Jerusalem - Under a leaden sky, worshippers pour out of the Lion's Gate after Friday prayers at al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
From a distance, Zeina Amro watches the exodus. Once, she was a teacher and guide inside al-Aqsa; now, she cannot legally step onto the premises of Islam's third holiest site.
For months, Amro and dozens of other men and women have been banned from visiting the mosque amid a crackdown by Israeli authorities on the Mourabitoun and their female equivalents, the Mourabitat. The groups, who characterise themselves as al-Aqsa's defenders, have publicly sparred with police-flanked Jewish settlers at the compound, amid fears that Israel is angling to partition the site and diminish its Islamic character. Last year, Israel outlawed the groups, blaming them for a crescendo of violence in Jerusalem that has reverberated throughout the occupied West Bank.
"I've been arrested from my home, from the compound gates. I've been beaten in the face, interrogated - but being banned is the worst punishment," Amro, clad in a pale pink hijab and black button-up coat, told Al Jazeera.
"This place is part of me, of who I am. It helps me get closer to God. This is the harshest punishment."
Before the ban, Amro, 50, spent her days praying, teaching and studying inside al-Aqsa. The compound has always been a part of her life: She grew up among its ancient stonework and distinctive mosaics and sent her four sons and two daughters to school inside its walls. Amro's husband studies the site professionally, and she used to organise tours to enlighten visitors about the compound's rich history.
Amro believes that any Muslim who visits al-Aqsa is part of the Mourabitoun or Mourabitat, but the core group, comprised of hundreds of men and women who maintain a regular presence at the compound, has been in place for around five years. In the beginning, Amro says, they received a small amount of funding from an NGO linked to the since-outlawed northern branch of the Islamic Movement, but they now work on a strictly volunteer basis.
“The thousands of people who just left the mosque are Mourabitoun, because they are connected to the religion and follow it” - Zeina Amro
"The thousands of people who just left the mosque are Mourabitoun, because they are connected to the religion and follow it," Amro said, gesturing towards the stream of worshippers exiting through the Lion's Gate. "But the occupation forces use the term to try to make this seem negative, problematic, outside the law. We reject that."
Amro instead lays the blame for the recent surge in violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank on the Jewish settlers who have increasingly attempted to enter the compound with the escort of armed guards.
Many Muslims fear that there is an active attempt by Israel to change the status quo at al-Aqsa, which Jews refer to as the Temple Mount. It is viewed as one of the holiest sites in Judaism, and some Jews have openly expressed a desire to build the Third Temple on its grounds. Non-Muslim prayer has been formally banned at the compound for centuries, with specific hours in the mornings and afternoons set aside for other visitors.
"The entry of settlers into al-Aqsa is inciteful; this is what causes problems," Amro said. "If you come in [flanked by security forces], you are coming to fight. You are coming for battle. All we do is call out 'Allahu akbar' ['God is great']."
Israeli police have defended the practice of offering escorts, citing a threat to Jewish visitors and tourists by "provocative" members of the Mourabitoun and Mourabitat who "harass and, at times, even attack visitors".
Orly Benny Davis, an activist and member of the Temple Mount movement, which advocates for Jewish prayer at the compound, told Al Jazeera that all religious groups must learn "to share the space". But in recent months, hardline right-wing Zionist groups have called for an outright takeover of al-Aqsa, offering to financially compensate Jews detained while praying at the compound and advocating to tear down al-Qibli Mosque to make way for the Third Temple. Israeli Deputy Minister Tzipi Hotovely has referred to the compound as "the centre of Israeli sovereignty".
Such developments have strengthened fears over a divided al-Aqsa, said Umm Abdullah, a Mourabitat member who spoke to Al Jazeera from under the brilliant mosaic of red, gold and green tiles inside the Dome of the Rock. And there is precedent for such a model: After the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre in 1994, Israel split the mosque between Muslims and Jews, leaving Muslims with less than half of the sacred space. Many are concerned that this is also the ultimate plan for al-Aqsa.
"They want to divide al-Aqsa between us and them. They want to take it away. But al-Aqsa is for us; it's our place," Umm Abdullah said, speaking under a pseudonym for fear of legal repercussions.
With dozens of other Mourabitat members banned from the compound, Umm Abdullah worries she could one day suffer the same fate. In the meantime, she says she will continue her regular meetings inside the Dome of the Rock, praying and reading the Quran alongside the other women there. When she witnesses Jewish settlers violating the rules around prayer in al-Aqsa, "we will kick them out or attack them", she added.
“My role in protecting al-Aqsa is my presence” - Umm Abdullah
"My role in protecting al-Aqsa is my presence. Every time we hear there is a threat, or if al-Aqsa is empty, we come and sit to show them we are here all the time," Umm Abdullah said. "Our presence is protection."
Although religion is ostensibly at the heart of the battle over al-Aqsa, the roots of the conflict are actually much deeper. For decades, Palestinians have been living under occupation, watching as their land has been annexed, their homes destroyed, and their relatives killed or expelled from the country. Amid this backdrop, the seizure or division of one of their holiest sites would be intolerable, said Najeh Daoud Bkerat, the Jerusalem-based properties director for the Waqf, the Islamic authority that manages al-Aqsa.
Bkerat, who holds a PhD in the history of Jerusalem and teaches at al-Quds University, chronicled a list of assaults on al-Aqsa's status quo dating back decades, as Israeli forces gradually built up a security presence at the compound and increasingly restricted access for Palestinian worshippers. Among the most deadly attacks was the 1990 massacre known as Black Monday, when Israeli police killed 20 Palestinians who protested an attempt by Jewish activists to lay a cornerstone for the Third Temple inside al-Aqsa compound.
More recently, as tensions have ramped up between settler groups and Palestinian worshippers at the site, Israeli police have repeatedly stormed the compound, causing damage to al-Qibli Mosque's interior by firing "bombs, bullets and tear gas". Security forces have also tread with heavy boots on the red-and-gold carpets of the prayer spaces, where shoes are not allowed, according to Islamic traditions.
"The files on the attacks by Israelis at the compound are endless," Bkerat told Al Jazeera from his office on the compound's edge, as the golden Dome of the Rock, visible through his open window, glinted in the afternoon sun.
Since Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967, there have been more than 1,700 cases of attacks or destruction of property at the compound, Bkerat said - in addition to countless assaults on individuals, including arrests, beatings and restraining orders.
"This has developed from initially requesting to enter to enabling them to carry out Jewish prayers and ceremonies, and develops from there to the demolition of al-Aqsa to enable the construction of the Third Temple," Bkerat said, noting that he believes Israel's crackdown against the Mourabitoun and Mourabitat is simply the latest manifestation of its larger goal to suffocate the Palestinian presence at the compound.
In this respect, the Israelis are "playing with fire", he added.
“Without a solution for Palestinians in Jerusalem, there will never be silence. There will never be a broader solution” - Najeh Daoud Bkerat
"Without a solution for Palestinians in Jerusalem, there will never be silence. There will never be a broader solution," Bkerat said. "The occupation attempts to make it seem like a religious war, but actually, it is a conflict over rights … When you take away my rights, if you try to stop me from the right of worship in my own mosque, it means you are trying to ignite war."
Nitham Abu Ramouz is among those who have been prevented from worshipping at al-Aqsa. The 33-year-old resident of Silwan, a neighbourhood in occupied East Jerusalem, has been part of the Mourabitoun for around three years, and during that time, he has had three separate restraining orders issued against him. "[This is because] when the settlers enter al-Aqsa, we call out 'Allahu akbar,'" Abu Ramouz told Al Jazeera. He is still banned today, but he goes as close as he can, praying outside the compound gates on a regular basis.
"It is our holy place. We have to protect it from attacks. It is part of our faith and connection; it would be a disaster if we didn't protect it," Abu Ramouz said. "Despite being beaten, arrested and taken to court, we will keep protecting [al-Aqsa]."
He expressed concern about the methods Israel has used in attempting to change the status quo, including offering tours to settlers and visitors in which "they don't talk about al-Aqsa Mosque compound, but they talk about the Temple Mount. So they change all the landmarks and history."
Yet, despite the physical assaults by Israeli security forces on al-Aqsa over the years, members of the Mourabitoun have never turned their backs on the site, Abu Ramouz added - and he believes this has stopped the Israelis from going further.
"Presence is the most important thing, not only on Fridays, but on a daily basis. Instead of sitting at a cafe, they can come. I send my wife and children twice a week to al-Aqsa Mosque compound," he said. "We want people to be stronger and stop allowing the breaching into it. Despite how we have been and will be punished, we need to continue; it is not enough."
Meanwhile, back at the Lion's Gate, Zeina Amro says she cannot imagine her future without al-Aqsa at its heart. She acknowledged that the threat to Islam's third holiest site would not be contained by "a few women or men doing study groups", but she remains eager to get back inside to do her part, shepherding students and visitors around the compound and conveying tales of the mosque's past and present to anyone who will listen.
"This is what I love," Amro said. "Al-Aqsa is part of my religion, my holy book, the Quran. I spent so much time [here] and was raised here. It needs me the same way I need it.
"It is everything to me," she added quietly. "It is my whole life."