After prayer, protest, Palestinians savor Aqsa victory


Sitting crossed-legged in a sprawling circle across a road overshadowed by Jerusalem's Old City, thousands of Palestinians fixed their gaze on the figure of Sheikh Omar Kiswani.

Wearing the cloak and customary white cloth-encased red Fez of Jerusalem's Muslim clergy, Kiswani tells his rapt listeners -- both young and elderly -- that their presence that night, and every other night of the last week, constituted "the most beautiful worship".

The crowds had been protesting new security measures at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque, and Kiswani, the mosque's director, had come down to the street below the Old City's Lions' Gate, to lend an air of religious authority to the gathering.

It was he who had first called on worshippers to refrain from entering the mosque some two weeks ago to protest the metal detectors installed at its entrances following an attack that killed two Israeli police officers and the three suspects -- the latter of whom were all Arab citizens of Israel.

Less than a week later, he and other members of the Waqf, the Muslim foundation mandated with managing the holy site, entered the mosque on the shoulders of those they had earlier led in prayers outside its threshold.

The tension, however, was still palpable -- many peeked over their shoulders at the clouds of stun grenades and flying stones behind them -- yet they nevertheless claimed their reentry into the site as a rare Palestinian victory.

They had forced the Israeli government to back down -- not only on the metal detectors, but also on other security measures rolled out during the crisis, including surveillance cameras and metal corridors through which worshippers would have had to pass before entering the holy site.

"We rejected all of Israel's measures, which you challenged with protection from God and with peace in the spirit of this time of resistance," Grand Mufti Muhammad Hussein declared in the first Friday sermon to be delivered inside the mosque after the draconian measures were reversed.

Claiming victory, Ahmad Tibi, an Arab lawmaker in Israel's parliament, placed blame for the crisis firmly on the shoulders of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"Netanyahu retracted [the security measures]. We called him to retract. He is responsible for the bloodshed," Tibi told Anadolu Agency following a press conference at which mosque leaders announced they would resume prayers inside the mosque compound.

The bloodshed came on the first Friday of the protest, when -- at the Mufti's request -- all mosques in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem closed with a view to boosting the number of worshippers outside Al-Aqsa.

There had been hopes Netanyahu would remove the security measures beforehand, but -- following a last minute meeting -- he decided not to, reportedly against the advice of the Israeli intelligence services.

After prayers, three Palestinians were shot dead by Israeli forces with whom they were clashing in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. On the same day, three elderly Israelis were also killed in a knife attack inside a West Bank settlement.

Muhammad Abu Ghanam, 20, was one of those killed. For many Palestinians, one of the most striking images to emerge from the crisis was Abu Ghanam's body being smuggled over the wall of a hospital in Jerusalem's Mount of Olives so it might be interred before being confiscated by Israeli forces.

"These things don't happen here," one local Palestinian resident, who did not want to be named, told Anadolu Agency after watching his neighbors trundle the 20-year-old's body to the local cemetery for an impromptu burial.

Their neighborhood, At-Tur, saw more clashes later after Israeli police arrested 33 Palestinians in overnight raids carried out across East Jerusalem on Sunday. Half of those arrested reportedly hailed from the area.

But, thankfully, fears that Friday's violence would escalate did not come to pass. The metal detectors were suddenly removed and the other measures were also reversed -- despite the protestations of Israel's vocal right wing.

As news of the victory reverberated across social media, thousands of Palestinians took to the streets for pre-dawn celebrations, even before any official announcement was made by the Israeli government or the Palestinian religious leadership.

Fireworks lit up the sky and candies were handed out and thrown into the air. One man drove up and handed milkshakes out to the ecstatic crowd.

When a small group of young men considered taunting the Israeli forces manning a nearby checkpoint, scores of older Palestinians stepped in, forming a human chain between the two sides.

"This feeling is more than happiness, after 13 days [outside the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound]," Adnan, a 58-year-old Palestinian driver who watched the celebrations, told Anadolu Agency.

"I have never seen something like this. So many people at this moment, in the middle of the night," he said. "Every revolution begins from the people, not the government. You can call this a revolution. It's a revolution against the Arab governments."

For participants and observers alike, the celebrations were not the only novel experiences. Few had seen any Palestinian political organizing in the city for decades, especially organizing by the religious leadership.

"I think we've seen the tremendous mobilizing power Al-Aqsa has in East Jerusalem, and among Palestinians in general," Ofer Zalzberg, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group think-tank, told Anadolu Agency.

"We haven't seen [Palestinian] people organizing on such a scale since the Second Intifada [2000-2005]. It's more reminiscent, in my mind, of the First Intifada [1987-1993]," he added.

"How to thread the struggle for ending occupation through Al-Aqsa in order to mobilize the people: this seems the most important question for Palestinian leaders now," he said.

Zalzberg went on to say that the protests had shown how people were able to organize peacefully in and around the Old City, with most clashes occurring on East Jerusalem's periphery.

"On the Israeli side, we've seen tremendous frustration, as people realize the limits of Israel's ability to impose its will upon the population and the limits of the use of force," he added. "Obviously, Palestinians are encouraged; they're looking for more victories."

The Waqf frequently exhorted angry young protesters to show patience and remain peaceful, drowning out more boisterous chants with looped, melodic recitations of the Quran and insisting: "If you love the prophet, if you love the Al-Aqsa, sit down."

The five daily prayers provided a regular schedule for the protests, while more lively nighttime prayers were focused on the streets around the Lions' Gate. During the day, most worshippers gathered at the Bab al-Majlis, another of the mosque's entrances, where they held a patient sit-in protest.

The nearby African Enclave, which houses the descendants of African pilgrims and migrants, played a role at the heart of the protest movement. Homes in the area were turned into kitchens turning out hundreds of plates of food and cups of coffee for breakfast, lunch and afternoon snacks.

Mousa Qous, head of the area's African community center, explained that food was being paid for with donations made by the local people themselves. On that day, there was particular excitement about lamb being served instead of the usual chicken, paid for by residents of East Jerusalem's Issawiya district.

The Waqf was unable to completely prevent any violence, with peaceful prayer-protests being sporadically interrupted by Palestinian youth exchanging bottles or fireworks with the stun grenades and sponge-tipped bullets employed by Israeli forces.

Even after the decision was made to enter Al-Aqsa last Thursday, the plan almost fell apart when it appeared that Israeli police would not open the Bab Hutta, or the Gate of Remission -- the site of the attack that initially sparked the crisis.

Hundreds of Palestinians gathered at the gate, demanding that it be opened. It eventually was, and they marched through it triumphantly, until the sound of stun grenades at the crowded entrance prompted an hours-long clash inside the mosque compound, which left more than 100 Palestinians injured, according to the Red Crescent.

While Israeli police claimed that they were responding to "violent" protesters, rights watchdog Amnesty International said the police response was entirely unprovoked.

The Al-Aqsa clashes did not descend into further violence, however, even when Palestinian men under 50 were again barred from praying inside the mosque on Friday and had to instead gather outside on the street.

By that night, tens of thousands would again be praying inside the mosque compound.

Even as Waqf officials sought to decisively end the episode by calling on members of their flock to pray at Al-Aqsa -- and by quelling rumors that Israeli forces were confiscating ancient manuscripts -- others began to think about how to maintain the momentum.

"The people here, maybe they don't pray regularly, but for them prayer has become a form of national resistance," Mustafa Barghouti, a former Palestinian presidential candidate and leader of the Palestinian National Initiative, told Anadolu Agency.

"I think this [protest movement] will spread... the biggest factor will be the fact that we succeeded in imposing something [on Israel], which hasn't happened in tens of years," he said.

Baha, a shopkeeper from East Jerusalem's Ras al-Amoud neighborhood, who had earlier said he was "unconcerned" by surveillance cameras as long as the metal detectors were gone, was more bullish when the remaining security measures were ultimately reversed.

Like others asked about how happy they were, he said this happiness was premature: "There's still occupation. We must end the occupation."

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