53 Years After The Al-Aqsa Mosque Fire

It was early on Thursday morning on 21 August 1969, when Palestinian guards saw smoke rising from the southeast wing of the Al-Aqsa mosque, in Jerusalem.

The attempt to quell the flames was prevented by Israeli occupation forces, claiming that it was the Jerusalem Municipality’s responsibility to handle the situation.

Nevertheless, after short but fierce clashes, Jerusalem’s inhabitants made their way into the Noble Sanctuary and started to tackle the fire which burned for hours before the blaze was finally extinguished.

Damages were, however, already made. The fire had swept through some of the oldest parts of the mosque, destroying the 900-year-old pulpit gifted by Salahuddin Al-Ayubi, as well as mosaic panels on the walls and ceilings.

As a response from the Palestinian population, the whole of occupied Jerusalem went on strike, a move that was emulated across the West Bank and even in the Israeli territories. In reaction, all access points to the mosque were blocked by Israeli security forces, also preventing Friday prayers for the first time.

Who made this?

Dennis Michael Rohan, an extremist Australian Christian, was arrested two days after the attack, on 23 August. In his defense, he stated that he considered himself to be “the Lord’s emissary” and that he tried to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque acting upon divine instructions to enable the Jews of Israel to rebuild the Temple on the Temple Mount – where the Temple of Solomon originally stood – in accordance with the Book of Zechariah, thereby hastening the second coming of Jesus Christ.

Rohan was hospitalized in a mental institution in Israel until 1974, when he was deported from the country “on humanitarian grounds, for further psychiatric treatment near his family”.

International response

The fire of the Al-Aqsa mosque has been described as “an act which plunged the Middle East into its worst crisis since the Six-Day War in June 1967”.

The attack was the cause of great anger in the Muslim world, and demonstrations and riots occurred as far away as Kashmir, in India. Many Muslims alleged Rohan’s actions were part of a wider plot by Israelis, while some Israelis have attacked widely-repeated claims by some Palestinians and other Muslims that Rohan was Jewish, when in fact he was Christian.

On 28 August 1969, a complaint was submitted to the Security Council of the United Nations by twenty-five Muslim countries in response to the Al-Aqsa arson attempt.

On 15 September 1969, the UN Security Council responded by passing a resolution condemning Israel by 11 votes to none with 4 abstentions: the so-called “Resolution 271” recalled previous resolutions regarding the Geneva Conventions, international law on military occupation, and the status of Jerusalem. But Israel ignored this resolution, as it has done with all such calls before and after.

Similarly, the inaction of fellow Arab states in response to such attacks has remained constant: they wrote letters of condemnation in 1969, yet more than 50 years later Al-Aqsa is regularly stormed by Jewish settlers and armed security forces, and worshippers are still turned away at the gates.


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