JERUSALEM, April 17 — The women, covered face-to-toe, surrounded the Jewish group walking through the contested holy site in Jerusalem. “The army of Muhammad is coming!” the women shouted.
One woman covered her face with a poncho as she chanted against the Israeli police, who were guarding a group of religious Jews visiting the sprawling compound that Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call Al-Aqsa, or the Noble Sanctuary. Another woman concealed her face with a fur stole. Tourists quickly vanished.
The chaotic scene, which has become routine at the sacred site, was led by a group of women known in their community as Muslim garrison soldiers, or mourabitat. They say it is their role to protect the integrity of the Noble Sanctuary from religious Jews who want to pray at a contested site that is held sacred by both.
“We are guardians for the sake of God,” said a 57-year-old woman named Mona, who, like the others, would not provide her last name for fear of arrest.
“Everybody must protect Al-Aqsa so the Jews don’t take it,” said the woman, wearing John Lennon-style eyeglasses, her maroon head scarf firmly pinned on. “They have their eyes on it.”
The women are the most striking element of a mixed Palestinian effort to strengthen their hold on the compound. They fear Israel seeks to seize or divide the property, and they do not trust the assurances of the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, that he will continue to bar non-Muslims from praying there.
The 37-acre compound in Jerusalem’s walled Old City is the holiest site in Judaism and the third holiest place in Islam. Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad’s mystical journey took him from Mecca to Al-Aqsa, and from there to the heavens. And it is for Jews the site of the First and Second Temples. Israel captured the compound – along with the rest of the Old City from Jordan in the 1967 war – but returned administrative oversight to Jordan. Israel maintained security and the ban on non-Muslim prayer.
A small group of religious Jews have for years sought to pray at the site, and more Jews have visited in the past few years, increasing tensions that burst into violence last fall. In a rare move, Israel closed the compound for a day, prompting Jordan to recall its ambassador, who returned only in February.
Reinforcing Muslims’ own claim to the site, in 2010 an organisation called the Israel-based Islamic Movement began bussing in thousands of Palestinians for prayers, encouraged school excursions and urged Muslims to marry at Al-Aqsa through an organisation that it established. It also started study circles on the stone platforms scattered throughout the site, paying participants $300 per month to keep vigil all day.
With Israel restricting young men’s access in times of tension, the circles were opened to women in 2012. Hundreds signed up.
During classes, students chanted loudly when Jews entered. Israel shut down the organisation that made the study circles in September, said its former director, Hikmat Naamnih, but the women kept coming.
“It’s like God gave us a gift, a place to stand guard,” said Hayat, 40, whose seven older children watch her toddler while she is at Al-Aqsa. “You feel then how much value you have.”
Mustafa Abu Sway, dean of Islamic studies at Al-Quds University, said Islamic history had female warriors, but never what he described as female guardians of a holy site in quite this way. “There is no similar situation,” he said. The mourabitat “found themselves at the front line, and now,” he added, “they have changed the dynamic.”
The women said some Palestinian men mocked them, unused to women defying authority.
“Some say it’s not good for women to be in the barrel of the cannon,” Hayat said. “Why belittle the abilities of the women who are here to defend Al-Aqsa?”
Hayat paused. “Until when do we wait for a saviour?”
Micky Rosenfeld, an Israeli police spokesman, declined to say how many women have been barred from the site since they began their activities. But the women said about 60 were barred from Al-Aqsa in 2013, and nearly as many in just the first three months of this year, most for two weeks at a time.
In recent weeks, Rosenfeld said, the women have progressed from chanting at Jewish visitors to chasing them; some who are barred from the site stand outside the gate and shout at Jews as they exit.
“It’s very unsettling to many people,” said Rabbi Chaim Richman, international director of the Temple Institute, a group based in Israel that calls for reinstating the third Jewish temple and organises tours of the Temple Mount. “It’s basically incitement.”
The women arrive around 8 a.m. and stay until non-Muslim entry is stopped at 3 p.m. They exchange tips, like how to remain anonymous: Cover your face and change your clothes, including your shoes, before leaving the Israeli-guarded gates. In police interrogations, do not give away your friends’ identities and say you are a student.
On a recent morning, several dozen women gathered on stone stairs near the Al-Aqsa entrance for tourists. They passed around tea and snacked on sesame seed-coated bread, ignoring the visitors, many of them with scarves wrapped around their legs in a hasty try at modesty.
They were keeping an eye out for Jews in religious dress, generally a tiny minority among the hundreds of non-Muslim tourists pouring through every day.
Suddenly a woman hollered – “Settlers!” – referring to religious Jews.
“God is great!” the women chanted, raising scarves and books to form a faceless choir. About 10 gave chase. About 10 men joined and surrounded the Jews. “The community of Muhammad does not kneel!” they shouted in Arabic.
A grinning Jewish visitor filmed the Palestinians. Police officers filmed the women, and a woman filmed them in return.
Chanting, the women and men followed the group around the compound. Some tourists scrambled out of the way. Others wildly snapped photos.
“Is it always like that? It’s crazy!” a tourist said to a policeman.
“They don’t believe Jewish people can visit,” he shrugged.
After the confrontation, the women settled back in their circle. One woman passed around sweets. Another continued knitting a yellow poncho for her granddaughter.
Mona said she had joined the study circle because she had nothing else to do. “It takes me two hours to clean the house. Then what?” she said.
She said she enjoyed the bird-chirping, pine-scented tranquillity of the compound. “I’m not relaxed, except here,” Mona said, kissing her fingers in a sign of gratitude. “This is the gateway to heaven.”
Asya, 27, a single mother of a 4-year-old, said she had joined the study circle because “Al-Aqsa is the only place my father lets me go.” But she frowned at mocking the police. “Maybe we are offending them, and turning them away from Islam.”
The women broke into chants several times as the day passed. One older women, in particular, called Jews pigs and apes.
Asya and Hayat took a break to attend a friend’s wedding at one of the compound’s mosques, stained-glass windows softening the light.
A sound filtered in from a distance: A woman was shouting at a new group of Jewish visitors. — The New York Times