They are known as the Morabitat and are revered by Muslims as guardians of al-Aqsa Mosque. Israeli officials see them as provocateurs who “harass” Jewish visitors at Jerusalem’s sensitive holy site.
A group of about 20 women sit in the shade on plastic chairs on a hot summer day outside the doors of al-Aqsa Mosque, located on what is known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary, and to Jews as the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Most of them are traditional and conservative Palestinians in their 50s and 60s, residents of East Jerusalem.
The women converge on the mosque every day from early morning until afternoon.
Their daily presence over several years has earned them the name of Morabitat, Arabic for female sentinels or guards of the holy place.
Apart from performing daily prayers, the women perched on their chairs keep a lookout for any suspicious developments on what is perhaps the world’s most sensitive site.
When they see Jewish extremists walking around the plaza or trying to perform Jewish rituals, they follow them or interrupt them with chants of “Allahu Akbar” (God is great).
Jews have condemned what they call heckling and harassment.
Under a decades-old status quo agreement, Jews have a right to visit, but not pray on the platform, which houses not only the Aqsa Mosques and Dome of the Rock shrine, but also the ruins of the Biblical Jewish Temple.
Some extremist Jews publicly call for the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple, feeding into Muslim suspicions.
The Israeli government has vowed to uphold the status quo and has accused Muslim officials of fuelling tensions by spreading rumours of Israeli plans to take over the site.
Confrontations between the Morabitat and Jewish visitors have often deteriorated into trading insults, pushing and sometimes spitting.
These exchanges have increased over the September-October Jewish holiday season with increased Jewish visits. There have been confrontations between Israeli police and masked Muslim youths, who have pelted visitors and their police escort from inside the mosque with stones and firecrackers.
General tensions in Jerusalem have been rising with every month that has passed since the collapse of the peace process in April 2014.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has responded to an increase in the throwing of rocks and Molotov cocktails by Palestinians throughout the city, including at Israeli motorists, by vowing to ease the regulations governing when police may open fire.
Israel’s defence minister earlier this month declared the Morabitat – and the Morabitoun, a similar group of male Muslims – illegal organizations, which would give the police the right to arrest them and the courts to sentence them to prison or banish them from the compound.
The police also compiled a list of about 50 Palestinian women they describe as “troublemakers,” who are banned from entering the compound.
“We come here every day to make sure that no harm falls on our mosque,” said one of the Morabitat, who identified herself as Um Badr.
The 62-year-old woman with a head covering said she was pushed and beaten several times by the Israeli police for trying to get into the mosque during times the police had declared the site off limits to Palestinian women.
Police sometimes limit entry into the compound for fear of unrest, allowing in no Jews at all and imposing age or gender entry restrictions on Muslims.
“This is our mosque and we have the right to come and pray here whenever we want,” she insisted. “Nothing will stop us.”
“The word Morabitoun has religious connotations,” said Safwan Amr, 21, one of the young male Morabitoun, in defence of his group.
“Israel wants to label us as troublemakers or terrorists, trying to incite violence in this holy place, while all we do is protect it from outsiders who want to change its character as a Muslim-only holy place,” he insisted.
“We do not trust the intentions of the Israelis who publicly announce that they want to destroy our mosques and build their temple in their place,” said the journalism student, who was arrested and banned from entering the mosque area for 21 days last year.
Muslims revere the location as the site where their Prophet Mohammed landed on his horse after being transported from Mecca and then ascended to heaven in what is known in Islam as al-Isra wal Miraj.
“They want to take our most sacred place from us,” said another of the Morabitat, who dentified herself as Um al-Abed, 65. “They will never succeed as long as we are alive,” she said.
Her husband and sons do not want her to come to the mosque for fear she could be harmed by the police.
“I do not listen to them and I will continue to be here as long as it is necessary. Nothing will stop me,” she said.