The man who torched al-Aksa Moaque: Part III

Australian volunteer Denis Rohan succeeded in setting fire to al-Aksa Mosque on August 21, 1969, and fleeing Jerusalem.

Denis Rohan, who succeeded in setting fire to al-Aksa Mosque, is being led by police to his trial in Jerusalem (photo credit: JERUSALEM POST ARCHIVE)
Denis Rohan, who succeeded in setting fire to al-Aksa Mosque, is being led by police to his trial in Jerusalem
Even before the flames were extinguished, a special police investigation team headed by Asst.-Cmdr. Zelig Meyer had been set up. The political implications of the fire were enormous. It had become a top national priority to establish quickly whether arson was involved and, if it was, to apprehend those responsible.
The Muslim world, and much of the non-Muslim world as well, took it as a matter of course that Israel was behind the fire – if not for Messianic reasons, then as a crude attempt to persuade the Arabs to leave. Cries of jihad were already being heard from across the borders. To Israelis, an act of provocation by Arab militants seemed the most likely explanation, but the involvement of Jewish extremists or madmen was not ruled out.
Fire Investigators found material impregnated with kerosene behind the pulpit, which had evidently been the focus of the fire. Police fanned out across east Jerusalem, and by mid-afternoon mosque guard Ibrahim Haluani and the ticket seller from whom Rohan purchased his ticket at the Temple Mount were in headquarters to assist a police artist in compiling an identikit portrait of the man that mosque officials said had fled the scene.
Police Cpl. Gabriel Moshez saw one of the portraits being circulated in headquarters that evening at 8. The Israeli police were just beginning to use identikit portraits and he was curious to see what one looked like. His casual glance soon took on focus.
The portrait strongly resembled the strange Australian brought to headquarters two weeks before after his altercation with the guards at Moor’s Gate. Moshez had talked to him at the time and found it odd that someone would take a whip-dagger onto the Temple Mount.
The policeman didn’t remember the tourist’s name, and Sgt. Ventura, who had questioned him, was off duty. Moshez took a copy of the portrait and drove to Ventura’s home. The sergeant immediately recalled Rohan’s name. Back at headquarters, Moshez pulled the file on Rohan and saw the name of the Rivoli Hotel. With three patrolmen, the corporal proceeded there.
The desk clerk was startled when the policemen entered. “Stand here and don’t move,” said Moshez. “And don’t answer the telephone.” He showed the clerk Rohan’s portrait.
“Is this person staying in the hotel?” asked the policeman.
The desk clerk thought it looked like the guest in room 107 but felt it wiser not to say so. The hotel proprietor likewise feared becoming involved in a police matter; he said he did not recognize the portrait or the name. The policemen carried out a quick search of all the rooms and scanned the faces of guests present. One of the policemen checked the hotel register as far back as the 15th of the month, the day Rohan had been arrested at Moor’s Gate. When he didn’t find the name, he presumed Rohan had registered under an alias.
Having drawn a blank, Moshez drove to Ventura’s home and returned to the hotel with the sergeant. Ventura remembered the room to which he had gone with the Australian to get his passport.
He asked the proprietor to come along and witness the search. In a drawer, Ventura found several documents with Rohan’s name and a small passport photo of him. A policeman checking a closet found two bottles.
“Smell these,” he said. Moshez smelt a faint odor of kerosene. Another policeman held up two stubs of tickets for entry to al-Aksa mosque.
A policeman was posted in the room and plainclothesmen were positioned in the lobby and outside the hotel in case Rohan should return.
Ventura submitted his findings to Asst.-Cmdr.
Meyer. On the reverse of one of Rohan’s papers was scrawled the name of Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon. The investigators sent a telex message to Netanya police headquarters asking whether an Australian named Denis Michael Rohan could be located at the nearby kibbutz.
It was almost dark and the officer who received the message, unaware of Rohan’s suspected connection with the fire in Jerusalem, decided to wait until morning before dispatching a patrol car.
ARTHUR JONES heard of the al-Aksa fire from one of the other volunteers, who had picked it up on the English- language news program after their return from a tour of the Jordan Valley organized for them by the kibbutz. It was an incredible piece of news. After dinner in the communal dining room, Jones and his roommate were returning to their quarters when they heard someone approaching fast on the path behind them. Jones turned and saw Rohan emerging from the darkness.
“Erev tov,” said Rohan – good evening, in Hebrew. In view of their previous conversations, Rohan was the person Jones most wanted to tell the astonishing news about the fire at al-Aksa.
“Did you hear that the mosque burnt down?” asked Jones.
“It did?” said Rohan, who appeared to be in a state of excitement. “Look, I have something to tell you, and I want to talk to you alone.”
Jones’s roommate excused himself, and the pair went to Jones’s room. As soon as the door was shut, Rohan said “I did it.”
“You did what?” asked Jones.
“I did it,” said Rohan. “I burnt the mosque.”
Jones was stunned. As shocking as Rohan’s statement was, he instinctively knew it to be true.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Denis,” he said.
“You might say I bought if off them,” continued Rohan.
“You know the thousand dollars I had? It cost me that. I spread it around to guards and to the ones I felt I should.”
Rohan told how he had risen that morning with a feeling of excitement. “I knew this was the day; it was finally here.” He told of the signs he had received from God and of his previous arson attempt. He described in detail how he set the fire that morning.
“I’ve got film, I can prove it,” said Rohan excitedly.
“Do you believe I did it?” “Yes, I believe you,” said the American divinity student.
“I will remain silent until I have learned what to say and what position to take on this.”
Jaunty now, Rohan said he was considering his next move. “I may just walk into the police station in Jerusalem and say ‘Boker tov’ [good morning] boys.”
In any case, Rohan would spend the night at the kibbutz.
Before taking the bus to the kibbutz that evening, he had waited at Netanya’s bus station until the bus that usually carried Zipporah (the woman on the kibbutz whom he hoped to marry) arrived from the kibbutz.
He photographed it from a distance – a link in the chain of evidence he was building up to justify his claim to the throne of Judah – and to Zipporah. When he reached the kibbutz, he removed the film and hung the camera on the branch of a tree. He had no more need of it.
Jones woke shortly after dawn as usual and went to work in the fields with the other volunteers for two hours before going to the dining hall for breakfast. Rohan came in shortly afterwards and sat down next to him. When someone at the table took out a cigarette and looked around for a light, Rohan took a box of matches from his pocket and offered it to him.
“Funny I should have these with me,” he said, smiling at Jones. “I don’t smoke.”
The Netanya police arrived shortly afterwards and quickly located Rohan. He seemed to be expecting them and went along willingly. Within two hours he was in Jerusalem police headquarters, where Meyer and the commander of the Jerusalem police district, David Ofer, were waiting for him in an interrogation room. The two veteran policemen started in low gear, avoiding any mention of the fire. They asked Rohan for his passport and then matter-of-factly asked how he had spent his time since arriving in the country. He described his activities until his stay at the Rivoli Hotel.
Finally Meyer asked, “What did you do yesterday?” “I got up in the morning and went and set fire to the al-Aksa Mosque,” said Rohan.
“Stop,” barked Ofer.
Rohan was asked whether he was prepared to make a written statement. He readily agreed. The statement noted that he had been informed that he was not obliged to say anything unless he chose and that whatever he did say would be recorded in writing and given in evidence. Rohan signed and then began to tell his story to the police stenographer.
The trial got under way less than two months later despite the complex preparations involved. It was urgent for the government to show the world that the fire had been set by a demented Christian tourist and not an Israeli.
The arson fed ingrained fears in the Muslim world that the Zionists were determined not only to conquer Palestine but to build an empire stretching from the Euphrates to the Nile and to displace or subjugate the Arabs. Repercussions were already widespread. A special summit meeting of 25 Islamic nations in Rabat, Morocco, condemned the sacrilege “perpetrated under Israeli occupation” and the Arab Defense Council scheduled a meeting to discuss “mobilization of Arab resources against Israeli aggression.” In Saudi Arabia, King Faisal ordered his armed forces to stand by for a holy war to liberate Jerusalem. Widespread loss of life was reported in India in Muslim riots. Press reports spoke of 5,000 dead. General strikes were declared in Pakistan and in Manila a crowd of Muslim youths tore down the Israeli flag in front of the embassy. Iraq announced the execution of 15 “Israeli and American spies.” In Indonesia, a former prime minister told the press that Israel had long planned to get rid of the mosque and build a Jewish temple.
The most grievous impact, however, was close to home. East Jerusalem and the other territories captured in the Six Day War seethed with fury certain to vent itself in increased disturbances and terrorist action unless the belief in a Zionist arson plot was quickly refuted. A significant political setback had already occurred in east Jerusalem, where Arabs who had agreed to run for the city council in the upcoming municipal elections renounced their candidacy, establishing a pattern of non-participation that would leave the council without Arab representation in the coming decades. Any hope of eventual accommodation with the Arab world was lost unless Israel could prove beyond doubt that it was not behind the attack on al-Aksa.
THE TRIAL was held in a hall at Jerusalem’s convention center, Binyenei Ha’uma, in order to accommodate the foreign press and diplomatic corps. Adolf Eichmann had been tried in another Jerusalem hall eight years before. Like Eichmann, Rohan was seated in a bullet-proof glass enclosure on the stage with a headset to hear simultaneous translation from Hebrew and Arabic. The three-man Jerusalem District Court bench was headed by a crusty British-born judge, Henry Baker, who handled his court with a firm hand and an acerbic wit. The prosecution was led by the state’s chief legal officer, attorney-general Meir Shamgar. Defending Rohan was the head of the Israel Bar Association, Tel Aviv lawyer Yitzhak Tunik.
The seven-week trial of Denis Michael Rohan on charges of arson and violation of a holy place would provide a fascinating insight into the workings of psychosis.
Each of the actors in the drama, taking their place on the courtroom stage, was a clearly drawn character: the imperturbable Sheikh Joude pulling his pocket watch out of his flowing robes at every opportunity to show how he had asked Rohan what he was doing at the mosque at such an hour; the upright Arthur Jones declining to be sworn in (“I don’t take an oath but I always tell the truth”); the regal Zipporah, whom Rohan would have made queen of Judea, wavering between bemusement and bewilderment as she tried to describe the behavior of her strange student.
For Rohan, the trial was clearly the climax of his life.
He sat in Jerusalem before the judges of Israel with the world’s representatives in the press section hanging on his every word. He knew that when the evidence was laid before them they would recognize who he was.
“My trial is the most important event for the world since the trial of Jesus Christ,” he told a psychiatrist who visited him in his cell. When his lawyer said something in the courtroom out of hearing, Rohan would wave him to the microphone so that the remark could enter the official record. He himself would regularly pause even in the midst of the most emotional testimony – a searing account of his nervous breakdown, for instance – in order to let the translators catch up.
“I’m not afraid of this trial,” he said in court. “I know I won’t be found guilty.”
The Dostoyevskian tale of a tortured soul was portrayed against the open landscape of Australia. His father was described by psychiatrists as a stern man free with the strap, his mother as a cold, rejecting personality who had spent time in a mental home. One of his four sisters was in such a home, and his brother had not been seen for many years. A psychiatrist told how Rohan’s first-grade teacher would punish him by making him climb into a tall wicker basket and having the other children file by and look at him. Even though he was of normal intelligence, he became the classroom butt and then the village fool.
As an adult, he was not a total recluse. He played cards Saturday nights in the sheep-shearing sheds (“I was regarded as a clean shearer but not very fast”) and attended village dances. However, Rohan’s marriage, which went bad on the wedding night, tipped him over the edge.
His performance on the witness stand was uncanny.
Mocked as a fool throughout his life, he stood up to the questioning of Israel’s best legal minds without faltering.
Within his own framework, he was consistent, extremely logical, almost convincing. When Shamgar asked whether he thought God wanted him to commit a crime by burning down a building, he was not at a loss.
“What did God tell Abraham to do?” asked Rohan.
“Sacrifice his son? Isn’t that a crime in today’s courts? First-degree murder, isn’t it?” He displayed total recall of dates and incidents and was never caught out in a contradiction despite the intricate story he told. “My mind has never been as well balanced as it is now,” he said. “Satan has no more power over me.” He could be surprisingly objective about himself and admit that “people feel uneasy in my presence.” He spoke with animation, and his melodious voice would come to rest on a pitch that expressed a precise meaning.
The tormented figure was at last serene. “I understand why I was born, why I had to suffer strict discipline from my parents, why I was rejected and despised,” he told the court. “I did not understand until I arrived in Jerusalem. It all came together in Jerusalem.
Satan knew who I was but I did not know.” Asked what his attitude would be if found guilty, he said, “I am above earthly courts.”
His most revealing testimony, however, did not come until the last day of the trial when he told of a voice he had heard in his cell a few days before. “Because you have obeyed my voice and have done everything I have told you even to your own hurt,” he quoted, “I shall exalt you above the whole earth and bring all the maidens of Israel to you to bear forth your offspring to my glory.
You shall build the temple and Zipporah will be your queen.” Instead of the usual enthusiasm with which he had heretofore described the voices that spoke to him, Rohan bowed his head this time and had to force himself to make this ultimate revelation. The psychiatrists who testified were in agreement that the underlying cause for his action had not been religious but sexual.
The trial established clearly that the fire in al-Aksa that had brought the wrath of much of the world down upon Israel had been carried out by a mad Christian exploiting the venality of Muslim guards. Although the al-Aksa fire would continue to be widely portrayed in the Arab world as a Zionist plot – notably in Jordan, whose government would show extensive pictures of the blaze on television each anniversary – the trial had taken the sting out of these charges and the episode would gradually recede into the general turmoil of the Middle East.
Apart from the loss of the priceless pulpit, al-Aksa would emerge from the fire strengthened and beautified by the work of skilled Arab artisans in a massive restoration project. The fire had warped decorations on the inside of the mosque dome, but when these were scraped away, the far more beautiful original decorations were revealed. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat would pray in al-Aksa during his visit to Jerusalem and pledged Egyptian assistance in the ongoing restoration.
Rohan was found guilty and sentenced to confinement for life in a mental institution. He was kept at Talbiya Mental Hospital in Jerusalem, where he proved a much sought-after partner in the hospital’s Saturday night dances for the patients. In 1974, he was transferred to Australia to live out his life in a mental hospital where he could dwell on how close he came to the throne of Jerusalem. He reportedly died in 1995, still under psychiatric care.