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Al Aksa Tunnel Riots of 1996

Ad Dustour, Jordan, February 20, 1997
Ad Dustour, Jordan, February 12, 1997
Ad Dustour, Jordan, December 28, 1997
Al Rai, Jordan, February 7, 1997


One Picture is Worth a Thousand Lives
By Murray Kahl*

March 2, 1997

There is a major fight brewing regarding Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem, and George Santanaya's didactic dicta, "Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it." has never been more relevant than today, as the world of Islam speaks of a perceived threat to their holiest sites in Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa. Daily, warnings are in Muslim media throughout the world:

  • Palestinian Warns of Explosion London, Feb. 18 (GNA), -- The chairman of the Palestinian Legislative Council Ahmed Korei' (Abu Alaa) has warned of an explosion by the masses in the occupied territories if Israel continued its policy of settlements and the excavation of tunnels under Al-Aqsa mosque. Abu alaa was talking in a meeting organized in London by the 'international campaign for Jerusalem' on the situation in occupied Palestine. he said the Israeli authorities were now digging a new tunnel to the south of the old one, at a depth of 35 meters, a matter which was threatening the foundation of the Al-Aqsa mosque, saying that such deeds as the building of settlements in Jebel Ghoneim in addition to the siege imposed on the holy city might lead to an explosion that will be difficult to contain. Alayam newspaper, Bahrain, February 20, 1997
There are two issues surrounding the al-Aqsa "tunnels": 

The first issue is the incitement of the entire Muslim (not just Arab) World for an imminent Jihad with theme of preventing (or avenging) the destruction of al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock by Israel. This is a campaign run by Iran and is supported by the PLO/PA representatives all over the world.

The second issue is the utilization of the hysteria by the PLO/PA in order to generate support from the Arab World for their struggle for Jerusalem and a sovereign Palestinian state. Their main objective here is to generate international pressure on Bibi to compromise as has in the past.

A very interesting, and worrisome, aspect of these two simultaneous campaigns is that Arafat is exploiting the Islamist agitation of the Arab Street in order to generate additional pressure on Arab Governments to further harden their position against Israel and actively support his Arafat's maximalist positions on the Jerusalem and Palestinian statehood issues. In this campaign, the PA is using Islamist themes and language, a clear expression of Arafat's realization and understanding which effectively dominates the Arab (including Palestinian) street/population. 

A major incitement and agitation campaign is unfolding throughout the entire Muslim World. Muslims are being told in Friday Sermons in their mosques and by countless media outlets that Israel is digging tunnels under the Temple Mount in order to destroy the two holy mosques and build a Jewish Temple instead. This campaign is conducted by Iranian Intelligence as well as a large number of Islamist organizations and fronts sponsored by Tehran and its allies with FULL cooperation from the representatives of the Palestinian Authority and the PLO. PA representatives and diplomats routinely confirm the Islamist allegations and insist that the opening of the Hashmonaean Tunnel last September, which was used by Arafat as an excuse for the fighting between the Palestinian "policemen" and the IDF, was actually a prototype for the new tunnels. 

Although, the theme of this campaign is amazing, Israel is secretly digging tunnels under the temple mount to bring about the collapse and destruction of the Al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock Mosques so that the Jews can build the Temple, it has a wide following throughout the Muslim World. In recent weeks, the claim has been further refined to include a time frame for the calamity: The Muslim world is now being told that the Jews are determined to celebrate Passover (second half of April 1997) in their new Temple, which means that the mosques will have to be destroyed beforehand. 

Arafat jumped on the al-Aqsa issue in early 1997 after noticing the popular reaction to the bas-relief debacle. In mid January 1997, Prime Minister Netanyahu gave a silver bas-relief of Jerusalem's Old City to Archbishop Maximus Saloum, head of the Greek Catholic church in Israel. The relief left out the city's holiest Islamic sites the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosques and instead showed a reconstruction of the second Jewish temple. Muslim leaders immediately declared the portrayal of the Temple is a deliberate affront and pointed to the ongoing archeological digs in Jerusalem as proofs of Israeli conspiracies. Sheikh Hashem Abdel Rahman, a spokesman for the Israeli Islamic movement, specifically stated that the bas-relief indicated an Israeli plan to destroy the Temple Mount mosques and rebuild the Temple. The PA leadership could not miss the difference in popular reaction between the concurrence with the on going warning about the Judaization of Jerusalem and the emotional agitation in reaction to the rumors about a conspiracy to destroy the Mosques. Little wonder that Arafat immediately adopted the Islamist terminology: Israel's objective is not only to Judaize Jerusalem, a long-standing theme of the PA, but also to destroy the Mosques and rebuild the Temple. 

Key PA spokesmen, usually identified with the "moderate trend" and "peace camp" began raising the danger to the Mosques as a major al-Arab political consideration. In an interview with the official Cairo Voice of the Arabs that was broadcasted on al-Quds Day (February 7), Ahmad Quray, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, in Gaza, stressed the centrality of the dangers to the al-Aqsa Mosque:

"In the Legislative Council, we have been discussing a very dangerous report on the digs taking place under al-Aqsa Mosque, which have really started threatening the compound. There is a real danger now which threatens the al-Aqsa Mosque, particularly from the western side as is known, and from the southern side. Now, there is a new tunnel which is about 2 kms long at a depth of 30 meters, which they have started digging secretly. Yesterday, a group of Palestinian Arabs in Israel and some of our brothers in the Legislative Council entered this tunnel and saw some parts caving in at the depth of 30 meters. These parts have begun cracking under al-Aqsa Mosque. These are the dangers surrounding the process." 

Quray expects the al-Aqsa issue to be the dominant factor affecting the PA's position in the negotiations for a permanent settlement. It is imperative to have a Muslim body the PA in control over sacred Jerusalem to avert the calamity. Otherwise, the fears for al-Aqsa will become "a fire [that] begins to burn" throughout the Muslim World. "Once it starts burning, this is a fire that will burn in all hearts," Quray warned. He explained that the safety of the Mosques on Temple mount would top the list of subjects to be brought up in the Arafat-Netanyahu summit. "There will be a meeting between President Arafat and the Israeli prime minister in Erez on Sunday [February 9]. This matter will be presented very clearly and frankly." Quray explained that the PA now considers the Jerusalem issue as the key to its ability to mobilize the entire Muslim World to support its maximalist positions vis-a-vis both Israel and the US. "The issue of Jerusalem is very crucial. There is a call to convene a meeting of the al-Quds Committee. We call on all our Arab and Muslim brothers to take note of the dangers of the situation. Jerusalem is being subjected to a serious and real Judaization campaign by Israel. There is a fait accompli imposed forcefully and unilaterally every day in Jerusalem." 

This propaganda theme dominated the al-Quds Day (Jerusalem Day) agitation on February 7th. Tehran stressed the unique importance and urgency of the 1997 al-Quds Day. Radio Tehran's broadcasts to the Muslim World (in several languages) reported that "Tel Aviv officials have voiced the regime's plans in building the Suleyman Temple to replace Bayt al-Maqdas in the near future." This growing danger to Islam's Holy Shrines is contrasted with the PA's treacherous willingness to compromise with Israel. "This year, more oppressed than ever, al-Quds witnessed the protesting rallies of an oppressed nation that for over 50 years has suffered the suppression of the unscrupulous occupiers, and now the treacherous compromises of some leaders have dealt new blows on them." 

Official Tehran stressed that a primary objective of al-Quds Day was to incite the Arab World to pressure its leaders not to cooperate with the peace process. Tehran warns that "political gestures" allow Netanyahu, "by intimidating the compromising Arab leaders, to gain more advantage from them. Such ploys, although they may convince some treacherous Arab leaders, can certainly not deceive the oppressed nation of Palestine. The International al-Quds Day is a demonstration of the vigilance of the world Muslim nations and their strong determination in retaking Bayt al-Maqdas from the Zionist occupiers." 

Al-Quds day was indeed observed throughout the Muslim World. Its main theme was the condemnation of "Israeli occupation of Bayt al-Maqdas" and the expression of "solidarity with the people of Palestine who are fighting for liberation of the holy land." In Pakistan, there were street demonstrations outside the main mosques with protesters carrying placards inscribed with slogans like: "Down with America, down with Israel and liberate Muslim holy lands." The sermons and speeches delivered throughout Pakistan "urged the Muslim Ummah to get united to liberate all Muslim places including Bayt ul-Maqdas, Kashmir, and other lands." In the Punjab, all mosques offered "special prayers for the real liberation of Masjid-e-Aqsa [al-Aqsa Mosque] and Palestine from the occupation of lsrael." Comparable prayer and agitation sessions took place from Latin America to the Philippines, and from South Africa to Scandinavia. 

The Islamist leaders made certain that all those attending these emotionally charged sessions will feel committed to actively participate in, or at the very least contribute to, the forthcoming Jihad for the liberation of al-Quds. Toward this end, all these attending the Friday prayers on al-Quds Day were asked to undertake the formal al-Quds Day Resolution and Vow. The entire resolution was read in Tehran and later adopted by countless Mosques and communities throughout the Muslim world. This resolution determined that "the liberation of al-Quds and returning it to the fold of the Islamic community is only possible through armed struggle, Islamic belief, and a serious and united Jihad against Zionism."

Since then, the propaganda and media machines throughout the Muslim World have been intensifying the agitation on the imminent destruction of the al-Aqsa Mosque and the urgent need to embark on a Jihad to liberate al-Quds and save the Holy Shrines. This campaign is not a trivial issue. It is precisely this kind of simplistic, virulent and most pervasive type of agitation that is most effective throughout the Muslim World. These types of anti-Islam conspiracies have a far better following than any analysis about the merits or demerits of the peace process. In an increasingly radicalized and illiterate Muslim World, one can expect huge numbers of volunteers for the Jihad to liberate al-Quds on the basis of this message of hate.

Indeed, the objective of this campaign is to mobilize the entire Muslim World. The Islamist leadership strives to build a level of grassroots hostility and hatred toward JEWS, not just Israel, that will make acceptance of any settlement that legitimizes Israel's right to exist virtually impossible. In recent months, and in concurrence with the escalation of the Arab/Iranian preparations for a possible war in the Middle East, the campaign has not only intensified but assumed a timely character. The Islamists now prepare the agitated masses for an imminent eruption later this spring.

This campaign is so prevalent that it has reached central place in the mainstream Arab media.

The Palestine Times, Issue 68, February 1997 reported that Israel is digging more tunnels beneath Al Aqsa Mosque, 

The Israeli occupation authorities in Jerusalem are trying to open new subterranean tunnels beneath al Masjidul Aqsa, Islam's third holiest site, Muslim Wakf officials said.

Sheikh Najeh Ktheirat, Head of the Heritage Committee at the mosque, said an objective investigation carried out by the Wakf authority revealed that more tunnels and excavation work by Israelis was taking place beneath the south-eastern corner of the Haram al Sharif. 

Expressing anxiety over the immediate and long-term effect on the safety of the Mosque, Ktheirat said that it was likely that the opening of the new tunnels and the continued digging in the area would eventually undermine the Mosque's foundations. 

Last month, Sheikh Ktheirat and the Islamist mayor of the Israeli-Arab town of Umm al Fahm, Sheikh Raed Salah, thoroughly searched the underground and now-restored prayer-ground known as the Marwani mosque and found out that tunnels were indeed being excavated and that their openings were only covered with earth and stones.

Ktheriat stressed that the Israeli authorities aimed at no less than the ultimate demolition of the Mosque in order to rebuild Solomon's Temple on its site. 

The Wakf official also called on Arab and Muslim states and ordinary Muslims worldwide to treat this matter with the utmost seriousness it deserves, or else Muslims would lose the First Kibla ( the direction to which Muslims turn during prayer) and the Third Most Sacred Shrine of Islam.

Reacting to reports of new tunnels beneath the Mosque, Sheikh Muhammed Hussein, Director-General of al Masjidul Aqsa, said that the Israelis were trying desperately to uncover alleged ancient Jewish sites, adding that all of their excavations to that effect have resulted in nothing. 

Sheikh Hussein said that, on the contrary, the Israeli digging uncovered canals and remnants of Arab palaces dating back to the Ummayad era. However, he added that the fact that Israeli excavations didn't uncover any Jewish sites in the area has not deterred the occupation authorities from stepping up the digging.

The Muslim official stressed that the entire area of the Haram al Sharif of Jerusalem, as indeed all of the town, was an inalienable Wakf property and that the Israelis had no right being there in the first place.

Like Ktheirat, Sheikh Hussein urged Muslims around the world to be vigilant and watch meticulously every Zionist step at and beneath Jerusalem's Muslim sites.

Quietly, outside of Israel, Palestinian officials are warning the Islamic world that Israel is undermining the Dome of the Rock. This is of major import to all Islam and is a call to arms of considerable meaning as Israel's "demeaning" of Islam's third most holy site can be a catalyst for a world wide Jihad.

In Jerusalem, the daily Al-Hayyat Al-Jadidah, February 16, 1997 highlighted a statement issued by Sheikh Ikrima Sabri, the Expounder of Al-Quds and Palestine, in which he announced the formation of a technical committee made up of archaeological experts and engineers to investigate Israeli drilling works beneath the courtyard of al-Aqsa mosque.

On February 13, 1997, Faruq Kaddumi, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization's political bureau said in an interview with the Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram Al-Massai that Palestinians have contacted several Arab governments to organize an urgent Arab summit on Jerusalem and the protection of its Moslem holy sites. He said, "Contacts have been made with Egypt and several other Arab countries to call an Arab summit to protect Moslem and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem. Kaddumi, who lives in Tunis said a special fund should be created to buy up Palestinian land sold to Jews in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. 

The moment of truth for Prime Minister Netanyahu is rapidly arriving, as Arafat again makes his bid for a sovereign state; yet this time Arafat is stronger and will use the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa as a rallying cry ensuring the support of many members of the Islamic world. The outcry will be predictably deafening as Islam struggles for its "right" to worship freely in its third holiest site. 

If we use the closest analogy we have, the tunnel incident, the future is predictably bleak.

* Murray Kahl, publisher, Israeli & Global News

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This page was produced by Joseph E. Katz
Middle Eastern Political and Religious History Analyst 
Brooklyn, New York 
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