Palestinian women have joined the efforts to prevent Jews from accessing the Temple Mount, reported The New York Times last week.
To that aim, the women gather at the site, now home to a Muslim shrine and a mosque, and harass anyone they identify as a religious Jew.
Considered by Jews to be the holiest place on earth and the site of the First and Second Jewish Temples, Jews have limited access to the Mount and face continued harassment by violent Muslims.
The women who sit guard at the visitor’s entrance to the Temple Mount are known as Muslim garrison soldiers, or mourabitat. They consider it an obligation to protect the “Noble Sanctuary”, or al-Aqsa, from Jewish prayers.
“We are guardians for the sake of God,” a 57-year-old woman named Mona told the paper. “Everybody must protect al-Aqsa so the Jews don’t take it,” she added. “They have their eyes on it.”
To that end, in 2010, a group called the Israel-based Islamic Movement began busing in thousands of Palestinians for prayer services, encouraging school groups to bring students and individuals to get married there. They offer $300 a month to attend all-day study vigils at the site.
Since Israel periodically limits access to the site by young Muslim men in times of heightened security risk, the group began opening study vigils up to women in 2012. The group was disbanded by Israel in September, but the women keep coming back to the Temple Mount.
The paper describes the women as being covered head to toe, not necessarily out of religious obligation, but to make it difficult for police to identify them. According to Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, the women have escalated from chanting at visitors to chasing them, and some who have been banned from the site shout from outside the gates. He declined to say how many have been banned, but group members put the number at nearly 120 since 2013.
One woman, Hayat, 40, explained why she comes, leaving her seven older children to look after her youngest. “It’s like God gave us a gift, a place to stand guard. You feel then how much value you have.”
Other women come for different reasons. Mona has nothing else to do. “It takes me two hours to clean the house. Then what?” she said. Al-Aqsa, she says, is the only place she feels relaxed. “This is the gateway to heaven,” she added.
27-year-old single mother Asya comes because “al-Aqsa is the only place my father lets me go.” She worries that their actions might be offending the police, “and turning them away from Islam.”
According to Mustafa Abu Sway, dean of Islamic studies at Al-Quds University, Islam has a history of female warriors, but never have women served as guardians of a holy site before. There is no similar situation,” he said. The mourabitat “found themselves at the front line, and now, they have changed the dynamic.”
“Some say it’s not good for women to be in the barrel of the cannon,” Hayat said, but, “why belittle the abilities of the women who are here to defend Al Aqsa?…Until when do we wait for a savior?”
Rabbi Chaim Richman, international director of the Temple Institute, told the paper, “It’s very unsettling to many people. It’s basically incitement.”
The Temple Mount is the third holiest site in Islam, and has been a source of tension since it was reclaimed by Israel in 1967. It was turned over to the administrative powers of the Islamic Waqf, and although the an Israeli court has ruled that Jews may pray there, in practice they are prevented from doing so for fears it may disturb the peace.
Jewish visits to the site have sparked repeated riots, and most famously, the second intifada was started allegedly in response to Ariel Sharon touring there in September 2000. Unauthorized excavations started in the Dome of the Rock shrine atop the mount sparked concerns that Muslims are deliberately or carelessly destroying evidence of Jewish connection to the land.