Right-wing political leaders and groups have called for Israel to exercise control over the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound as the Israeli government takes harsh measures to quell ongoing Palestinian unrest.
Returning to the Mount, a hardline right-wing Zionist organisation, announced this week that it would pay 2,000 shekels ($516) to Jewish-Israelis detained while praying at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, the third holiest site for Muslims.
Jewish groups refer to the site as the Temple Mount and their increased incursions into the mosque compound have triggered Palestinian protests across the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.
Although formally banned from praying there, Israeli activists enjoy police escort when they venture into the compound.
Speaking to Israel’s Channel 2 on Tuesday, Raphael Morris, head of Returning to the Mount, accused the Israeli government of imposing “ruthless restrictions” on Jewish Israelis.
“We are not prepared [to let] the situation deteriorate.”
“We must act not only to end the slide, but moreover for the addition of rights for Jews on the mount, the first of which is prayer,” Morris said, as reported by the Times of Israel website.
The group’s Facebook is full of posts calling for Israel to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque and raise a Jewish temple in its place.
These fever-pitch calls come at a time when Palestinian protests against Israel’s ongoing occupation and harsh policies are growing in frequency in Palestinian communities in Israel and in the West Bank and Gaza.
Protesters have met force, with Israeli soldiers using live ammunition, rubber-coated steel bullets, tear gas and stun grenades.
Since October 1, Israeli forces or settlers have killed 66 Palestinians, including unarmed protesters, bystanders and alleged attackers.
More than 1,000 Palestinians, among them children, have been arrested this month, according to the Palestinian Prisoners Club.
During that same period, nine Israelis were killed by Palestinians in stabbing or shooting attacks.
Also on Tuesday, Israeli Deputy Minister Tzipi Hotovely – a member of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-nationalist Likud party – referred to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound as “the centre of Israeli sovereignty, the capital of Israel”.
“It is my dream to see the Israeli flag flying” over Al-Aqsa, she told Knesset TV, the Israeli parliament’s television channel in an interview.
In response, Netanyahu’s office later that night put out a statement saying that “non-Muslims visit the Temple Mount [Al-Aqsa compound]” but are not permitted to pray there.
Hotovely was criticised back in May when she cited religious texts as justification for Israeli settlement expansion. Citing medieval Jewish scholar Rabbi Shlomo Ben Yitzhaki, she said that “the creator of the world” took the land from Palestinians “and gave it to us”.
More than 530,000 Israelis live in Jewish-only settlements – considered illegal by international law – across the West Bank, according to the Israeli rights group B’Tselem.
Last month, the Temple Mount and Eretz Yisrael Faithful Movement, a hardline Israeli organisation that advocates removing the Al-Aqsa Mosque, organised a march as tensions soared.
The group published a statement calling on Jews to protect the Temple Mount, which is “in the hands of Israel’s enemies”.
“We will stop the Islamisation of the Temple Mount and the construction of more mosques,” it read, adding that Israeli police forces will provide the marchers with protection.
According to Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, a research group, Israeli leaders intentionally attempt to portray the ongoing unrest as a religious conflict in order to justify using force against anti-occupation protests and to deflect criticism of harsh policies.
“Israel’s framing of the conflict along religious lines is an attempt to decontextualise the clashes that have been happening between Palestinians and Israeli settlers,” Nur Arafeh, a policy fellow at Al-Shabaka, told Al Jazeera.
Arafeh said that Palestinian “resistance to a settler-colonial and apartheid” are time and again “distortedly linked to religious fervor”.
“While Netanyahu claims that he has no intention to change the status quo, Israeli settlers have strong and deepening ties with Israeli authorities that have been providing them with financial, political, and legal assistance and coverage.”
Several senior officials of the Israeli government and high-ranking members of Netanyahu’s Likud party are committed supporters of Temple Mount movements and have attempted to advance their program in the Knesset, according to a December 2014 report by the Jerusalem based group Ir Amim.
The report found that Netanyahu has “refrained from confronting them publicly or from commenting on the destructive impact of their actions”.
Between May 2013 and October 2014, the Knesset Interior Committee held 14 discussions about Jewish access to the mosque compound, as compared to four meetings in the decade prior.
Ir Amim describes these discussions “as a central stage for backing extreme right Temple movement activists” and “a platform for right-wing Knesset members to level criticism at authorities responsible for security” at the holy site.
Some 27 right-wing Jewish movements advocate for an expansion of Israel’s presence at the compound, according to the United Temple Mount Movement, an umbrella group that represents the organisations.
While many only publicly focus on increasing Jewish prayer at the site, they all maintain the messianic view that the mosque will be replaced with a Jewish temple, according to another Ir Amim report published in October 2014.
In recent months, however, security forces have imposed tighter entry restrictions to the Al-Aqsa area on Palestinians, often placing arbitrary age restrictions on male worshippers.
Earlier this month, Netanyahu banned all Knesset members from visiting the holy site, including Palestinian legislators in the Israeli parliament.
While Netanyahu has been mostly quiet about right-wing Jewish groups pushing for an Israeli takeover of the holy site, he has lashed out at Palestinian legislators who defy his order.
Most recently, Bassel Ghattas, a legislator in the Knesset and member of the Balad political party, defied the ban and visited the mosque to show solidarity with worshippers on Wednesday.
Emphasising that Ghattas is a Christian, Netanyahu accused him of attempting to “provoke” an escalation and “inflame the situation”.
Yousef Jabareen, a Knesset member from the Arab-majority Joint List electoral coalition, said that Netanyahu and his political allies “are the ones who have been inciting”.
“We have been witnessing intense incitement by Netanyahu and his allies against Palestinian Knesset members,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The idea is to delegitimise our role in Israeli politics,” he said. “I believe that this incitement serves Netanyahu to go ahead with his discriminatory policies” against Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories. Al Jazeera