The 21st August marks the 48 commemoration of arson attack against al-Aqsa mosque in 1969 , not the sole attack but the first since it was one of several assaults on the flashpoint site since Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem in 1967.
Forty-eight years ago, extremist Australian tourist Denis Michael Rohan set fire to the flashpoint al-Aqsa Mosque in Israel-occupied East Jerusalem.
“I still remember the fire as if it happened yesterday,” Sheikh Ekrema Sabri, the head of the Supreme Islamic Council and former preacher of Al-Aqsa mosque, said.
“The moment the people of Jerusalem heard about the fire, they rushed in, bringing water inside cans to put out the blaze,” he said.
The fire has destroyed nearly third of the al-Qiblah mosque, including the 1,000-year old priceless wood and ivory pulpit of conqueror Saladin.
Sabri accused Israeli authorities of cutting off water from the area and preventing fire engines from reaching the site to extinguish the fire.
“Around 1,550 square meters of the 4,500 square meters that comprise the Al-Aqsa mosque compound were completely destroyed by the fire,” he said.
The blaze also destroyed the mihrab (prayer niche) of Muslim caliph Omar bin al-Khattab, the decorated interior and the gilded wooden dome.
A suspect was soon identified; Dennis Michael Rohan, an Australian Christian tourist, who was arrested on 23 August. Rohan was unafraid of revealing his motives for the crime; as “the Lord’s emissary”, he wanted to hasten the second coming of Jesus Christ which, in his view, could only be achieved by allowing the Jews to build a temple in place of Al-Aqsa Mosque, where it is claimed that the Temple of Solomon originally stood.
This year, the anniversary of this event comes just weeks after Al-Aqsa was once again threatened and its sanctity violated. After a deadly shootout on 14 July, Israeli occupying forces closed the mosque for the first time since the 1969 arson attack, and had installed metal detectors and CCTV cameras in the compound when it reopened. This led to widespread protests as Israel was accused of violating the status quo by imposing such unnecessary security measures. Palestinian worshippers staged a sit-in outside the compound wall in protest, and clashes with the military over two weeks left six dead and thousands injured.
After 11 days of outrage and demonstrations, Israel relented and removed all of the offensive and intrusive measures. Palestinians rejoiced as they entered the mosque, but such an incident serves as a reminder of how aggression against Al-Aqsa has never ended. To this day, the mosque remains a symbol of the ongoing violations of the most basic rights of Palestinians, including their ability to worship freely.
Similarly, the inaction of fellow Arab states in response to such attacks has remained constant. They wrote letters of condemnation in 1969, yet nearly 50 years later Al-Aqsa is regularly stormed by Jewish settlers and armed security forces, worshippers are turned away at the gates and the foundations of the structure are being destroyed by tunnelling. Jordan paid for the reconstruction of the fire-damaged mosque, but whilst Al-Aqsa was under siege in July, the government in Amman prioritised the return of an Israeli gunman to Tel Aviv at the request of the US.
In remembering the arson attack on Al-Aqsa Mosque it is clear that the Noble Sanctuary faces the same threats as it did 48 years ago, perhaps even more so.