Protests and riots erupted in East Jerusalem, the Israeli Arab town of Nazareth and in Gaza and the West Bank in reaction to salvage excavations by the Israel Antiquity Authority in preparation for the construction of a ramp at one of the entrances to the Muslim holy sites at Aksa compound in Jeruslem.
The protests, which largely took place on February 9, 2007, and which also spread to other Muslim countries, were the result of a concerted effort to use Al Aksa to stir tension in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza and the Muslim world in general.
Prior to the protests Muslim religious leaders, including the top Palestinian Authority-appointed officials and leaders of the Islamic movement in Israel, called for Muslims to rally to "protect" Al Aksa.
Their alarmist and unfounded charges that the excavations were part of a plot against the mosque were echoed throughout the Arab and Muslim media. Unfounded claims that "the Jews are again plotting to destroy Al Aksa" were frequently heard from protestors and Islamic religious and political leaders, and were echoed in the Muslim and Arab press, which published cartoons suggesting a Jewish effort to undermine the Al Aksa Mosque compound.
Some of the fallout through February 2007 included:
According to a BBC report from February 9, "almost every Arab newspaper published in the last three days has carried warnings over the Israeli excavations around Al Aksa, citing Israel's intention to 'destroy' it and calling for its protection."
- The Israeli excavations near Al Aksa was one of the main subjects in Arab newspapers.
- Numerous demonstrations were held to protest the excavations. In Amman, Jordan, the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, held a protest February 23 during which masked men burned Israeli flags. In Tehran, Iran, students rallied in front of the British Embassy both in support of the Iranian nuclear program and to protest the excavations in Jerusalem. The protesters burned British, Israeli and American flags and chanted "Death to America" and "death to Israel." In Indian Kashmir, the militant Jamiat-ul-Mujahideen sponsored a protest on February 16 that turned violent.
- The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) held a special meeting in Saudi Arabia February 22 to discuss the excavations in Jerusalem, during which foreign ministers of its member states took turns condemning Israel and pledging their countries' support for the Palestinians. The OIC issued a new condemnation of Israel and, three days later, the OIC chair, Malaysia, proposed that all Muslim countries sever their ties with Israel.
- Sheik Raad Salah, leader of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, emerged as the main source behind the incitement campaign, which made him a pan-Islamic celebrity. During his Friday sermon at a protest in Jerusalem, he called for a new intifada, or uprising against Israel, and made a statement that has echoes of the anti-Semitic Blood Libel. The Israeli police opened an investigation against Salah for inciting violence.
- A threat against Jewish places of worship was issued by an Islamist terror organization that is active in southern Russian republic of Dagestan, near Chechnya.
- At a February 25 meeting in Cairo, King Abdullah II of Jordan and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, "renewed their condemnations of the Israeli excavation work near Al Aksa Mosque and urged the Israeli authorities to immediately halt these excavations," according to the Jordan News Agency.
The charge that Israel is plotting to destroy Al Aksa mosque to build a Jewish temple has been used by the Palestinians as a tactic to mobilize popular outrage against Israel for decades. This recent campaign of incitement started under different pretexts, weeks before the start of the current construction.
The riot and incitement were accompanied by attacks against Israeli cities near the Gaza strip and by threats of more violence to come. On February 8, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) claimed responsibility for firing six rockets at an Israeli border crossing station. Two days earlier it fired two rockets; one hit a medical clinic at a Kibbutz in Israel's south. The PIJ said the attacks were in response to Israeli excavations in Jerusalem.
In addition, a Fatah-affiliated group, the Yasir Arafat Brigades, claimed responsibility for attacks on Israeli towns, which it dedicated "for you, O Al Aksa." The Fatah Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades threatened to carry out attacks against Jewish synagogues if the work continued, and Hamas leaders in Damascus and Gaza also threaten large scale escalation of violence.
High level officials and governments throughout the Arab and Muslim world added their voices in protesting against Israel, elevating the hysteria to an international crisis. The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) issued a condemnation against Israel for what it called "heinous aggressions." The foreign minister of Iran requested that the OIC -- which was established in 1969 in response to an alleged attack "by Zionist elements against Al Aksa Mosque" and which has 57 member states -- convene for an emergency session "to organize and coordinate a reaction towards the Zionist regime's actions."
Most notable were statements by Iranian leaders. On February 7, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, met with Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, PIJ secretary general. At the meeting, according to Teheran Times, Khamenei "urged all Muslims to seriously respond to the Zionist regime's disrespectful action, saying that the Islamic world's reaction "should make the Zionist regime regret its offensive act."