Arson in broad daylight: Part Two

Jerusalem, 1969 – Denis Michael Rohan, an Australian volunteering on a kibbutz outside Jerusalem, has become unequivocally convinced of his mission to destroy al-Aksa mosque.

A security guard strolls the grounds of al-Aksa mosque (photo credit: REUTERS)
A security guard strolls the grounds of al-Aksa mosque
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Jerusalem, 1969 – Denis Michael Rohan, an Australian volunteering on a kibbutz outside Jerusalem, has become unequivocally convinced of his mission to destroy al-Aksa mosque, clearing the way for the resurrection of the Temple and the welcoming of the Messiah. At this point, all that remains is to execute his plan.
This is the second installment in a three-part series based on the just-published eBook
Jerusalem on Earth: The Post-Six Day War decades.
With the decision to set fire to al-Aksa Mosque now firm in Rohan’s mind, there remained only the question of timing. This was determined the next day outside his hotel, when Rohan ran into the young woman in charge of the volunteers at Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon. She was visiting Jerusalem and would be in the city two more days, she said. Rohan took this as a signal that he had two days to do the deed. In a hardware store, he bought rubber tubing, a funnel and kerosene. Laying these items out on the floor of his hotel room, he photographed them to be able to prove to the world that it was he who destroyed the mosque and that he had done it intentionally and not on a whim. This proof would be necessary if he were to be accepted as the man who would build the Temple and mount the throne of Judah.
He made his initial arson attempt the next night.
The normalcy he found in the hotel lobby the following morning indicated that the attempt had failed. Returning to the mosque, he found only a stain on the carpet just inside the door. As he walked back to his hotel, he concluded that he had failed because he had not rid himself of his worldly goods and put himself entirely at God’s mercy. The $2,000 he had upon his arrival in the country had been going fast in the past few weeks, but he still had several hundred dollars. In the next few days, he spread his money around liberally to children, beggars, mosque guards, and a children’s hospital.
He had another brush with the Israeli police during this period, when he attempted to pass onto the Temple Mount through Moor’s Gate, next to the Western Wall. It was the only gate to the Temple compound whose control was retained by Israel. It was after visiting hours and the Israeli guard refused to let him in.
When Rohan began shouting and refused to leave, a policeman took him into custody and brought him to police headquarters in the Russian Compound downtown.
He did not have his passport with him, and Sgt.
Mordecai Ventura went with him to the Rivoli Hotel to retrieve it. The Australian was obviously unbalanced, and the police saw no reason to press charges.
Planning his next attempt, Rohan spent hours studying the mosque, inside and out. In the huge, almost bare stone interior, it was not clear how a fire could take hold. A pulpit at the front of the mosque was the only combustible item he could see beside the carpets. The beautiful pulpit, made of inlaid cedar wood eight centuries before, had been brought from Syria by Saladin after his army defeated the Crusaders.
It was still used every Friday, when the imam climbed its staircase to preach to the masses filling the mosque. One day, Rohan wandered behind the pulpit and saw that its rear was hollowed out. He had found what he was looking for.
Once again, Rohan began assembling combustibles, including a gallon of benzine and another of kerosene. On Tuesday, August 19, two days before he would make his final attempt, he drafted a telegram to Ambassador College in Pasadena. “Sorry cannot leave.
My father likes Jerusalem now and wishes me to build him a house. Denis M. Rohan, Nahor.” He knew no one at the fundamentalist college but he felt the need to share his mission with someone. He was sure the recipients would understand. In a dictionary of biblical names he had purchased a few days before, he discovered that his name spelled backwards, Nahor, was the same as Abraham’s grandfather, a discovery which reinforced his sense of divine destiny.
That day he wired flowers to his mother in Australia and to Zipporah on the kibbutz, the woman he hoped to marry. To the latter he also dispatched a picture postcard he had bought showing a reconstruction of the Temple. In painstaking Hebrew he wrote “Just patience, dear, and everything will be all right.” He also drafted a letter to his parents. “There is a lot I would like to say but I cannot at present. I have come to understand a lot of things about my life, so much it would fill a dozen books. So have patience, something I had to have for 15 years. Patience.” He would spell out his preparations and feelings in detail at his subsequent trial.
The next day, he appeared at al-Aksa at 8 a.m. to talk to the man who guarded the shoes left at the door by persons entering the mosque, Ibrahim Haluani. The guard was one of the principal beneficiaries of Rohan’s largesse, and he greeted him with an anticipatory grin.
Rohan told him he wanted to take photographs inside the mosque but that there were too many people around. “Between you and me,” said Rohan, “I’ll give you 10 or 20 pounds if you let me come up here tomorrow morning and take some photographs inside the mosque.” It was forbidden to take pictures there without special permission from the Muslim authorities.
Haluani, however, said it would be all right. Rohan returned later that day and slipped him 10 pounds. “I hope there will be no other guards around tomorrow morning so I can take photographs.”
“If God wills it,” said Haluani, “it will be all right.” In his hotel room, Rohan photographed his arson equipment and telephoned the desk clerk to request a wakeup call at 5:45. He rose earlier because of the excitement and packed the equipment into a knapsack.
He tied a sweater to the outside of the pack to emphasize its innocent character. He was too impatient to wait for breakfast and was out of the hotel by 6 a.m.
He put on sunglasses and a brimless Israeli hat, and draped his camera slung around his neck.
He had picked this day for his attempt because it was the seventh day of the month by the Hebrew calendar and August 21 – a multiple of seven. Rohan knew seven as “the perfect number” and saw this coincidence as portentous.
He reached Lion’s Gate at 6:15 and sat down to wait for the gates to the Temple Mount to open at 7. At 6:30, Haluani came through on his way to the mosque. “Hello,” said the guard. “Are you coming to the mosque later? I came early especially for you.” Rohan assured him he would be along.
Inside the mosque, the night watchman, Haj Russul, opened the front door at 6:45, just as Haluani came up. Haj Russul was surprised to see Haluani so early.
The two men chatted awhile, and then the watchman asked Haluani to keep an eye on things while he, Haj Russul, went to the toilet. Instead of returning to the mosque immediately, the watchman took advantage of Haluani’s presence to go to the watchman’s room at the rear of the mosque to tidy up. Haluani, whose official duties went no further than guarding the shoes and providing shawls to bare-shouldered women entering the mosque, was thus in sole charge of the mosque when Rohan arrived. Rohan had entered the Temple Mount promptly at 7, when tickets began to be sold to non-Muslims. The mosque itself, however, was not open to non-Muslims before 8. The compound seemed empty except for three men sitting under a tree and smoking. As he approached the mosque, he saw Haluani sweeping at the entrance. Rohan paused and pretended to take a picture. Haluani signaled with his head for him to enter.
As the Australian reached the door, an old Arab woman whom he had not seen before went in first.
Haluani pointed at Rohan’s shoes and told him to take them off. To shield the tourist’s presence from passersby, he told him place the shoes inside the door rather than outside.
Rohan entered the mosque and strode quickly in his stocking feet across the carpeted floor. In the narrow space between the pulpit and the rear wall, he lowered his knapsack and undid its straps. The two containers with flammables were wrapped in old clothing. He set them on the floor and photographed them. Glancing up, he saw someone watching him from the shadows. It was the old woman. She was either praying or muttering to herself, but she was looking straight at him. He pointed his camera at her and she turned away.
Quickly wrapping one end of a scarf around the handle of the container holding the kerosene, he placed it in the hollowed-out space at the rear of the pulpit. He unscrewed the cap on the other container and saturated the scarf with benzine. He then took another photograph of the containers. Stuffing the clothes back into the haversack, he struck a match and lit the end of the scarf.
SHEIKH JOUDE EL-ANSARI, the Wakf official responsible for the mosque’s security arrangements, arrived outside the doors at 7:15, wearing his red fez and carrying a walking stick. His family had been in charge of guarding al-Aksa for 1,300 years, and the stout sheikh moved with the majesty of a personage responsible for what he would describe as “the first light of Islam.”
The sheikh was surprised to see Haluani, who normally arrived only at 8. “Salaam Aleikum,” said Sheikh Joude. “May God give health to all who serve this place.” He had expected to be met by the night watchman.
Haluani told him where he had gone. He did not tell him of the tourist he had let in. Sheikh Joude looked through the doorway as he talked to Haluani, who busied himself sweeping. Rohan, who was behind the pulpit, could not be seen in the vast interior divided by lines of columns, and Haluani prayed that he would stay out of sight. He was relieved when the sheikh turned his back on the mosque interior and continued his monologue as he surveyed the Temple Mount, his hands clasped behind his back. Sheikh Joude enjoyed talking, and Haluani had learned not to interrupt him when he was in full stride.
Inside the mosque, Rohan moved toward the doorway at a trot, slowing down to a walk as he neared it.
He thrust his feet into his shoes inside the door but did not stop to lace them. Looking outside, he was surprised to see the stout Arab with the red fez who had once caught him sleeping inside the mosque.
The priest, as Rohan thought of him, had at that time pulled out a pocket watch to indicate that it was closing time. Taking the hint, Rohan had left. Now, Rohan paused for a moment, but with the fire kindled behind him, he could not wait.
Sheikh Joude was flabbergasted at the emergence from the mosque of a foreigner with a knapsack on his back. “Why is this man here?” he shouted at Haluani.
“Why did you let him in?” He pulled out his pocket watch like a seal of office and again held it up to Rohan. “It’s only 7:15,” he said in Arabic. “It’s not yet time.” As he looked more closely at Rohan, he recognized him as the foreigner who had been appearing at the mosque every day for weeks. A few days before, Sheikh Joude had said to one of his assistants, “What does this man want here?” Noticing the camera around Rohan’s neck now, Sheikh Joude shouted at the stricken Haluani: “This man has been taking photographs from the inside. You know it is forbidden.”
Rohan pulled out a 10-pound bill and offered it to Haluani, who stepped back as if horrified. Rohan then offered the bill to Sheikh Joude, who likewise demurred. Rohan would later contend that he had in previous weeks left gratuities in Sheikh Joude’s hand several times. “Thanks for letting me take the photographs,” said Rohan. “Goodbye.” He moved off toward the Temple Mount gates, trying to restrain himself from running.
Sheikh Joude stepped inside the mosque to see if someone else might be lurking there. Something at the far end caught his eye. It was the glow of a small fire in the pulpit. Turning toward the fast-retreating figure of Rohan, he shouted, “Stop that man, stop that man.” Sheikh Joude’s cry terrified Rohan, even though he could not understand the words. It was a sound so agonized that he thought it might be the voice of Satan himself. He continued walking for about 10 yards and then could control himself no longer. Breaking into a run, he reached the nearest gate, only to find it closed. He ran toward the gate he had entered 20 minutes before. Covering his face with his arms he dashed past the startled ticket seller and on through Lion’s Gate, 100 yards beyond, to exit the Old City. He turned left up an embankment into a Muslim cemetery just outside the city wall, where he stripped off his knapsack and threw it behind a cactus bush. At the far end of the cemetery, a staircase led down to a main street where Rohan hailed an Arab taxi. It took him to Jerusalem’s central bus station, on the Jewish side of the city. From the little money remaining to him, he bought a ticket to Tel Aviv. A bus was just backing out of the bay as Rohan reached it. He rapped on the door, and the driver let him in. Breathlessly, he sank into a seat. As the bus headed down the winding road through the Judean Hills, Rohan leaned back and smiled a beatific smile.
He had looked back before leaving the mosque and seen the flames taking hold. This time, he had done the deed.
SHEIKH JOUDE had thought the fire small enough to be easily contained, but when he ran to the pulpit to stamp out the flames he realized he was badly mistaken. Opening the nearby door to the watchman’s room, he saw Haj Russul and shouted to him to bring water. As the horrified watchman ran toward the burning pulpit with a jar of water from his room, the sheikh shouted at him: “Why did you leave the entrance? Why weren’t you at the door?” The watchman flung the water, without any effect. The two men began rolling up the prayer rugs nearby.
Outside, Haluani had ignored the sheikh’s order to chase Rohan and had wisely run instead to the Israeli guards at nearby Moor’s Gate to have them call for help. Contact was first made with the east Jerusalem firehouse. Its contingent, all Arabs, had constituted the fire department of Jordanian Jerusalem before the war and been incorporated into the Israeli fire department serving the expanded city. When their trucks drove onto the Temple Mount they found the fire already out of control.
Jerusalem fire chief Avraham Lieberman, summoned to the scene, quickly realized that the fire was endangering not only a major holy place but the underpinnings of the tenuous coexistence that had been achieved in the city in the past two years. He put in a succession of calls to the Jewish fire stations in west Jerusalem and the Arab fire departments in surrounding towns like Bethlehem and Ramallah. As the fire spread, he issued urgent calls to fire departments as far away as the suburbs of Tel Aviv, 50 miles away. Sixteen fire companies in all were to become involved.
Arab residents of the Old City poured onto the Temple Mount and milled in frenzy as they watched smoke and flames coming through the roof of the mosque with its silver dome. Men, women and children ran to the mosque with pails of water. A sense of mass hysteria gripped the crowd as young men emerged from the mosque carrying charred pieces of the pulpit and shouting “Allahu Akbar [God is Great]” and “Down with Israel.”
A rumor spread that the Israeli firemen were spraying gasoline onto the fire through their hoses. Some had the hoses seized from their hands and some were beaten. The police were hard put to keep the crowd under control. At one of the gates to the Temple Mount, a mob rushed a small group of military policemen and was stopped only by shots fired in the air. Arab youths surged through the alleys of the Old City shouting “God is great.”
It was almost noon before the flames were extinguished.
Most of the mosque remained intact but its front was a smoldering ruin. Prime minister Golda Meir, looking shocked, arrived to express her condolences to Muslim leaders, who received her with frozen faces. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan said he hoped no human hand had been involved in the fire, but if it had been deliberately set, those responsible would be apprehended. Later in the day, the cabinet met in special session and appointed a committee to investigate the cause of the fire.
The final installment of “The man who torched al-Aksa mosque” will appear on October 3.