The women defenders of Al-Aqsa

This posting has these items:
1) Al Monitor: Who are Temple Mount’s Mourabitoun?, Shlomi Eldar starts off the inquiry, September 2015;
2) Al Monitor: Text of the interview with a ‘mourabita’ in the above article;
3) +972: Meet the outlawed women of Israel’s Islamic Movement, an unusually long, rather rambling article for +972, perhaps because this is such unusual material for it;
4) New Arab: The steadfast women of al-Aqsa, admiring piece in what used to be called Al-Araby on the murabitat, which also means ‘steadfast’, September 2015;
5) Haaretz: Inside the Outlawed Group of Muslim Women Patrolling the Temple Mount, premium article, Oct 2015;

A group of Muslim women praying in the Al Aqsa-Mosque compound, July 2015. Photo by Reuters

Who are Temple Mount’s Mourabitoun?

In an Al-Monitor interview, a female Muslim activist discusses her organization’s perspective on defending the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound against what it views as encroaching Jewish pilgrims and activists.

The battle over the Temple Mount is heating up. It is no longer just an occasional violent clash between Muslims and Jews, but daily battles with increasingly violent and growing numbers of participants. Loyal “soldiers” in “God’s army” are deployed on both sides, willing to sacrifice themselves in the religious war being waged over one of their holy sites.

Heading the Jewish side is Yehuda Glick, chairman of the Temple Mount Heritage Foundation who narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in Jerusalem last October. On the Muslim side are two organizations acting together, one for men, one for women, who call themselves the Mourabitoun and Mourabitat, respectively. Their names are taken from a phrase in the Quran that obliges every Muslim to be a “mourabit” (defender) of Islam’s holy places and to protect them against heathens who threaten to desecrate them.

As the struggle over the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), escalates, with the Muslims perceiving a real threat to Al-Aqsa Mosque, the number of male and female recruits has grown. The police and General Security Agency (Shin Bet) put their numbers at more than 1,000 women and hundreds of men, who are paid up to 4,000 Israeli shekels ($1,040) a month for their activism.

The funding is provided by Islamic charities, mainly the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, headed by Sheikh Raid Salah, who apparently conceived of the idea and jump-started the organizations’ activities. Israeli security services claim that Hamas also funnels money to the organizations. In November 2013, Shin Bet shut down the Jerusalem offices of Amara al-Aqsa, claiming that the organization served as a conduit for funding activities at Al-Aqsa, including those of the Mourabitoun.

On Sept. 9, acting on a request by Minister of Internal Security Gilad Erdan and the recommendation of Shin Bet, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon designated Mourabitoun and Mourabitat illegal organizations. The state’s attorney general validated the decision based on the determination of the security services that the groups were largely responsible for inflaming and fanning violence in Jerusalem in general and on the Temple Mount in particular. Outlawing the groups allows the state to prosecute anyone participating in their activities or donating money to fund their operations.

Therefore, activists in both organizations who in the past made no secret of their mission — to defend the Haram al-Sharif against Jews — are now treading carefully, concealing their involvement in the organizations and claiming that they are acting independently as individuals. The activists now say they are combining Quranic study with independent action against provocations by Jewish organizations that violate, so they claim, the sanctity of Al-Aqsa Mosque.

After I identified myself as a journalist, a central Mourabitat activist and resident of East Jerusalem asked me, “How do I know you are not a Jewish policeman or a military man wanting to interrogate me and get me in trouble with the law?” It took a lengthy conversation to convince her to be interviewed by Al-Monitor, with a promise that her name would be withheld. I shall call her “Mourabita.”

“There is a Hadith [religious teaching] in the Quran that says that anyone praying out of true belief is a mourabit, whether they pray at home, at work or at a mosque,” she explained. “Everyone is obliged to guard against desecration. In the holy Quran, it says specifically, ‘In the name of Allah the merciful and compassionate, be ready and willing to defend the places holy to Islam.’ This is a commandment that must be obeyed.”

Mourabita said that her fellow mourabitat stay in the classrooms at Al-Aqsa Mosque and the adjacent houses of prayer, holding lessons in the Quran and Hadith. Outside, the men of the Mourabitoun fan out across the compound, operating in shifts. When Jews are spotted arriving on the mount, the men signal a lookout standing next to the women’s classroom to call the women to action. The mourabitat, dressed in black, their faces veiled, repeatedly call out in unison, “Allahu Akbar” (God is great), to scare off the Jewish pilgrims in a type of psychological warfare.

The division of labour between the men and women has an operational origin: only women can walk around the compound with their faces covered, meaning that police cannot identify them. They are instructed to refrain from physical confrontations with the Jews and the police to avoid the risk of arrest.

The activists from the Jewish organizations who go up to the Temple Mount claim that the police abandon them to their fate, refusing to protect them, even though it is within their legal rights to visit the Temple Mount once a month as ruled by the Jerusalem magistrate’s court in June 2015 following the submission of a petition by Glick.

The text of the interview with Mourabita follows:

Al-Monitor:  How is your job defined? It’s not just about prayer, is it?

Mourabita:  Those who come here as innocents [tourists] and visitors, we greet with words of welcome to Palestine and Jerusalem, but to the occupiers we say, “Get off our land.” They should go away from our Al-Aqsa.

We fight mainly against the settlers. I have been living in Jerusalem for 43 years. Where were they? In the past, when they wanted to come to Al-Aqsa Mosque, the police would prevent them from coming and would even remove them by force. But 10 years ago, things started changing, and now they have reached a boiling point. All the time, they want to occupy another piece of land, and another piece of land, and to change the situation.

You know, even the rabbis used to say that religious Jews are forbidden from going to Al-Aqsa Mosque. Now they come on a daily basis. Why? Once there was no trouble between us and the Jews, now the situation is about to explode. Every day there is a big mess.

AM:  Are you not worried that the police will now change their attitude toward you?

Mourabita:  We are only afraid of Allah. To defend the sacred Al-Aqsa Mosque, we are willing to be “shahids” [martyrs], to die for a sacred cause, for the sanctification of God.

According to the decree by the minister of defence, you are the ones making the mess and stirring things up. How do you feel about that?

What are the mourabitat doing? Are they cutting down [olive] trees? Are they destroying houses? Are they building settlements or preventing others from building their homes? The mourabitat sit in Al-Aqsa Mosque so that the whole world will see and hear. They study the Quran, study Hadith, and when a settler arrives, they call out loud together, “Allahu Akhbar, Allahu Akhbar.”

You tell me, as a Jew, if a Muslim walked into a synagogue in which you were praying, would you be accepting of someone bothering you while you are at prayer? Of course not. That is what guides us in protecting the holy Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Women shout slogans as Israeli police forces block Palestinians at an entrance of the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem after Israeli police and authorities limited access to one of Islam’s holiest sites, July 26, 2015. Photo by  Oren Ziv /

Meet the outlawed women of Israel’s Islamic Movement

They are journalists, educators, and physicians who until very recently were dependent on the recently-outlawed Islamic Movement for their living. Now they leave behind a void that cannot be filled. An inside look at the women who play a critical role in Israel’s Palestinian society.

By Samah Salaime, trans by Tal Haran, +972
January 16, 2016

The outlawing of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel received some attention from the Israeli media, before it vanished from the news cycle. When the movement did make headlines, however, it was portrayed as religious, militant, nationalistic and male-dominated. The truth is that alongside the women of murabitat, who seek to protect Al-Aqsa Mosque from extremist settlers, the decision to ban the group also outlaws the activity of many women who have done invaluable work within Arab society. And yet no one mentions them. So who are the women of the Islamic movement? They number in the tens of thousands, they are religious, they are diligent activists, and are committed to the cause.

Ever since its founding 30 years ago, the movement’s leadership has recognized the immense potential of recruiting women to its ranks and institutions, opening its doors to them (albeit with a separate entrance) in all supposedly “female” areas: taking care of small children, schooling, charity, humanitarian aid, health and welfare, and the realm most tempting for the young women — higher education.

Sisters, not friends

Some say that the movement’s original plan was to build a kind of “self-service” platform for Arab society, namely by creating social alternatives for all the services that the state had neglected for many years. The Islamic Movement decided to give up the never-ending chase after civil equality. Hopes and dreams were thus transformed into working to create an independent, ideological, national and religious Islamic society.

Women I interviewed insisted that women are more accessible, less threatening, less power-hungry and have little political ambition. In other words, they are not men.

This project began with a gentle and disciplined army of women, destined by their very gender to raise a new generation of Muslims more conscious of their own religion, more educated and more involved. “How can one do without women?” one of the activists asked me. “We are real partners in our activity. All of us gain from this situation – women, men, our entire society”.

In Islamic activism, apparently, everything is permitted – as long as limits are maintained vis-a-vis right and wrong. There is no prevention of activity. On the contrary, the women I interviewed insisted on explaining to me that women are more accessible, less threatening, less power-hungry, and have little political ambition. In other words, they are not men.

When the movement’s activity began in the early 1970s, it was assumed that a religious movement would exclude women and that it would take a long time for women to fight their way in. This was not the case in the Islamic Movement. Muslim women did not have to fight for their place in public activity, festivals, processions or any social project undertaken by the movement. From its onset, the movement adapted itself to “our sisters,” as they are called. In the nationalist Balad or communist Hadash parties women are party “members.” In Arabic, this sounds improper to religious and conservative ears. The use of the term “sisters” neutralizes the sexual connotation and emphasizes the affiliation and commitment among brothers and sisters in the movement.

In the northern faction of the Islamic Movement the issue of women’s political representation is non-existent, since it boycotts the Knesset elections, men and women alike. The southern faction (“Islam-light”) has not had to deal with the unequivocal demand for female representation until the last elections, when it became part of the Joint List.

Raed Salah, leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, during a large protest and a general strike, in solidarity with Palestinians in the oPt in the northern Israeli town of Sakhnin, on October 13, 2015  a Day of Rage following restrictions on Al Aqsa and recent violent attacks of both Israelis and Palestinians. Photo by Yotam Ronen/

In answer to the question “Where are your women?” asked during the election campaign, the movement’s General Secretary Mansour Abas answered: “My sister, Mrs. Aida Touma represents our women!” Aida is Christian, but no religious law prevents women from joining public life, as long as direct contact between women and men is avoided.

Red lines

Ashraqa (Sunrise), the  magazine produced by women in the Islamic Movement based on Israel’s “La-Isha, which addresses women’s issues with serious and respectable content” Photo by  Bushra Dahla

Haitham Dahla, 48-years old, from the northern village of Tur’an, is a journalist and editor of the magazine Ashraqa, the women’s magazine of the Islamic Movement. “About 12 years ago we started our magazine. We wanted to create a platform for different writing for women. We looked at the two leading Arabic newspapers – Al-Sanara and Kul Al Arab. Their women’s magazines are rather shallow, dealing mostly with fashion, cooking and beauty tips. Is this what Arab women need? We wanted to be like the Hebrew magazine La-Isha (“For Women”), for example.”

“La-Isha?!” I asked, amazed, “This is your model?”

“Yes, La-Isha. We sat down to read and research women’s magazines both internationally and from the Arab world, but the closest and most accessible was La-Isha, which addresses women’s issues with serious and respectable content, as well as interviewing women the world over and including items about women’s initiative and successes. We wanted to show women that they can get away from the shallow, Western world and be educated and conscious.

“We have thousands of subscribers and the magazine reaches every village and town. We are five women on the editing team, and unfortunately we have all been fired now.”

I know the movement’s women’s magazine well — it arrives at my parents’ home every month, colourful and lavish. Naturally you will find no images of women with their hair exposed or sporting fashionable swimwear, but here and there are well-researched items about women in Arab society, such as the first woman physician in a faraway village up north, or a project to fight illiteracy in Arab villages, economic empowerment, health, education and more.

I recall once commenting about there being too many blonde children in one of the editions I leafed through as I sat in my mother’s living room. A month later, my mother showed me the change that had taken place in the visual images, as a result. “They do accept criticism, see?” she said, proudly handing me the magazine.

Haitham tells me that the magazine was founded after a group of women began to write a regular column in Saut Al Haq – “The Voice of the Truth.” “We wrote there voluntarily – commentary, poetry, op-eds and reviews of the women’s movement activities, until we decided to start something else.”

I ask Haitham what the men said, whether they really didn’t censor them and whether the women were able to write whatever they wished. “At first the editor read everything and approved,” she says. “He commented here and there, but never deleted anything. We very quickly learned what the ‘red lines’ are.”

And what are the ‘red lines?’

“No politics. We got the message that politics, government, and Israeli elections should not be addressed. The shekjs said we live in a state of laws, and even if we do not like them, we do not cross the lines.”

Now that you are boycotted, is this not considered politics?

“In recent years we have dealt with many things that I consider political, such as raising awareness of the Nakba, documenting destroyed Palestinian villages and their stories, processions to those villages and learning our history. It is political, but not overly so.

“We have published stories of leading women in the process of reviving Muslim presence at Al-Aqsa Mosque, about the mothers of prisoners, and other fascinating issues that we wanted women to read so that they understand what is happening around us. This we consider consciousness-raising.”

“So do we,” I said.

“Perhaps we were mistaken,” Haitham surprises me, “I think we should have founded an association separate from Al Risala, which is responsible for the movement’s communication and advocacy and until recently published the magazine and was in charge of the movement’s website. Had we separated from them, we may have survived the assault.

“What can I say? It’s heartbreaking. Everything was ruined the day the government made its stupid decision, only to show Israeli Jews that it fights against the Muslims on their behalf. Even security officials were against banning the movement, and yet those insane ministers insisted on closing down this incredible project.

“No one can convince me we did anything wrong; everything was done lawfully. The sheikhs have always insisted that there be no violation of the law. We published reports, all the resolutions of the associative committee have been properly documented, how else would we be allowed to function in this country?”

What’s next? What are you planning?

“God knows. I have no idea. At present I report to the unemployment bureau. One of the employees in the movement who was fired came to the bureau with his paychecks, having regularly received a monthly salary of NIS 9,000, along with a letter informing him that he was out of a job. The bureau chief at Kafr Kana said, ‘What is this? I didn’t know you in the movement work in such impeccable order! And with a salary, too!’ He thought that dozens of workers belonging to the movement’s institutions would volunteer their whole life? People do not realize how many homes have lost their livelihood because of this violent decision.” Then she adds, laughing, “Israel should begin to pay us unemployment — why not? We have worked hard and paid taxes for years. Now is the time for the National Insurance Institute to begin doing its job. And Netanyahu would be happy!”

A lesson in free hatred

Sawsan Masarwa is the director of the national Islamic Movement’s women’s organization. She is a charismatic, impressive and articulate woman with an master’s degree, with whom it was a pleasure to talk about the leaders of the Islamic Movement, secular women, and Arab Knesset members.

Sawsan has devoted 25 years of her life to building the Organization of Islamic Women, which the state has decided to destroy in a single day.

“Sometimes I wake up in the morning and persuade myself that it must be a dream. By 7:30 a.m. I’m on the road, showing up at the office, driving to branches throughout the country, participating in women’s events everywhere. Some days would begin with the camp we opened in Kafr Manda, followed by Nazareth to give a lecture, back to Umm Al Fahm for a women’s evening, and then back home after dark. At times I worked like a madwoman 16 hours a day. Now there is nothing — I am not allowed to do anything. I drive for two hours to the protest tent near the city market at the entrance to Umm Al Fahm, which was put up following a large demonstration that took place there. At the tent I welcome guests and busloads and journalists from everywhere. I speak, explain, organize lectures and go back home — this cannot be the end.”

Twelve district coordinators, responsible for 689 counselors who presided over 10,000 children worked under Sawsan — of them 6,000 girls who would also attend religious enrichment classes, study tutorials, literacy, and alternative extracurricular activity. “Thousands of girls are impacted by closing down the organization. No one will be teaching them in the afternoons. An intimate social framework has fallen apart. How shall we explain to a young girl that it is the government’s resolution that she will not learn Arabic or have Koran studies?”

As director of a women’s organization in Lod, I myself have worked with girls and women, and was always critical of the mass recruitment of Muslim girls to Islamic Movement activities. What do they discuss there? And what kind of women will come out of there when chastity and wearing the hijab are conditions for entry? Certainly they offer no sex education or radical feminism, I thought. Sheikh Raed Salah’s deputy, Sheikh Kamal Khatib, had always ridiculed the idea that a “woman has a right to her body.” He was contemptuous of the way we work with girls, and the deep chasm separating our values, which is not likely to disappear anytime soon.

On the other hand I thought of certain girls for whom this religious extracurricular project is the only place where they can hang out, in places such as Ein Mahal or Lakia in the Negev. Whenever the Islamic day camp bus would show up at the stop next to my office, I would always be glad to see girls and their mothers happily on their way to visit Jaffa or Haifa.

Who indeed will fill this void of activity? I am not an advocate of religious coercion and the brainwashing of children. I know about the Islamic Movement’s work with children and youth, and I can debate whether it is right or wrong. But as a secular Arab woman from Lod explained when I asked why she sends her daughter to the movement’s girls’ group: “Let her go and learn something with the other girls. Better than sitting at home with her smartphone. Some values never hurt anyone.”

I wondered what this girl was feeling now, following the government’s violent and unilateral ban of all movement activities. Certainly she must feel the state hates and persecutes her. If you have ever wondered how hostility is nurtured among humans, this is your first lesson: if the enemy feels any kind of achievement — lessen its worth and bury any good feeling. This bitter taste is the fuel for hatred and enmity, certainly among youth, who see the world strictly in black and white.

A gift to commercial firms

Nuha is a high school student in Wadi Ara. She is an outstanding student and dreams of being the first doctor in her family. She took the preparatory course psychometric exams in Umm Al Fahm, along with other students from the Triangle area in northern Israel. The course is subsidized and directed by Iqraa (“Read”), an organization that aspires to direct youth toward academic life, supports undergraduates during their studies, encourages student organizing and community empowerment for young people.

This association is not considered explicitly female, but most of the participants in its courses and tutorials are girls. The decision to outlaw the Islamic Movement occurred right in the midst of the preparatory course December exam. Activities came to a sudden halt, and the boys and girls who had studied for hours every day found themselves alone. “We managed to salvage maths practise books,” says Nuha. “The authorities would have thought the book was a Koran.”

Outlawing the movement did not exactly reinforce logical thinking among the future college students. The only one to benefit from this move was a commercial firm, which leapt at the opportunity and offered to complete the course at a steep price. Surprisingly, demand was high. “We have no other choice,” says Nuha. “We go on.”

Speaking of first future woman doctors, Sawsan reminded me that the Islamic Movement opened women’s clinics in several villages 15 years ago, which continue to function to this day. “They put up the buildings and received patients for free when these were in need, and with time signed contracts with health insurance companies that were nowhere to be found in certain areas. Where would you find a female gynecologist in a village such as Mash’had?

“When the first women’s clinic was opened in Kafr Kana, no female Arab doctor was found, so they brought in a Russian doctor. Later our own scholarship student completed her medical studies at Hadassah Hospital.

Arab women gather at a protest tent, which was established following the outlawing of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement.

“Look at the emergency medicinal services created by the movement in Kafr Manda. It served all the villages in the north of the country, at a time when ambulances driven by Jews wouldn’t dare enter Arab neighbourhoods. Today this problem does not exist.”

The state has not built a single hospital for its Arab citizens. Thankfully there is Nazareth and its churches, which built hospitals for us 100 years ago. The first Arab hospital has been under construction in Umm Al Fahm for several years now. The first floor (of many) has been opened with the help of donations and charity. Al Nur Hospital will be serving tens of thousands of residents of the Triangle area. Perhaps Nuha, too, will work there some day.

Terrorist activity: Helping orphans

Twenty-three thousand orphans and needy citizens are registered in the database of the Islamic Movement’s Committee for Rescue and Humanitarian Aid. I personally send a regular monthly donation to the project, which aims to provide for one Palestinian orphan in every town or village in the occupied territories. Many people outside the Islamic Movement are committed to this project. At first I was skeptical and wanted to know where the money goes. I was told that if my intentions are good, God will put my donation into His account — no interest required, since that is prohibited by the faith.

This information did not suffice, and I was sent the name of the child from a village near Hebron. He was a fifth grader; I received a photo of the boy and the story of his father’s murder. Around the holidays I would receive a cute thank you letter in his own handwriting. Mahmoud grew up, turned 18, and I was notified that I should replace him. Replace? Why? I am already in contact with Mahmoud — who will look out for him now?

“There are children more needy than him,” was the answer I received, “We found you a six-year-old.”

“Wait, could I have a girl, please?” I asked. “I have never had a girl.”

“It’s too late. We have already informed the boy’s mother that we have found him a caretaker.”

This happened several years ago. A week ago I was told to stop my direct donation, after the state has taken over the bank account of the Movement’s humanitarian committee. Thousands of single-parent families will no longer receive aid, and dozens of the project’s employees will be left unemployed, along with dozens of volunteers.

Thankfully Netanyahu’s government was wise and brave enough to put an end to this terrorist activity at the last minute. Thousands participated in a demonstration protesting the closure of the Islamic Movement’s humanitarian organization, along with the other institutions, several weeks ago. Women and children marched while holding banners that read “23,000 orphans, NOT terrorists.” They too will soon enough join the swamp of hatred.

Where is Hanin Zoabi?

I got back to dear Sawsan and asked her: “What about the women? You are a leader, you will probably find employment, but what about them?”

“They will probably go back home,” Sawsan answered. “For whoever really has faith, this is the hour of trial. We do not need buildings to reinforce our faith in values, in Islam. We are right, we have nothing to be ashamed of. Quite the contrary — we must be proud. Had we not been strong, no one would have minded us. Today we are forced to hide and keep our heads down, but if we judge by the support we have been getting, we are in good shape. Even those who do not agree with us ideologically understand that the problem is not the Islamic Movement. The problem is fascism, occupation, and force.

The Jews stuck us all in one sack and have decided to beat us

“This state attacks everything that is different. Today it is the Islamic Movement, tomorrow it will be Balad and Abnaa Al Balad (a secular group that also boycotts the elections). Why has everyone expressed their solidarity with us? Do you think we agree with the communists or the secular members of the Balad party? Not at all. But the Jews stuck us all in one sack and have decided to beat us.”

What about women’s solidarity? Have Arab women come to you?

“I am very disappointed in the Palestinian women’s organizations. How could all those men have found a way to come and make speeches and shout along with us, and not the women?”

Hanin Zuabi was at the Kafr Kana demonstration.

“She was there arm-in-arm with the men marching in the front line so she could be seen. Why not come to the women’s lines marchingat the back? We need her, not the men.”

It’s her statement that the forces should unite, that women should be in front with the men and not stay back. As a feminist I find it hard to accept marching behind. Separation is okay if it brings more women into the struggle, but let them march up front for once, why not?

“No problem,” Sawsan laughs, “The main thing is for them to come along and support us — Zoabi and Aida Touma-Sliman.

They didn’t show up? Impossible!

“They came to the men’s vigil, but did not show up to meet the women of the movement. This is a form of ignoring and excluding, which is wrong for women leaders. I have a hard time knowing that people come from all over — Jewish women, journalists, and even you show interest — yet the leaders of women’s struggle are absent.”

You have set me a challenge now. I am glad you want the women’s organizations with you — it’s a very important message. Perhaps I will speak with Aida and Hanin and see how they respond? I am almost certain they will want to come.

“If you manage to convince them, I’ll organize plenty of women to be present at the visit.”

“If you manage to convince Kamal Khatib to stop giving the Arab women’s organizations a hard time then we have a deal,” I concluded.


Member of Knesset Aida Touma Sliman met with women from the movement; the meeting was very successful.

Member of Knesset Hanin Zoabi responded to our query:

“When I participate in demonstrations protesting the outlawing of the Islamic Movement, I support both men and women. I participated in most of the Balad party’s delegations to the protest tent, and even if I sat with the men or led the marches along with them and did not go back to the women’s lines, I do not see this as support of men only but of women as well. I act according to my political principles, even when supporting a movement that is very distant from those principles.”

Outside Al-Aqsa compound. Photo by Oren Ziv/

The steadfast women of al-Aqsa

Israeli attempts to prevent Palestinian ‘Murabitat’ women from entering al-Aqsa Mosque only succeeds in galvanising them into further acts of resistance and defiance.

By Sheeffah Shiraz, The New Arab
September 06, 2015

Israel’s latest ‘blacklist’ has banned 40 Palestinian women from entering the al-Aqsa Mosque following small protests this week, but it has done very little to conquer their morale as they vow to continue to defend the compound.

“I have been banned six times, for a total period of ten months within two years,” Hanady Halawani nonchalantly says. She is one of the names on Thursday’s ban list. “This is not anything new,” she adds.

Halawani, alongside a group of Palestinian women, has been protesting for nearly two weeks after being prevented from entering al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City, following a ban placed by Israeli authorities.

The women hold signs reading “It is my right to pray in al-Aqsa” as they chant in unison. “You ask who we are? We are the women of Palestine. You ask who we are? We are not terrorists.”

You ask who we are? We are the women of Palestine. You ask who we are? We are not terrorists
The group of women, commonly referred to as Murabitat [“steadfast”], have taken it upon themselves to “protect” al-Aqsa Mosque, considered Islam’s third holiest site, against religious tours by Jewish worshippers.

“Many Muslims have abandoned it, so the women have decided to step in and take on the responsibility of defending it,” she tells al-Araby al-Jadeed.

Halawani is a Quran teacher at al-Aqsa, and prior to the blacklist, she was already facing problems with holding her 7:30am classes.

“Not only am I being prevented from carrying out my job, but this ban takes away my rights to prayer,” she explains.

“It is the only place I can go to when I am feeling down.”

But now she is on the blacklist, she will not be able to enter the mosque for an as-yet-unspecified period of between 10 and 60 days.

A ‘threat to visitors’

Avi Bitton, Jerusalem police commander, said on Wednesday that the blacklist was made up of women who “cause trouble and damage” at the site, adding that recent restrictions were imposed “to prevent any tensions in the area, as they violate order, and present a threat to visitors”.

But locals revealed that Israeli forces set the four morning hours aside to allow Jewish worshippers access to the mosque compound through the Moroccan Gate, reneging on an Israeli agreement with the Islamic Endowment that runs the compound forbidding non-Muslim worship at the holy site.

“When [Israelis] enter the mosque for tours or other reasons, they do so in a provocative manner,” Halawani said.

The women respond to the presence of Jewish tour groups by loudly saying Allahu Akbar [“God is great”] – which “disturbs” the visitors, she added.

“They feel threatened,” she adds. “All we are doing is trying to stop the settlers from storming the mosque and violating its sanctity.”

It is this strong presence of women that has prompted Israeli authorities to place the ban and distribute a blacklist, Halawani said.

“Women are the primary defence line at al-Aqsa and Israeli police are disturbed and intimated by this.”

Violence against women

Local sources said that Israeli police set up iron barricades and stationed forces at each of the mosque compound’s gates in order to impose restrictions.

“Israeli authorities use violence to ban women from entering the mosque, intimidating and arresting them at the gates,” Halawani says.

She speaks of one instance where a woman was dragged by her hair “for a very long distance” by an Israeli officer, while screaming for help along the way. But no one helps, Halawani says.

She also said that Israeli police used sound bombs against the women, a controversial device usually used as a crowd control tactic, which emits high frequency sound waves that can lead to permanent hearing loss, severe headaches and loss of balance.

“Around the world, women demand equality. But the women of al-Aqsa are treated as equally as men when it comes to violence and brutality,” Hanady says. She speaks of cases where her hands were burned, and where another Palestinian woman’s teeth were broken.

“We are subjected to violence on a daily basis, be it verbal or physical. But suffering is not something new to Palestinian women. We have always been wives, daughters, sisters or mothers of prisoners or martyrs,” she adds. “We suffer all the time.”

The Israeli government press office had not responded to requests for comment by time of publication.

Photo outside Al-Aqsa Mosque by Getty

Plans to ‘demolish al-Aqsa’

Halawani expresses her concerns over the threat she feels al-Aqsa faces, stating that the main danger is an alleged plan to demolish the Dome of Rock and replace it with a Jewish temple. Such conspiratorial conjecture has long been rampant in Palestinian communities.

“Al-Aqsa Mosque is in danger and it will remain so as long as there is silence and inaction by Muslim and international communities,” she said. “We want to protect this place with all the strength and power we have.”

Halawani will have to wait until the court’s decision is reversed before she can re-enter al-Aqsa Mosque. There is no set time for this, just uncertainty.

While she waits, she will make her way to the compound every morning to see if her name remains on the list.

But her spirit is admirable and is a reflection of many Palestinian women.

“The women of Jerusalem have always been known to stand side-by-side with men,” she says. “And they will never shy away from the front lines of defence when need be.”

Muslim women defending Haram Al-Sharif, Old City, Jerusalem. Photo by Reuters

Inside the Outlawed Group of Muslim Women Patrolling the Temple Mount

The authorities have outlawed the Mourabitat, a group of women considered a key player in the violent clashes on the Temple Mount, but its members intend to keep up what they define as holy work.

By Eetta Prince-Gibson, Haaretz premium
October 16, 2015

Fatema Salaime says she doesn’t understand why the Israeli authorities think she is being provocative when she prays, holds her Koran and calls out “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”).
“We come here, to Haram al-Sharif, to study and pray,” says Salaime, referring to the holy site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. “I see the soldiers – some of them are younger than my children – and they think they have the power because they have guns. And when I hold up my Koran and say ‘Allahu Akbar’ to the soldiers and policemen, it is to remind them that the real power belongs to God. We must all – Israelis and Arabs – be modest, not arrogant.”

Once a week, the 63-year-old retired schoolteacher takes a chartered bus from her home in the Lower Galilee and, along with other women from the region, rides for nigh-on three hours to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. There, she spends the day studying and praying, often while fasting.

Salaime is part of the Mourabitat, an organization of women who – together with a parallel men’s group called the Mourabitoun – have taken it upon themselves to create an ongoing presence to protect the Al-Aqsa Mosque from what they are convinced are Israel’s intentions to seize the site.

The Mourabitat and Mourabitoun were outlawed last month by the authorities, who view them as partly responsible for the recent outburst of violence on the Temple Mount. But in rare conversations with Haaretz, two Mourabitat activists insist the group is not even a formal organization and that they are motivated solely by their deep religious faith and devotion to Al-Aqsa.

The terms Mourabitat and Mourabitoun roughly translate to “defenders of the faith,” and come from a phrase in the Koran that obliges every Muslim to be a defender of Islam’s holy places.

Muslim woman upbraids intruding Jewish man,  September 2015. Photo by Reuters

The Mourabitat is made up of some 1,000 women, most of them Israeli citizens from the Galilee, along with some residents of East Jerusalem. In the eyes of the authorities, the organizations were founded and are funded by Sheikh Ra’ad Salah, head of the radical northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel. According to news reports, Salah pays each member up to 4,000 shekels ($1,040) per month.

Under arrangements in place since the end of the Six-Day War in 1967, Jews are prohibited from praying on the Temple Mount, and the area is administered by Muslim religious authorities. Israeli officials believe Salah is deliberately, and misleadingly, attempting to incite violence by claiming that Israel intends to change the current situation.

The site has been relatively quiet in recent weeks, but the situation remains tense. Less than a month ago, riots on the Mount fueled the latest outbreak of violence across the country. On the alleyways leading up to the site and in the mosque itself, the Mourabitat – their voices shrill and angry as they confronted the security forces – were a constant presence.

Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told Haaretz that restraining orders were issued against specific women, not against the organization itself, and that the goal of the police is to maintain the status quo. “Based on intelligence information,” says Rosenfeld, “we know if the women are intending to cause trouble at any given time. Right now, they are definitely being less provocative. But we are constantly assessing their activities.”

Salaime – her hair carefully covered in a soft, cream-coloured scarf and wearing a finely tailored, deep cranberry-coloured coat-dress – agrees to meet on a bench on a street not far from the Old City’s Damascus Gate, the site of several recent knife attacks. For now, the violence that was incited, at least in part, by events on the Mount, has moved to the streets below.

Speaking softly in hesitant Hebrew, she says it is “silly and insulting to think that I would take money from the sheikh – or from anyone else – to come and pray. Every one of us contributes, according to their ability, to pay for the bus. Sometimes, someone charters the bus in memory of a loved one, or as a gesture of charity and goodwill.

Violent arrest on Temple Mount [sic]. Photo by Reuters

“Praying at Al-Aqsa is who I am; it is my heart, myself. I don’t need money to pray – my reward, the only one I need, comes from God. Everyone is obliged to protect Al-Aqsa. It is the minimum I must do, because the Jews want to take over the Temple Mount,” she says.

Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have publicly and repeatedly declared that Israel has no intention of changing the status quo at the holy site. Last week, Netanyahu ordered the police to prevent all non-Muslim politicians, including government ministers and Knesset members from his own Likud party, from visiting the area.

Yet Salaime remains convinced that the authorities intend to take over the site. “Not all Jews want to throw us out,” she says. “But the settlers and the government want to build the Third Temple.

“That is why they are digging under the mosque – so that it will become unstable,” she adds, repeating an unsubstantiated accusation frequently made by Salah.

“Islam does not prohibit prayer – by individuals – on Haram al-Sharif. Even now, if you come to pray sincerely to your God, we will welcome you. But the settlers come to be provocative, to try to take Haram al-Sharif away from us.”

Is she scared by the violence? “No,” she says firmly. “It is up to Allah when I live and die.”

Suha, a 23-year-old dental technician from East Jerusalem who declined to give her last name, also considers herself part of the Mourabitat.

“How do I know you’re not from the Shin Bet [security service]? Or that you just want to get me in trouble?” she challenges Haaretz’s correspondent, speaking in fluent Hebrew.

She says she isn’t afraid of visiting Al-Aqsa, despite the current wave of violence. “I’ve faced the Israeli occupation all my life. And it would be an honour to die as a shahida [martyr] – defending Islam’s holy place.”

Her hair tightly covered in a carefully pinned scarf that matches the colorful shirt she wears over her jeans, Suha says she visits Al-Aqsa several times a week with a group of around 10 other women.

Most days, she sits inside the mosque studying and praying, while men from the Mourabitoun patrol outside. “When they see Jews who come to cause trouble, they call us, and that’s when we women go into action. We try to chase them away,” she says. “Sometimes, we try to prevent them from coming close, by walking through the streets of the Old City.

“We’re not even an organization but you declared us illegal – that’s so ridiculous,” she says. “It’s like saying that prayer is illegal.”

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