OCCUPIED JERUSALEM - Amid divisions among Muslim scholars about allowing visits to Al-Aqsa Mosque while under Israeli occupation, Palestinian officials have launched a plan to lure more Muslim visitors to Islam's third holiest shrine.
"Some Muslims haven't visited Al-Aqsa mosque since 1967, but this was a big mistake," Palestinian Religious Affairs Minister Mahmoud al-Habash told Reuters.
"We have now decided to correct our mistake."
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Muslims have kept up an informal boycott of Al-Aqsa Mosque since Israel seized Al-Quds (East Jerusalem) and the West Bank from Jordan in a 1967 war.
Muslims say that visits to the shrine would amount to recognition of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.
But Palestinian and Jordanian officials want now to reverse this informal boycott of the holy city.
Palestinian officials have launched a plan to attract between one to two million visitors to Al-Aqsa Mosque annually.
"It would protect Al-Aqsa and also provide an enormous boost to the Palestinian economy," a senior Muslim official involved in the plan said on condition of anonymity.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas urged Muslims last February to resume the journeys to Al-Quds to counter Israel's attempts to Judaise the city and in solidarity with the Palestinians.
"Visiting a prisoner is an act of support and does not mean normalization with the warden," he said.
Since then, several high-ranking Arab and Muslim leaders have turned up to pray at Al-Aqsa in an effort to kickstart a new wave of visits to the shrine.
In April, Egypt's Mufti Ali Gomaa, accompanied by a Jordanian delegation, visited Al-Quds and prayed in Al-Aqsa Mosque, sparking anger in Egypt and Hamas-ruled Gaza.
Gomaa also visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - said to be on the site of Jesus's crucifixion and burial - at the invitation of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
Two weeks before that, Habib Ali Al-Jifri, an influential Sufi preacher from Yemen, had toured Al-Aqsa Mosque with Jordanian King Abdullah's brother Prince Hashem. Their visit was less noticed, but after Gomaa turned up, a pattern seemed to emerge.
Several Jordanian politicians and a Bahraini delegation have also made the pilgrimage to Al-Aqsa and Muslim officials said more high-level visits were expected, both from the Arab world and by Muslims from Europe and Asia.
Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and Palestine Mohammad Ahmad Husein has also issued a fatwa approving visits to Al-Aqsa Mosque.
But influential scholar Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi issued his own fatwa against foreign Muslims visiting Al-Quds.
Palestinian officials say that visits to Al-Quds would protect the holy city against Israel's judaization campaigns.
"In Al-Aqsa, we don't want to see a repetition of what happened in Hebron," Habash told Reuters, referring to the Ibrahimi Mosque in the West Bank town, which was controlled by Muslims for centuries.
"After the 1967 war, Israel began letting settlers pray in the Ibrahimi Mosque, he said.
Step by step, day by day, year by year, they occupied more than half the mosque and made that into a synagogue.
Al-Quds represents the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Israel occupied the holy city in the 1967 war and later annexed it in a move not recognized by the international community or UN resolutions.
Since then, Israel has adopted a series of oppressive measures to force the Palestinians out of the city, including systematic demolition of their homes and building settlements.
"Jerusalem has undergone countless occupations throughout history, and it was never a problem to come visit it, Sharif Qaddoumi, 26, a researcher at Al-Quds University, told Reuters.
So I don't understand why it's suddenly a problem.
Hussam Salaymeh, a 41-year-old taxi driver in Al-Quds' Old City shares a similar opinion.
"Personally, I think people need to come and support Jerusalem," he said.
"But I understand the argument that considers it normalization with Israel. Politically, I do think it is normalizing the situation."
Muslims enter Al-Aqsa Mosque compound from the Muslim Quarter through 10 other gates through the ancient walls, past checkpoints manned by Israeli security forces.
Palestinian authorities escort their guests through the Gate of the Tribes, at the opposite end of the compound from the ramp.
But in the absence of any movement towards a peace settlement, it is hard to see how many foreign Muslims can visit Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Visitors to the holy city would have to cross Israeli-controlled territory by entering Israel proper or taking the Allenby Bridge from Jordan into the West Bank as the recent visitors have done.
Visitors would also have to apply for a visa before the trip - something many Muslims would still refuse to do because it would imply recognition of the Jewish state.
Once they reached Al-Quds, it is not clear the visitors could always enter Al-Aqsa compound.
Muslims are normally allowed free entry, but Israeli security posts at its gates sometimes limit entry to older men, from 40 or 50 years up, if they fear protests.
Despite these problems, Palestinian officials they will push ahead with their plan to draw more visitors to Al-Aqsa Mosque.
"We will not give up," Grand Mufti Husein told Reuters."Al-Aqsa is important for Muslims because it is important for God."
Reproduced with permission from OnIslam.net