Religious, not political leaders guided Jerusalem through Aqsa crisis

Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, is carried by Palestinians upon their entry into Al-Aqsa, a compound known to to Jews as the Temple Mount, after Israel removed the new security measures it had installed at the compound, Jerusalem’s Old City, July 27, 2017. (photo by REUTERS/Muammar Awad)

RAMALLAH, West Bank — When Al-Aqsa Mosque was closed from July 14 until July 27 amid protests against Israel installing metal detectors and security cameras at the Lion’s Gate and several entrances, one group emerged to lead the demonstrations and organize prayers in nearby streets and squares.

Summary⎙ Print Respected religious authorities dominated the protest movement and did much of the organizing during the past few weeks of crisis at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.


TranslatorCynthia Milan

Israel tightened security measures at Al-Aqsa following an armed clash inside the mosque on July 14 between three Palestinian youths and Israeli police, resulting in the death of all three along with two Israeli policemen.

The organizing circle includes the head of the Supreme Islamic Council, Akrama Sabri; the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammad Hussein; the director of the Islamic Waqf Council, Azim Salhab; and Judge Wasif al-Bakri, all of whom are religious leaders who enjoy the respect and trust of Jerusalemites.

The group called on the Mourabitoun, the holy site’s self-appointed monitors and defenders, to refuse to pass through the metal detectors before entering Al-Aqsa, and the Mourabitoun complied. The leadership also formed a technical committee to assess the situation inside and outside Al-Aqsa Mosque and identify any changes made by the Israeli authorities there in a report to the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, which is responsible for the administration of Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Mohammed Abdel Latif, 50, from the Old City of Jerusalem, joined the Mourabitoun on July 14. He told Al-Monitor, “The Jerusalem street was completely dependent on the religious leadership as its guide, which played its role perfectly and made decisions in accordance with the people’s demands. We felt the religious leadership was a strong support system for us and gave us the strength to carry on.”

The role of the religious leadership overshadowed that of political forces. “The religious leadership did not have any political orientation and we found comfort in this. We were initially afraid political factions would take charge of the battle with the Israeli authorities because no matter which faction had ended up taking the lead, it would have only been doing it to stand out and serve its own interests,” Abdel Latif said.

“Political factions were absent when the events first erupted. After a few days, the factions found themselves unable to reach the public and influence the street, so they did their best to catch up,” Abdel Latif went on, adding, “The religious leadership should continue to work on meeting Al-Aqsa’s need for a supreme leadership. The religious leadership has our absolute support.”

Although the metal detectors were removed and the protests stopped, the role of the religious leadership continues. In a statement issued Aug. 1, the leadership warned against “escalating the situation again and dragging the entire region into unbearable crises, should the occupation insist on interfering in the affairs of Al-Waqf and Al-Aqsa Mosque.”

Sabri told Al-Monitor, “The religious institutions in Jerusalem were united in their decision due to the grave Israeli measures inside Al-Aqsa, inspiring the public to stand beside them.” He went on, “We have not presented ourselves as an alternative to anyone, and the field of action is open to all. Those who wish to contribute will be free to do so, but politicians failed to run the popular uprising against the occupation, and we needed a quick intervention. The religious leadership was spontaneously formed to keep up with events, fill the vacuum in the street and lead the people during the crisis.”

Sabri noted, “We need to continue our work because the battle is yet to end. Israel did not stop its project and measures at Al-Aqsa and it will attempt to change the situation there again. We need to keep following up on the events, fill Al-Aqsa with worshipers and be able to mobilize the public if need be. Our sole mission is to defend Al-Aqsa.”

The Palestinian Authority was late on the scene and is trying to keep up. On July 17, President Mahmoud Abbas arrived in China but decided to cut the visit short on July 19 and return to the Palestinian territories.

As soon as he reached the West Bank, Abbas held a meeting for the Palestinian leadership on July 21, one week after the confrontations broke out and the mosque was closed. At the meeting, Abbas announced a freeze of all contacts with Israel until it removed the metal detectors, and the provision of $25 million to residents, businesses and institutions in East Jerusalem in support.

The Palestinian political leadership seems to have realized the influence of the religious leadership on the scene in Jerusalem and rushed to support it. At a July 27 meeting held by the Palestinian leadership and attended by the grand mufti, the president called on the Mourabitoun to enter Al-Aqsa for prayer as soon as Israel removed the metal detectors.

“The rise of the religious leadership is due to its role in this religious issue at Al-Aqsa. This is why the decisions it made were strongly supported by the people,” Jerusalem writer and political analyst Rasem Obeidat told Al-Monitor. “The Jerusalem street has lost confidence in the Palestinian political forces and the PA,” he added.

Obeidat continued, “If political parties or the PA had called on Jerusalemites to protest, they would not have attended or interacted with them as they did with the religious leadership that succeeded in bringing everyone together.”

After heading the events at Al-Aqsa, the religious leadership still carries a great responsibility and faces further challenges as it works with Jerusalem’s youth to form and prepare a local Jerusalemite leadership to take on new developments in the city.

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A Palestinian girl drinks water from a public tap in the Jabaliya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, Jan. 24, 2017.  (photo by REUTERS/Mohammed Salem)

How long can Gaza survive with no water?

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The water crisis caused by ongoing power outages of more than 20 hours a day has pushed Gaza Strip residents to dig unlicensed wells, disregarding the ensuing serious threats to the already scarce aquifer water stock.

Summary⎙ Print A water shortage has led citizens to dig expensive water wells to meet their basic needs despite the dangerous impact of over-extraction on the Gaza Strip aquifer.

TranslatorPascale el-Khoury

At the request of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Israel reduced its power supply to Gaza on June 19 from 120 megawatts to 48 megawatts, causing the current water crises.

Omar Hamid, the head of a family of nine, told Al-Monitor, “The municipality is delivering water to the citizens’ homes for only two hours every two or three days. This is not sufficient to meet a household’s minimum basic water needs.”

He said, “There’s no electricity to operate the water pumps and fill our water tanks. Gaza has been living with barely four hours of power supply a day. This scarce supply of electricity often does not coincide with the supply hours of water pumped from the various municipality wells to the citizens’ homes.”

Like other citizens, Hamid is forced to buy water at a very high price from private local stations to fill his house tank. “Filling a 1,000-liter water tank from private local stations costs 25 shekels (about $7), while the municipality offers the same quantity at 1 shekel ($0.28),” he said.

To secure her water needs without having to pay this high price, Hayat al-Najar, a housewife and mother of six, stores municipal water during supply hours, using everything suitable for this purpose such as bathtubs, empty bottles of juice and other utensils. She uses her stored water to carry out household tasks such as cleaning, washing clothes and doing the dishes.

She told Al-Monitor, “Our water supply barely covers our basic needs. My children need to take daily showers in this hot summer, but I can only afford to give them one shower per week to save water.”

In order to have access to water, citizens, especially owners of residential buildings, started digging unlicensed wells to pump out water from the already stressed aquifer, Mazen al-Banna, the vice president of the Palestinian Water Authority in the Gaza Strip, told Al-Monitor.

“Gaza’s aquifer is overpumped by about 150 million cubic meters [122,000 acre feet] a year, Banna said. Around 220 million cubic meters are drawn each year, but the annual replenishment from rainwater is only 70 million cubic meters, he said.

Banna said there are around 10,000 wells across the Gaza Strip, including 300 municipal wells, 2,700 agricultural wells and 7,000 unlicensed wells.

It costs about $2,000 to dig a private well. Maher Abu Juba, a construction worker who digs wells for citizens, told Al-Monitor, “Despite this high cost, citizens are increasingly relying on private wells by sharing their costs among neighbors as the only means to overcome the chronic water crisis.”

He said that three years ago, the water authority prevented citizens from drilling unlicensed wells in a bid to preserve underground reserves.

The water authority “would fill wells dug by the citizens, but today it is turning a blind eye to the drilling of wells and even licensing some of them in return for 5,000 shekels [about $1,400] in light of the continued electricity crisis,” Banna said.

Ahmed Hillis, the director of the Environmental Awareness Department at the Palestinian Environment Quality Authority, told Al-Monitor, “Unlicensed private wells have disastrous consequences on Gaza’s aquifer. Most of these wells are not supervised or controlled by specialized authorities. Groundwater stored in the aquifer is being drained uncontrollably.”

He said that “over-extraction of water from the aquifer through wells has led to seawater intrusion, which in turn led to a high salinity of Gaza’s underground water, 97% of which is not suitable for drinking.”

Hillis blamed the local authorities in Gaza for granting licenses to dig water wells since 2014 without taking into consideration their negative impact on the underground water stock.

According to Banna, the best solution to the water crisis is to on the one hand solve the electricity crisis and on the other to set up more projects to desalinate seawater for human use such as the European Union-funded seawater desalination plant inaugurated in January in the southern Gaza Strip. The plant provides water to 75,000 people.

However, he said most seawater desalination projects are frozen in light of the political situation in the besieged Gaza Strip and the political division between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank since 2007.

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