Who are the Murabitat? The women guarding Al-Aqsa Mosque

Israeli security forces detain Palestinian Dania Basem Fudail, believed to belong to a group made up of Islamist women commonly referred to as Murabitat (steadfast). [Getty]
6 min read
14 July, 2021
In-depth: The all-female Murabitat who protect the Islamic holy site often endure a violent backlash from Israeli authorities for their activism.

Several weeks ago, Hanady Halawani was arrested in front of the Al-Aqsa Mosque when she returned to its steps immediately after her six-month ban expired.

This was not an isolated incident, but part of a series of arrests and expulsions that have happened to her more than 60 times.

Halawani is a "Murabita", part of an outlawed group of Muslim women ("Murabitat") with the stated goal of protecting Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites, from right-wing Jewish incursions. She has been labelled by the Israeli press as one of the most dangerous Palestinians in Israel and is top of the list of those banned from Al-Aqsa.

Halawani is one of the dozens of Murabitat who have been banned from Al-Aqsa Mosque. Another well-known activist is Khadija Khuys, who has been arrested outside of Al-Aqsa 28 times. Halawani, Khuys, and other Murabitat have been exposed to numerous violations during detention and captivity.

"Those who practice 'ribat' feel that it is their duty to protect the holy mosque, on behalf of Muslims around the world, from Israeli aggressors"

The history of 'ribat': Protecting Al-Aqsa Mosque

Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem is considered the third holiest site in Sunni Islam, following Masjid al-Haram in Mecca and Al-Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina. Many Muslim Jerusalemites feel the duty to protect this site, an action called "ribat".

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Those who practice 'ribat' feel that it is their duty to protect the holy mosque, on behalf of Muslims around the world, from Israeli aggressors entering with shoes and guns

The concept extends beyond the physical building site, also including the community surrounding the mosque. Therefore, those who protect Al-Aqsa are also concerned with the incursion of settlers in Palestinian neighbourhoods such as Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan. Even when offered prices as high as $1m, homeowners in these areas refuse to sell, as they guard the communities with access to Al-Aqsa.

Israeli security forces detain a Palestinian woman in Sheikh Jarrah, where looming evictions of Palestinian families have fuelled anger, on 15 May, 2021. [Getty]
Israeli security forces detain a Palestinian woman in Sheikh Jarrah, where looming evictions of Palestinian families have fuelled anger, on 15 May, 2021. [Getty]

The original 'ribat'

The first grassroots defence of the mosque began after then-Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon stormed Al-Aqsa with more than 1,000 armed police and soldiers in September 2000, sparking the Second Intifada, also known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada. After this event, locals started organising groups to protect the holy site.

'Ribat' became an organised programme between 2010 - 2015, during which community members organised regular Qur'an reading groups.

By 2014, around 600 Jerusalemite men from many different age groups were engaged in the practice. While most were from the local area, between 20% - 30% of those who take part travel from outside of Jerusalem. Many of them have been arrested and beaten for their activism.

In 2016, it was estimated that around 200 participants, both male and female, guarded Al-Aqsa each morning, with increases on Jewish holidays because of a perceived need for more protection.

"As men were prevented from entering Al-Aqsa, the female Murabitat stepped in to perform the critical role of protecting the holy site"

Why are the Murabitat in the spotlight now?

Israeli authorities have attempted to stop these activities through legal avenues.

In July 2017, Israeli officials forbade Muslim men under the age of fifty from entering the Al-Aqsa courtyard, even for praying. This was under the pretext of high tension on the ground, as violence and protests continued to escalate following Israeli attacks on Palestinian territory.

When this happened, female practitioners, the Murabitat, came to the fore, as, at the time, there were no legal restrictions for them. As men were prevented from entering the grounds of Al-Aqsa, the female Murabitat stepped in to perform the critical role of 'ribat'.

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However, in 2016, the Israeli government published a list of 55 Murabitat who were deemed a negative influence on the community.

The list banned these selected Murabitat from Al-Aqsa Mosque, for periods of time between several months to several years.

What have the Murabitat done recently?

Besides standing guard at Al-Aqsa Mosque to prevent settlers or other groups from entering, Murabitat defend the holy site in spiritual and communal ways.

Halawani and Khuyis take pride in cooking traditional dishes like maqluba for charity and waving Palestinian balloons in solidarity with the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.

A Murabitat reads the Qur'an as a Jewish man walks by near the Al-Aqsa Mosque. [Getty]
A Murabita reads the Qur'an as a Jewish man walks by near the Al-Aqsa Mosque. [Getty]

More conventional forms of action include praying, reading, and teaching the Qur'an.  

The Israeli government considers all of these activities to be subversive and dangerous. And they have become dangerous for the Murabitat too, who can be subjected to violent punishment from Israeli armed police and setters.

Punishments for being a Murabitat

The religious significance in Judaism of the Dome of the Rock, located close to Al-Aqsa, has been used as an excuse for incursions on the Muslim holy site. This has led to violent attempts to suppress 'ribat' through beatings, arrests, and preventing prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, as well as bureaucratic punishments, such as the denial of health insurance to high-profile practitioners.

The Murabitat have been subjected to some of the worst punishments.

Fatima Khedr, a Murabita on Al-Aqsa's "ban list", refers to herself as a "refugee in [her] own country". During Israel’s June 2021 flag march through Jerusalem, Khedr stood on the steps of Al-Aqsa, along with a couple of Murabitat, chanting Palestinian heritage songs.

"I still feel the electricity in my feet from the hundreds of times they have shot me with tasers at Al-Aqsa"

"An Israeli female soldier kept hitting me in my back with the butt of her gun, trying to make me leave," Khedr told The New Arab. "However, I remained in solidarity with Al-Aqsa."

Kheder added that this treatment is nothing compared to what she has endured in the past.

"I still feel the electricity in my feet from the hundreds of times they have shot me with tasers at Al-Aqsa."

Abuse in detention

Khedr, a diabetic woman over 60, suffered immensely when held in police custody for over eight hours with no access to water or a toilet. 

Other Murbitat, such as Halawani and Khuys, report humiliation, as they were forced to remove their veil and conservative Islamic clothing while being recorded.

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Anonymous people have threatened Halawani with videos of her undressing, especially on social media, where they continually mentioned the videos in comments on her pages.

Halawani reported that "many of the Murabitat were prevented from using sanitary towels during menstruation".

When one woman who was imprisoned with Halawani experienced her period during arrest, she was forced to cut a piece of rug from the ground with her teeth to cover herself.

Out of prison, Halawani is facing continuous court orders to prevent her from entering Al-Aqsa. Her latest prohibition order arrived an hour before her exams at Birzeit University.

In the meantime, Halawani has decided to take another route to protect both Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Murabitat. She is studying international law and human rights at Birzeit University in Jerusalem, hoping to fight to protect the protectors of the holy site.

Mariam Elsayeh Ibrahim is a freelance journalist and story producer currently based in the United Kingdom.

Follow her on Twitter: @MariamElsaieh