At Al Aqsa Mosque, shards of stained glass tell a story of conflict
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At Al Aqsa Mosque, shards of stained glass tell a story of conflict
Renovation work inside the Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, Israel on Sept. 4, 2022. Clashes at the Aqsa compound have left a trail of broken windows and other damage in recent years. (Afif Amireh/The New York Times)

by Raja Abdulrahim

JERUSALEM.- At a workshop on the edge of the Aqsa Mosque compound, Muhammad Rowidy spends hours hunched over panes of stained glass, painstakingly carving through white plaster to reveal geometric designs. While he works, there is a thought he can’t shake.

“You see this,” he said, pausing and leaning back, “this takes months to finish, and in one minute, in one kick, all this hard work goes.”

Rowidy and dozens of other Palestinian artisans and workers maintain and restore the historic mosques and other structures in the 35-acre Aqsa Mosque compound revered by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and by Jews as the Temple Mount. They are bracing for more unrest.

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan starts Wednesday and overlaps with the Jewish holiday of Passover in early April, raising worries that the larger numbers of worshippers and visitors to the contested site will increase the possibility of clashes.

The artisans there — including a gold-leaf specialist, coppersmiths and wood carvers — fear that their meticulous work will be destroyed, as has happened in years past. Their frustrations have been intensified by the tighter control that Israel has exerted over the compound in recent years, making repairs more difficult.

The workers at the mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, need approval from Israeli authorities for repairs or replacements, down to every broken window or smashed tile, according to the workers, administrators of the site and Israeli rights groups.

Jews believe that the compound is the location of two ancient temples and consider it the holiest site in Judaism. In recent years, Jewish worshippers have prayed inside the compound, a violation of an agreement that has been in place since 1967.

With the overlapping holidays this year, there are concerns that increased visits and unauthorized prayers could provoke further clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians, as has been the case in previous years.

The atmosphere is already tense amid an escalation of violence in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. It has been the deadliest start of a year for Palestinians in the territory in more than two decades as settler violence increases and as Israel steps up lethal raids in response to a series of attacks by Palestinian armed groups.

Clashes at the Aqsa compound between baton-wielding riot police shooting tear gas and sponge-tipped bullets and Palestinians throwing stones and fireworks have left a trail of broken windows and other damage in recent years. After the violence, Rowidy and his colleagues are left to pick up the pieces.

Broken stained-glass windows line the top of the Qibli Mosque, one of two main structures inside the Aqsa compound, along with the Dome of the Rock, a gold-domed prayer hall.

The artisans say it can sometimes take years to secure approvals for repairs.

Bassam al-Hallaq, an architect who has worked at Al Aqsa Mosque for more than 40 years, overseeing artisans and workers, said that in 2019, Israeli police detained and handcuffed him for hours after he tried to replace a tile without approval. He keeps newspaper clippings about his experience taped to a filing cabinet in his office as a reminder.

“The occupation wants to assert that it is in control and nothing happens without their approval,” al-Hallaq said, referring to Israel’s hold on East Jerusalem. “They are not operating according to the agreement” governing the compound, he added.

Israeli police said that maintenance at the site was “not under the responsibility” of officers. But, to maintain security and order, police said, “coordination and escort are required.”

Incidents at the compound have often served as a spark in the broader Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In 2000, a trip to the site by Ariel Sharon, who later became Israel’s prime minister, surrounded by hundreds of police officers, set off the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising. More recently, the security minister in Israel’s right-wing government, Itamar Ben-Gvir, angered Palestinians and regional Muslim states by visiting the compound.

Al-Hallaq said the relationship between the compound’s workers and police began to fray after Sharon’s visit. But the workers said the situation had become particularly difficult in the past few years.

The police did not respond to a question about why approval to fix all the windows at the Qibli Mosque had not been given.

The Jerusalem municipality referred questions to the prime minister’s office. The prime minister’s office did not respond to the requests for comment.

The compound’s oversight is handled by an Islamic trust called the Waqf, controlled and funded by Jordan under an unwritten agreement with Israel, which has overall security authority and maintains a small police station inside.

Israel says that there has been no change to the status quo that has existed at the site since the country captured and annexed East Jerusalem, including the Old City and the Aqsa compound, in 1967. Much of the world sees that annexation as illegal and does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem.

The police have in the past few years increased their presence inside the compound, including monitoring the artisans’ work and escorting Jewish worshippers, said Yitzhak Reiter, president of the nonprofit Middle East and Islamic Studies Association of Israel who specializes in conflict resolution in holy places.

The relationship between the police, the Waqf administrators and the artisans who work at the compound has devolved into a give-and-take, Reiter said.

“So they negotiate every small piece of work and they expect to get something in return,” such as reviewing Friday sermons before they are delivered, he said of the Israeli authorities.

During police raids into the compound and clashes last year, officers barricaded Palestinian worshippers, including some who had thrown stones, into the Qibli Mosque and padlocked the doors, damaging handles and wood, according to witnesses and videos. Officers then climbed onto the roof and broke windows to fire tear gas and sponge-tipped bullets at those inside. The Palestinians threw rocks back.

Rowidy, 41, said it was easy to tell which side had broken which windows. Those completely smashed were done by Israeli police with batons, he said. A video posted on Facebook during the unrest shows one of the windows being broken, with what appears to be a baton, from the roof outside.

In comparison, Palestinians who threw stones had knocked large holes in the windows, he said.

In the workshop, Bassam Ayesh, 42, watched Rowidy working on a semicircular window from the Qibli. The glass was damaged last year, initially by Palestinians, before being completely destroyed by Israeli officers, who used the opening to shoot tear gas and sponge-tipped bullets into the mosque, Rowidy said.

“As we work on it, we say to each other, ‘How long will this last? Five minutes?’” said Ayesh, who draws the geometric designs for each window.

Al-Hallaq, the architect, studied in Greece before returning to work at the mosque he grew up praying in. Most of the workers learn their trade inside the compound as older generations pass down knowledge and techniques, Rowidy said.

After Ramadan last year, the artisans took down the window’s wooden frame, removed the broken glass and plaster, and began a careful reconstruction.

First, they set a new sheet of glass and poured plaster on both sides. Ayesh then drew the geometric design on the plaster in soft charcoal.

Using a small pick, Rowidy slowly moved along the outlines, removing plaster bit by bit to reveal the glass underneath. In the workshop, the only sounds were the scratching of pick against plaster, a fan and a recitation of the Quran playing in the background.

Outside, in the courtyard next to the Dome of the Rock, some of their colleagues worked to fix an underground pipe. Two police officers kept watch.

Nearby, heavily armed police escorted Jewish worshippers around the compound. Some of them openly prayed.

Taking a break from working on the window, Rowidy entered the Qibli Mosque and surveyed the broken windows, some dating to the Ottoman Empire, that he hopes to repair one day.

“When a window like this gets broken, God, my heart gets broken with it,” he said, pointing at a large pink and blue window. “I’m worried about the days to come.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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