From a quiet religious site to one of noisy political violence


Two articles, 1) Jonathan Ofir in Mondoweiss, 2) Nir Hasson, Haaretz premium.


The destruction of the Mughrabi district near Al Aqsa on the last day of the Six Day War and the first day of the ceasefire. Photo by Getty Images

The long and under-reported history of Judeo-Christian terror around Al-Aqsa

By Jonathan Ofir, Mondoweiss
July 23, 2017

The current Palestinian protests, related to the shootings at Al-Aqsa compound in East Jerusalem over a week ago and subsequent Israeli altering of security arrangements at the site, could, as some Israeli analysts observe, “turn into an intifada in the blink of an eye.” (Nir Hasson in Haaretz).

The Israeli narrative here is that it is trying to prevent “terror” – referring to the shooting attack on July 14 by three Palestinian citizens of Israel on Israeli security forces, killing two Border Police officers on July 14th, with the attackers shot dead on scene. Prime Minister Netanyahu has assured the world that “this is a measure to prevent the use of weapons on the Temple Mount, something that happened for the first time.”

But it really depends whose weapons you are counting, and whether Israeli weapons count. And whose ‘terror’. There is a problem in defining the event as terror, something that Israel’s politicians from left to right are doing – see for example Labour’s new leader Avi Gabbay, calling it a “vile terror attack” and the gunmen “despicable murderers”. But as Gideon Levy notes in Haaretz, “the shooting of two police officers on the Temple Mount has a motive, a reason and deep roots. But discussing them is considered treason and a justification of terror”. Indeed, the gunmen were acting solely against security forces of an occupying power. That the Palestinians were citizens of Israel (over 2/3 of Palestinian citizens of Israel identify as Palestinians and not as ‘Israeli Arabs,’ as Israel defines them), does not change their affiliation as Palestinians, and Israel’s unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem does not change the fact that this annexation is considered null and void by international law.

But for the Israeli mainstream, such discussions are hardly being had, even in cases where the alleged assailant is a Palestinian who is not a citizen, as in the case of Fadi Qanbar who ran over a gathering of soldiers, killing four before he was shot dead, on January 8th, also in East Jerusalem.

These considerations and definitions may seem somewhat pedantic to some, but they are, actually, rather crucial towards the understanding of a bigger paradigm of terror, of which Western media often obscures our understanding. Thus, I would like to take us back to 1967, when Israel conquered East Jerusalem. This is the beginning of the recent half-century paradigm of occupation, under which Al-Aqsa is geographically and politically placed.

1967

Video published on Aug 31, 2016

The Moroccan Quarter or Mughrabi Quarter was a 770-year-old neighbourhood in the southeast corner of the Old City of Jerusalem, bordering on the western wall of the Temple Mount on the east, the Old City walls on the south and the Jewish Quarter to the west.It was an extension of the Muslim Quarter to the north, and was founded by a son of Saladin in the late 12th century.The quarter was razed by Israeli forces three days after the Six-Day War in order to broaden the narrow alley leading to the Western Wall and prepare it for public access by Jews seeking to pray there.

The first act of Israeli state-terror conducted near the Al-Aqsa compound was the razing of the Mughrabi (Moroccan) quarter adjacent to the Al-Aqsa compound and the Western Wall, in the immediate wake of the war (10th-11th June). The quarter, dating back about 7 centuries, was ethnically cleansed of its 700 residents, and 135 homes flattened. Certain structures on the neighbourhood‘s periphery were initially retained, most notably a mosque near the Bab Maghribeh, and the Zawiyya Fakhriyya. Both, however, were eventually razed in 1969.

This crime was undertaken for the ‘holy purpose’ of clearing a huge plaza in front of the Western Wall so that Jews could access it more easily. The decision to do this was made by the top military echelon, specifically defence minister Moshe Dayan, and Chief of Central Command Uzi Narkiss, but it also involved Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek as well the Military Governor of East Jerusalem Shlomo Lahat (later mayor of Tel Aviv). There was no formally written decision on this razing (in order to avert opposition), and they used private contractors, who performed the task with a rather religious zeal and called themselves “The Order of the Kotel”, meeting under this nostalgic fraternity until the 1990s.

Bear in mind, that the decision-makers here, as well as those carrying out the job, were generally seculars, leftists, ‘liberals’ – not some overtly religious fanatics.

But there were also more overtly religious fanatics.

One of these was Chief Military Rabbi, General Shlomo Goren. Goren had quite explosive plans for Al-Aqsa. He was one of the first to arrive at the scene after the Israeli conquering of the Old City. As Tom Segev notes in his seminal ‘1967’:

‘General Goren the chief rabbi of the IDF, told Narkiss that this was the moment to blow up the Dome of the Rock. “Do this and you will go down in history,” Goren said, and explained that such a thing could only be done under cover of war: “Tomorrow might be too late.”’

Fortunately, Narkiss refused, and ‘only’ implemented the ethnic cleansing of the Mughrabi quarter. It is almost impossible to imagine what would have happened if Narkiss had heeded the advice of the zealous General-rabbi.

The wall and the history of the plaza in front of it are unknown to many. But for some of those who have learned it, including Orthodox Jews such as Michael Lesher, this has become a “wall of shame.” As Lesher notes,

“the Talmud rules that a Jew who sees that site [Western Wall] must tear his clothes in mourning for the ruined Temple–hardly a triumphal gesture. The breathless sentimentality with which Israeli propaganda has invested this bit of stolen architecture is as untraditional as it is vulgar. Nor did anyone, before the advent of Zionism, consider the Wall a proper place for communal Jewish worship. To quote Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, “The Kotel was never a synagogue; nor should it ever become one.”

But Goren cared not one bit for these notions. He was all triumph. As Segev notes:

‘“The divine spirit, which has never left the Western Wall, now walks before the armies of Israel in a pillar of fire to light our way to victory,” he [Goren] said when he reached the wall with the first of the soldiers. Over the next weeks he blew his shofar all over the country, from Mount Sinai in the south to Mount Hermon in the north. On August 10, Goren came to the Temple Mount and found the gates blocked. He and a group of soldiers began to break the gates down so they could enter and pray, thus reoccupying the compound from the Muslims.’

1969

Israel’s recent closing of the Al-Aqsa mosque for Friday prayers in the wake of the shootings is noted as a very rare event. Such a closing occurred in 1969. This was due to… Judeo-Christian terrorism.

On the 21st of August 1969, an Australian Christian named Denis Michael Rohan set fire to Al-Aqsa mosque.

Rohan was a volunteer in kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon, and was a member of the Church of God, a California-based evangelical sect which had founded Ambassador College in Pasadena, California. His engagement consisted chiefly of listening to the sect’s “World Tomorrow” programme beamed from Radio Amman in Jordan, according to an investigation by the Jerusalem Post.

One day, Rohan had a revelation at the kibbutz:

“I’m Jewish, I’m Jewish,” he cried. He spoke to his companion of the imminence of the Messiah’s coming and the construction of a new temple.

“What about the Dome of the Rock?”, asked his companion, referring to the shrine at the Al-Aqsa compound.

“Who knows,” said Rohan. “Maybe it will be destroyed by an act of sabotage, maybe the Arabs will do it themselves for political reasons, maybe there’ll be an earthquake.”


Denis Rohan, who succeeded in setting fire to al-Aqsa Mosque, is being led by police to his trial in Jerusalem. Photo from Jerusalem archive.

After his arson attack, Rohan was arrested on the 23rd of August, tried, and found to be insane.

Insanity

But if Rohan was ‘insane’, what does this say about Rabbi Goren? Rohan was merely attempting to enact what Goren was advocating. Had Rohan himself been a military commander, he may have had more impressive success. And his ideology? If that was insane, what does this say about the millions of Christian Zionists the likes of John Hagee? Or for that matter, what about US Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and his Judeo-Christian white-supremacist ‘Camp of the Saints’?

When an assumed terrorist is Muslim, we don’t have to wait very long to call it terror. Islamic terror, of course. But it’s interesting how, when a terrorist is Christian, and even explicitly notes their Christian ideology (as with Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik), then it begins to go funny. Bill O’Reilly said on Fox News that it’s “impossible” that Breivik was a Christian – because “no-one believing in Jesus commits mass murder”. Fox news is, by far, the most trusted news channel in the USA. In addition, Breivik had specified clear Zionist affinities in his 1,500-page manifesto. Former head of the Anti-Defamation League Abe Foxman opined that this advocacy was ‘bizarre’: “One bizarre twist to Breivik’s warped worldview was his pro-Zionism – his strongly expressed support for the state of Israel”, Foxman wrote in the Washington Post.

To which Ali Abunimah answered:

“Who does Foxman think he is kidding? There is nothing ‘bizarre’ about this at all. Indeed Foxman himself has done much to bestow credibility on extremists who have helped popularise the Islamophobic views he now condemns. And he did it all to shore up support for Israel.”

So, if it’s not Muslim, the notion of Christian, or Jewish, or Judeo-Christian or Christian-Zionist terror is generally considered quite ‘bizarre’, even ‘impossible’. And do we even see it when it is enacted at state level, on behalf of the Jewish State–that is, in a very Jewish sense?

1984

According to former Likud Member of Knesset Ehud Yatom, who was a security official and commander of the operation to seize the members of the “Jewish Underground” terror group, the members were “very close” to blowing up Al-Aqsa in 1984. Speaking on the Channel Two “Meet the Press” program in 2004, Likud MK Tzahi Hanegbi said: “There is no information about specific individuals, because the Shin Bet [security service] and police would not let them continue [with their plot]”.

Oh, that sounds reassuring. They promised to behave, I suppose. I wonder what would have been the fate of these people if they were Palestinians, plotting to, say, blow up a Tel-Aviv mall. Indeed, these people speak freely and incite terrorism on public radio. And not just any radio – Israeli Army radio. One of the leaders of the Jewish plot to bomb Al-Aqsa, Yehuda Etzion, spoke on Israeli Army Radio in 2004 and called the plot a “worthy” goal.

Yatom spared no adjectives in warning about the bombing of Al-Aqsa. He said it would be a “horrible, terrible” thing, something that would put “the entire Muslim world against the state of Israel and against the Western world, a war of religions,” and that “with all of their pain and suffering, today’s terrorist attacks would be nothing compared to what could happen – even World War III.”

But now compare that to the practical assessment which Haaretz conveys:

‘Due to stringent security routines at the Temple Mount, Israeli security officials said Saturday, right-wing extremists would find it virtually impossible to use conventional routes to penetrate the site with explosives. Hence, the possibility of a large bomb being planted at one of the Muslim holy sites is “a lower-level possibility.”’

2017

So, apparently, Israel was very confident in its assessment of security concerning the Al-Aqsa compound as mentioned. But apparently its failure to detect weapons at the compound on the 14th of this month, meant that it would immediately and unilaterally impose a set of metal-detectors and new security screenings, because for once, the weapons and the threat came from within the Al-Aqsa compound, rather than against it. Israel acted unilaterally in imposing this, as well as in closing the site for two days after the attack, although under the status-quo agreement (signed under peace agreement with Jordan 1994), Jordan is the custodian of the site and the Islamist Waqf is the protectorate.

“Bottom line is that Netanyahu and the government did two things wrong,” says Gershom Gorenberg, an Israeli historian and journalist. “They ignored that the conflict over [the] holy site is a conflict over legitimacy and ownership” and that “you have to handle it delicately and behind the scenes.”

So Israel was basically saying to the world, to the Palestinians, to Muslims: ‘we own this place’. It was saying, that since its security personnel was killed, that’s just a red line and then we can do as we like. All in the name of ‘security’, of course. To hell with how many will die due to the way we handle it.

The greater paradigm

The greater paradigm here is that of continued occupation. For so many Israelis and Israeli apologists, when it comes to East Jerusalem, the occupation doesn’t exist. It’s because it’s a ‘united capital’ according to Israel’s basic-law definition (1980) which cemented the illegal annexation from 1967. All of that is illegal under international law and according to the whole world. But in Israel’s universe, that world doesn’t exist. That’s why people like the influential New-York Times columnist Thomas Friedman cite ‘420,000 settlers’ of the West Bank, omitting East Jerusalem settlers (another well over 200,000) from the count – essentially ‘giving’ East-Jerusalem over to Israel – as he did in a recent column.

The greater paradigm is that of Israeli state criminality, Israeli state-terror, which pertains to much more than just Al-Aqsa. But Al-Aqsa is admittedly a very sensitive scene, where a drop of Israeli arrogance can serve as a match to light the highly combustible Palestinian, and Muslim, street, just as the late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon did in his Al-Aqsa visit in 2000, ‘demonstrating presence’ with 1,500 security personnel and igniting the 2nd Intifada.

Those who think that this is all just about some metal detectors, and that it’s ‘unreasonable’ for this to be such a big deal, are missing a bigger picture. For them, focusing on metal detectors alone, and forgetting the rest of the oppression, serves to confirm their view of this being ‘unreasonable’. For them, this is an “artificial crisis”, the term which Haaretz analyst Amos Harel uses. Calling this ‘artificial’ is arrogant, because it suggests that there is nothing in the situation itself to justify a crisis.

But Israel’s control of East Jerusalem is a crisis from day 1. It started with a massive war-crime, and this is etched in the minds of many Palestinians, even if many others have forgotten it or are ignorant of it. The Al-Aqsa compound is occupied as is the whole of East Jerusalem, and it exists within and under this occupation, even if Israel refuses to acknowledge it. It’s all part of a bigger story of oppression, state-terror, state violence. This situation will result in clashes. I have not listed other bloody clashes around Al-Aqsa, such as the Al-Aqsa massacre of 1990, where an extremist Jewish group called the Temple Mount Faithful attempted to place a cornerstone for the Third Temple at the compound, sparking riots in which between 19 and 23 Palestinians were killed with live ammunition and 150 more wounded; or the 1996 riots following the opening of a set of tunnels that Israel dug under the compound, during which about 80 Palestinians and 14 Israeli soldiers died.

In such a violent paradigm, which this colonization and occupation represent, even archaeology is seldom benign, and archaeological sites such as the ‘City of David’ site in Silwan, just south of the Al-Aqsa compound, are serving as a pretext for ethnic cleansing and Jewish takeover, the same pattern as the ethnic cleansing of the Mughrabi quarter. So it is clear that there is a real basis for fear on the part of Palestinians, that every step Israel takes unilaterally is another step in a design for further takeover.

It’s a matter of nature for colonialists to be arrogant. You have to be arrogant in order to consider yourself worthy of oppressing others. When you’re arrogant, you tend to not see other people’s existence, history, dignity. They disappear under your self-righteous sense of ‘right to exist’ at the cost of the other. And when you do that, you’re playing with fire. You don’t need much to cause an explosion. And then you wonder ‘what have I done wrong?’. Then, in order to preserve your self-righteousness, you call them ‘unreasonable’, and say that you live in a ‘tough neighbourhood’.



The site in 1917 which became, for just 20 years,  the Mughrabi district of Israel. New York Times Photo Archive

How a Small Group of Israelis Made the Western Wall Jewish Again

Fifteen contractors were called for an urgent mission at the end of the Six-Day War: Demolish the Mughrabi neighbourhood to provide access to the Kotel. Fifty years later, their stories have come to light

By Nir Hasson, Haaretz premium
June 03, 2017

On Saturday, June 10, 1967, the fifth day of the Six-Day War, Yosef Schwartz, a contractor, entered the bomb shelter in the Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood in western Jerusalem and found his daughter and grandchildren. “It was quite normal to see us and bring bread and milk,” says his daughter Zehava Fuchs. “But this time he was very tense, he hugged me and the children and he looked different than usual.”

Schwartz, who was wearing the uniform of the old Haganah police force, left without saying where he was going. “I went up to the apartment to call my mother, she told me he didn’t want to say where he was going,” said Fuchs.

“The next day he came back crying. My brother was a pilot then and I was very worried something had happened, but then he told me that he had been in the Old City and touched the Kotel. He told how at night they demolished all the Mughrabi neighbourhood. He was completely secular, but he said that when they worked there was a mystical feeling, they felt they were on a mission,” she added.

Schwartz was one of 15 older contractors from the Jeruslaem contractors association who were called on by then Mayor Teddy Kollek that night to come to the Western Wall, which had just been captured. The task was to demolish the houses in the Mughrabi (Moroccan) Quarter that was built right next to the Kotel and create the Western Wall Plaza.

Sasson Levy, one of the two contractors who is still alive, remembers the excitement very well: “I was sky-high, it was a pleasure.”

Kollek enlisted the contractors for the work, but to this day it is still not clear who made the decision about the demolition. It is clear Kollek was involved, as well as Shlomo Lahat, who was the new military governor of East Jerusalem (and later mayor of Tel Aviv), and the head of the IDF’s Central Command, Maj. Gen. Uzi Narkiss. It is clear they intentionally made the decision without asking for – or receiving – permission. No written documents remain concerning the decision, except for a hand-drawn map on a piece of paper that marked the boundaries of the area to be demolished.

The contractors’ association was the most readily available source of manpower, but that was not the only reason that Kollek turned to them. The fear of an international protest made it necessary to use an unofficial civilian body to take on the job. The demolition work was given to the Jerusalem contractors and builders organization to distance any involvement of official bodies in the demolition as much as possible, wrote Uzi Benziman in Haaretz Magazine last week (in Hebrew).


Praying at the Western Wall  before the era of rules, regulations and asserting authority.

Kollek explained the urgency of clearing the plaza stemmed from the Shavuot holiday in a few days, when tens of thousands of Israelis were expected to flock to the Kotel. Leaving the old buildings standing could be dangerous, said Kollek. But the contractors, who were not called up to the reserves because of their age, saw it as much more than just another engineering project: That night remained engraved in their memories as a historic moment. So much so that after the war they established the “Order of the Kotel,” a sort of imitation of an order of knights for those who “purified the Kotel plaza for the people of Israel,” as they wrote about themselves.

A coincidence led researchers from Yad Ben Zvi, the Ben Zvi Institute in Jerusalem named after former President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, to study the Order of the Kotel story. Next week an exhibition will go on display at the Institute about the Order and the creation of the Western Wall Plaza.


A mass of young Israeli men come to the Western Wall on Jerusalem Day, 2017; more a claim of possession than a religious rite. Photo from Israel Police Spokesperson’s Unit

The work began about 11 P.M. The first job was to demolish a toilet that was built up against the Western Wall. A day earlier, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion visited the Kotel and reprimanded Yaakov Yannai, the head of the National Parks Authority, about the bathroom. “You come to place like this and you see a stench in the wall, we were surprised by it,” Levy remembers. “It made us angry in all the joy. At first we worked with hoes, pickaxes, cultivators and hammers. After that Zalman [Broshi, one of the largest builders in Jerusalem] brought in the tractor.”

Two bulldozers worked to demolish the houses. They ran into difficulties when the rooms underground collapsed suddenly under the bulldozers, but the collapse also provided them with space to bury the rubble and flatten the ground. 135 houses were demolished, and in the end the demolition exceeded the area drawn on the map.

Levy does not remember the residents of the houses or whether anyone was evacuated from them. Fuchs says that when she asked her father about them, “he said they went with a megaphone and asked the people to gather, and they went out through the Zion Gate, because through this gat they took out the refugees of the Jewish Quarter [in 1948].”

Sasson Levy, one of the two contractors who is still alive. Emil Salman
Bruria Shiloni, the daughter of Yosef Zaban, and who was there that night, does not remember the residents. “I didn’t have the impression that people lived there, that there was life,” says Shiloni. “Later I heard that they smuggled them out of there. The feeling was that they were demolishing empty and piled up huts, I didn’t see movement of people.”

Benziman tells how in one case the residents refused to leave the house and left only after the bulldozer rammed the wall. In one house, an elderly woman named Haja Ali Taba’aki was found dead in her bed. In one of the pictures a bulldozer can be seen demolishing a house with furniture, curtains and a vase with flowers inside.

Zaban was the father of Yair Tsaban, who became a member of Knesset for the left-wing Mapam party. Shiloni went to the Kotel with her father and remembers the trip and Kollek standing on a crate or step, speaking to those present. During the demolition she was not there, after two officers accompanied her to find her husband, a platoon commander who had been wounded in the fighting.

The Order of the Western Wall was founded that same night and the members continued to meet regularly until the 1990s, when most of them passed away. In 1967 they enlisted in another task from Kollek and built the structure near the windmill in the Yemin Moshe neighbourhood of the capital that housed the original carriage used by Moses Montefiore in his travels. In 1983 they published album with almost prophetic predictions by Itamar Ben-Avi, a journalist and son of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, about the creation of the Kotel Plaza. Ben-Avi died in 1943. In 1987 the members of the Oder attended a ceremony in their honour in the Knesset, and received the “Defender of the Kotel” decoration.

The founder of the order was Baruch Barkai, who became the secretary of the group and a rather unusual figure. Barkai was born in Latvia, studied law, was a journalist, art collector and a member of the Lehi pre-state underground, also known as the Stern Gang. He was even arrested on suspicions of being involved in the murder of Chaim Arlosoroff. Barkai later wrote a number of books, two of which are etiquette guides, and founded the most polite Knesset member competition.

“It was a difficult day for him,” says Barkai’s son Itamar, who was named after Ben-Avi, who his father admired. The 1983 album says the Order was founded on Sunday, the third day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, June 11, 1967 at 3 A.M. in the Kotel Plaza, with the 15 members who had answered the call of the engineering officer, Capt. Eitan Ben Moshe, to purify the Kotel Plaza. “In doing so they fulfilled the vision of Itamar Ben-Avi: ‘The Kotel with space on the right and space on the left too, the Kotel with a broad courtyard in front of it.”

The Yad Ben- Zvi researchers discovered the story by accident, through a person who participated in the demolition, but not a member of the Order.
Ze’ev Ben Gal was born to a Samaritan family, fled his parent’s home, enlisted in the Palmah and lived on Kibbuts Rosh Hanikra. During the Six-Day War he served as a bulldozer driver in the reserves and was called to the Mughrabi neighborhood. During his work he noticed a large iron lock, it seems the lock on the gate to the neighborhood, and kept it. After he died last year, the lock made its way to the kibbutz archive, where they decided to give it, and the story behind it, to Yad Ben-Zvi.

Fuchs was photographed for the movie that was part of the “50 Faces, 50 years” project created by the Tower of David Museum in the Old City. She said about her father, Schwartz, that he was so proud of every house he built, and suddenly he was proud of demolishing houses, “but he felt that he was carrying out a great mission for the Jewish people.”

Anyone who knew the Kotel before the demolition was amazed by the plaza that was born overnight. “I read in the newspaper that they demolished the houses and straightened the plaza in front of the Kotel, but I didn’t imagine they made a stadium,” an “elderly Yemenite” Jew was quoted in the Davar newspaper. The quote appears in an article that appeared recently by Shmuel Bahat in the journal Et-mol, published by Yad Ben Zvi. Kollek too is quoted justifying the demolitions: “It was the greatest thing we could do and it is good we did it immediately.”

© Copyright JFJFP 2017