The Hashemite Fund for the Renovation of Al-Aq’sa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock’s Board of Trustees conducted their first meeting on September 23. The meeting was attended by Jordan’s King ‘Abdallah II, who announced a personal donation of over $1.5 million.
As always, when it concerns the Al-Aq’sa Mosque compound (also known as Temple Mount or Al-Haram A-Sharif), the issue is far more delicate than meets the eye. A simple renovation work in the mosque or in the surrounding compound is often deliberated and argued over by the Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian sides. Nothing is “simple” when it comes to the world’s holiest site for Judaism and the third holiest site for Islam.
The new fund is headed by a member of the royal family, Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad – another sign of the importance Jordan attributes to its activity.
Under the 1994 Jordanian-Israeli peace accord Jordan enjoys a special status as the party in charge of the holy Islamic sites in Jerusalem. The Jordanian Ministry of Islamic Endowments is administratively in charge of the Al-Aq’sa compound and pays the salaries of its workers.
The fund has announced it will work to achieve two important goals: renovating the Al-Aq’sa Mosque and its surrounding compound, and supporting the Arab citizens of Jerusalem in order to "enable them to resist Israeli attempts to evict them from their city," according to Prince Ghazi.
"Looking after Jerusalem’s holy sites and supporting the steadfastness of its people are at the center of our attention and are a duty for all Muslims," King ‘Abdallah II said during the meeting.
Clearly, Jordan is attributing much importance to the new fund. The question is whether it will be effective in achieving its goals, and if so – will it upset the Israeli authorities?
Bab Al-Magharba is the central gate to the Al-Aq’sa compound. Last year the Jerusalem Municipality began renovation works on the earth rampart leading to the gate after parts of it collapsed. The unilateral move was followed by a campaign led by the Islamic Movement in Israel. As a result, Mayor Uri Lupoliansky decided in March 2007 to have the local Committee for Planning and Construction issue a detailed plan that would be voted upon after its inspection by the public and after hearing the public’s objections. The committee is still working on the plan.
Asked about the issue, a spokesperson for the Jerusalem Municipality commented: "The issue of the bridge leading to the Mugrabim Gate is under discussion at the Planning and Construction District Committee. Anyone who wishes to can submit his objection or suggest an alternative." Meanwhile, salvage excavations by the Israel Antiquities Authority are taking place on site in order to prevent the destruction of antiquities once the bridge is built.
One of the first challenges to the seriousness of the Hashemite Fund will be the Bab Al-Magharba Bridge. During its first meeting this week one of its members, Raef Najm, said alternative plans to the Israeli bridge would soon be presented to UNESCO.
"During the recent [Israeli] excavations, the path leading to the gate was dug very deep," Najm told The Media Line on September 25.
"Our alternative plan is to construct a similar rampart to the one which used to be there, using the same rocks in order to preserve the historic importance of the site," Najm added.
According to Najm, who is also serving as vice chairman of the Al-Aq’sa Mosque Restoration Committee, this alternative plan would be sent to UNESCO after the approval of the Jordanian government. Najm said the plan would be presented to the Israeli side "in the event of a joint meeting with UNESCO and Israel." However, no such meeting has so far been scheduled or discussed.
Supporting Jerusalem‘s Arab Citizens
"We, the members of committee, are unanimous in rejecting the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem and the annexation of the city," said another member of the Hashemite Fund, Dr. Kamil A-Sharif, during an interview with The Media Line.
According to A-Sharif, the main duty of the committee will be "to propagate the question of Jerusalem in the Muslim world and the world at large, to fight for the rights of the Arabs in Jerusalem and to reject the occupation. We are determined to keep the status of Jerusalem as an Arab city," A-Sharif said.
A-Sharif spoke against what he termed "a conspiracy against the Arab presence in Jerusalem." He said the Arab residents of eastern Jerusalem were being harassed by the Israeli authorities, which were trying to force them to leave the city.
"They sometimes deprive them of work or of permits to renovate their houses," A-Sharif added. He also mentioned the sale of Arab houses in eastern Jerusalem to Jews.
"I don’t know at this stage how the committee will deal with this problem," he said.
Asked if Jordan would provide financial aid to Arab residents of Jerusalem in order to prevent them from selling their houses, A-Sharif refrained from giving a direct answer, stating that all options were currently open.
On the Ground
Meanwhile, the fund is planning to implement a project to construct fire warning and extinguishing systems in the Al-Aq’sa compound. This project will begin in two weeks time after Eid Al-Fitr, head of the Jerusalem Islamic Endowments, Sheikh ‘Azam Al-Khatib, told The Media Line.
Al-Khatib said he believed the main focus of the fund should be the renovation works in Al-Aq’sa.
"With regard to projects concerning the rest of Jerusalem, they are – to my understanding – outside the realm of the fund at present," Al-Khatib said.