites and emphasized the responsibility of Palestinians to work together to liberate them from Israeli occupation.
The refrain “Aqsa is in danger” gained added urgency in the new millennium as the Israeli government began to support a growing network of extremist settler and religious Zionist groups seeking to establish full Israeli control over Occupied East Jerusalem, including the Old City. The most extreme among them wish to destroy the Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock and to rebuild the Third Jewish Temple.
The refrain 'Aqsa is in danger' gained added urgency in the new millennium as the Israeli government began to support a growing network of extremist settler and religious Zionist groups.
With the outbreak of the Second (Aqsa) Intifada in 2000, Israel shut down Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem and severely restricted the ability of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to enter the city. Since Palestinian citizens of Israel face fewer restrictions, Salah and other Northern Branch activists organized bus convoys to take Palestinian citizens to the Aqsa Mosque for Friday prayers and other religious services. Between 2001 and 2004 alone, the movement facilitated over two million visits to Jerusalem.
The visits were part of a larger campaign to protect the Palestinian presence in the city in the face of increasingly belligerent Israeli government and settler activities. As far back as 2008, the Islamic Movement protested attempts by the Israeli government to expel Palestinians from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. It also organized numerous educational and recreational programs for youth and adults in and around the Aqsa Mosque compound.
Many Palestinian citizens of Israel see themselves as upholders of the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem and protectors of its holy sites.
Even after the Israeli government banned the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in 2015, Palestinians in Israel continued to work with Jerusalemites to ensure Palestinian access to—and sovereignty over—Jerusalem’s Muslim holy sites. In 2017, Israeli officials installed metal detectors at the main entrance to the Aqsa Mosque compound following an attack that killed two Israeli policemen. Two weeks of protests by Palestinians compelled the Israeli government to remove the newly installed equipment and lift other restrictions, resulting in scenes of jubilation as Palestinians collectively celebrated their victory.
Today, as Israeli police continue to violently attack Palestinians at the Aqsa Mosque compound, many Palestinian citizens of Israel see themselves as upholders of the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem and protectors of its holy sites. Therefore, they cannot be discussed solely through the lens of domestic Israeli politics but must also be recognized as part of the broader Palestinian struggle to live in freedom and dignity in their homeland.