Reprinted from Jonathan Cook Blog
Despite claims it is seeking to calm tensions in Jerusalem, Israel is intensifying activities to encircle the al-Aqsa mosque and strengthen its control over the holy site, a group of Israeli archaeologists warned last week.
The group sounded the alarm as the United States oversaw moves at the mosque compound, known as the Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, intended to end weeks of Palestinian unrest focused on Jerusalem.
US Secretary of State John Kerry brokered an agreement last weekend between Israel and Jordan, the official guardian of the Haram, that will see cameras installed in the mosque compound.
But the archaeologists say the most pressing threats to the mosque, located on a raised plaza above the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, will be invisible to the cameras.
They accuse Israel of making rapid changes to the physical landscape around al-Aqsa to obscure the area's Islamic character and create an ever-more arduous "obstacle course" for worshippers.
"The big picture is that Israel is weakening the Muslim and Palestinian presence there so that Israeli Jews can believe they are the true owners of the site," said Yonathan Mizrachi, head of Emek Shaveh, an organization of Israeli archaeologists opposed to the use of archaeology for political ends.
Various Israeli archaeological activities, he said, had almost completed Israel's encirclement of the al-Aqsa compound, isolating it from Palestinian neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem.
Kerry has said he believes the cameras will persuade Palestinians that Israel is not violating a "status quo" agreement governing the site since Israel occupied East Jerusalem, along with the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza, in 1967.
The unwritten understandings are supposed to ensure that the religious administration of the compound remains solely with an Islamic authority known as the Waqf, while Israel controls policing at the site. Although Jews may visit the mosque area, they are banned from praying there.
Jews refer to the Haram as Temple Mount, arguing that the ruins of two ancient temples lie under al-Aqsa. The Western Wall, revered by religious Jews, is believed to be a retaining wall of the second temple, destroyed nearly 2,000 years ago.
Footage from the cameras will be broadcast around the clock, providing "comprehensive visibility and transparency," according to Kerry.
In particular, the move is supposed to reassure Palestinians that ultra-nationalist Jews, who have been visiting in ever-larger numbers escorted by armed Israeli police, are not using the site for prayer.
Critics like Mizrachi say Washington's narrow focus on Jewish prayer at al-Aqsa will fail to ease tensions because it ignores the wider injustices of Israel's occupation, as well as limited access for Palestinians to the mosque and dramatic physical changes Israel is engineering immediately outside the compound.