JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Every morning at 7.30, Murad Hamad sets up a flimsy plastic chair in the shade of the Moroccans’ Gate entrance to Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem and waits for the tourists to arrive.
Hamad’s job is to help keep the peace at one of the world’s holiest places, a site sacred to both Muslims, who call the compound the Noble Sanctuary, and to Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount because of the building that once stood there. The guard is not much concerned with the sun-creamed tourists. But he pays close attention to the groups of devout Jews and Israeli nationalists who try most days to enter the site and pray.
Those groups are at the center of a creeping shift in Jerusalem: After 900 years, Jews are chipping away at Muslims’ exclusive control of the site, the third holiest in Islam. The shift, which has provoked violence in the past, threatens to open a dangerous new front in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, adding religious enmity to a political struggle in the very heart of the disputed city.
Al-Aqsa has banned non-Muslim prayer since 1187. Like Muslims across the region, Hamad and the other 70 or so guards employed by the Waqf, the Islamic trust that oversees the mosque, see Jews praying there as a serious insult.
The risk of confrontation remained small as long as the groups pushing for the right to pray remained at the fringes of Judaism. A decade or so ago, a handful of Jewish faithful would enter the compound each day. Attempts at prayer were rare. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel declared in 2007 that Jews should not visit the site because it was too holy.
But in recent years the radical fringe has become increasingly mainstream, drawing in nationalist, secular supporters and backing from high-profile politicians. A hundred or more Jews can arrive at the mosque some days, in large, organized groups. Last year Yossi Farenti, then Jerusalem District Police Chief, told the Israeli parliament’s Internal Affairs committee that the number of Jews visiting the site had increased 27 percent in the first half of 2014. “There is indeed a worsening in the past few years as to what happens at Temple Mount,” he said. “This is a fact. No one disagrees. You can see it in the numbers.”
A growing number of rabbis have contradicted the Chief Rabbinate, saying visits should be encouraged precisely because the Temple Mount is divine. Jewish visitors mumble prayers under their breath and walk barefoot on the ancient stones in a sign of obeisance.
A range of groups, some of them well financed by the Jewish diaspora, are campaigning for open access to Temple Mount, which Jews believe is the point from where God created the world and was the site of the second Jewish temple until 70 AD (see “Disputed land”). They want the right for Jews to pray alongside Muslims. Some even want to build a new temple and have crafted sacred gold-and-silver vessels and hand-stitched priestly vestments ready for the day it is sanctified. Other supporters are breeding red heifers, hoping for one without a white blemish that can be sacrificially slaughtered at the temple, as described in the Book of Numbers.
Palestinian Muslims and others across the region fear their control is slipping.
“They want to change the rules,” said Hamad, the Waqf guard.
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Perched on an esplanade at the eastern edge of Jerusalem’s Old City – the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane behind – there are few patches of land more contested than this 35 acres.
The critical moment in the modern era was Israel’s capture of the Old City in the six-day war of 1967. For Israeli Jews, control of the Old City tied together politics, religion and nationhood. Following the victory, tens of thousands flocked to the Western Wall, believed to have been a retaining support for the second Jewish temple built 2,500 years ago. It was the first mass Jewish pilgrimage to the site since the temple’s destruction.
But days later, with the approval of the prime minister, Defence Minister Moshe Dayan went to see the imams of the Islamic Waqf and handed them back the keys to the mosque.
”I said that Israeli troops would be removed from the site and stationed outside the compound,“ Dayan wrote in his autobiography. ”The Israeli authorities were responsible for overall security, but we would not interfere in the private affairs of the Muslims responsible for their own sanctuaries.
“We had no intention of controlling Muslim holy places or of interfering in their religious life.”
Over time, a status quo evolved under which Jews have been allowed to enter and tour the area but forbidden to pray. Israeli police and some military help provide security, but the Waqf administers the compound.
There were some early attempts to change that. In the 1980s, a messianic terrorist group called the Jewish Underground plotted to blow up the Dome of the Rock and replace it with a temple. That plan was foiled by the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency.
In 1990, another group calling itself the Temple Mount Faithful tried to lay a cornerstone for a new Jewish temple, provoking riots that killed 22 Palestinians.
The Waqf says things really began to shift from September 2000, when Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s opposition leader, visited Temple Mount with a large delegation just before an election. Many Palestinians saw the move as a provocation. It led to a violent uprising called the Second Intifada, also known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada, which continued for five years and left about 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis dead. Access to Al-Aqsa for both Muslims and non-Muslims was greatly restricted.
In recent years the groups committed to overturning the status quo have shifted strategy, becoming more organized and gaining donors and influence.
While there are still radical elements, and frequent verbal and physical confrontations with Muslims at Al-Aqsa, the groups try to cast the issue as one of religious freedom, arguing that Jews should enjoy the same prayer rights as Muslims.
The most visible proponent of the new approach is Yehuda Glick, a red-bearded, American-born rabbi who set up the Temple Mount Heritage Foundation in 2007 and now acts as a spokesman for several Temple Mount organizations.
A 49-year-old father of eight, Glick has become a rallying figure for the movement, frequently photographed with supporters such as an outspoken politician from Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, or studying pictures of a possible new temple.
In 2013 and again in 2014 he was arrested by police after confrontations at Al-Aqsa and banned from visiting. He sued and won a court ruling allowing him to return once a month under tight supervision.
Last October, as Muslim anger at the presence of Jewish worshippers triggered clashes, Glick was shot four times by a Palestinian when he left a conference in central Jerusalem. After 10 days in a coma, and life-saving operations by a Muslim surgeon, Glick came around.
”I respect the Muslims’ right to pray,“ he told Reuters as he recovered from his injuries. ”But there is no reason in the world that at the only holy place for the Jewish people, a Jew should not have the right to pray.
“The Temple Mount is the holiest place in the world according to the Bible and there should be freedom to pray for all believers – Jews, Christians and Muslims.”
That is not how Mohammad Ahmed Hussein, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and the head of the Waqf, sees it.
As the inheritor of a job handed down almost without break since the 12th century, Hussein is the overriding religious authority at Al-Aqsa and holds the keys to the mosque. He believes the precedent created by more than 800 years of religious practice is incontrovertible.
“No one but Muslims are allowed to perform any kind of prayers at Al-Aqsa,” he told Reuters, referring to the compound rather than just the mosque itself.
“Jewish prayer at Al-Aqsa is not so much an insult as it is an aggression. If Jews try to pray at Al-Aqsa, it will only create more tensions in the region.”
For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that is potentially a big problem.
Netanyahu has repeatedly said the arrangement that has governed Al-Aqsa since 1967 should not change. But after Glick was shot, Israeli authorities temporarily shut all access, including for Muslims. In protest, Jordan withdrew its ambassador to Tel Aviv, the first time it had taken such a step since signing a peace deal with Israel in 1994. Jordan has had special responsibility for Al-Aqsa since the 1967 war. The Hashemite Kingdom has financed the Waqf and paid for renovations to the mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Its anger was echoed in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and beyond, leaving Netanyahu worried about regional stability.
He beefed up Israeli security around the Old City, a move that many Palestinians saw as proof that change was coming.
“A SMALL GESTURE OF DEFIANCE”
Six months on, the situation appears calmer, though tensions remain.
Five days a week – there is no access on Fridays or Saturdays – religious-nationalist Jews join foreign tourists to walk up the covered wooden ramp, through the Moroccans’ Gate, the only one of the 11 ancient gates non-Muslims can use, and into the holy compound.
Israeli guards assemble the Jews into groups of 10, confiscate their religious and prayer accoutrements for the length of the visit, and then assign them Israeli police escorts.
At the top of the ramp, where Israeli forces keep dozens of riot shields and other security equipment, Waqf guards join the Jewish groups. The Israeli police lead the visitors around, while the Waqf guards maintain more distance.
On one recent visit, a pious Jewish teenager, yarmulke on his head and long curls hanging either side of his face, fell to the ground in the act of prayer. Police quickly hoisted him to his feet and warned that he would be thrown out if he tried to pray again.
As the group passed in front of Al-Aqsa mosque, the police urged them not to get too close. Several ignored the warnings and stepped towards the portico, where Muslim men and women enter via separate doorways.
A group of women in headscarves and veils began shouting “Allahu Akbar” (“God is Greatest”) at the top of their voices, protesting the group’s presence.
As the Jewish group moved away from the mosque into a grove of trees on the eastern edge of the plaza, it was left alone, allowing surreptitious prayer to begin.
Efrem Goldberg, an American rabbi, wrote an account of a visit he made to the Temple Mount last year, in which he described feeling intimidated by Muslims there. “In a small gesture of defiance,” he wrote, “we continuously prayed in our hearts and when we paused opposite the Kodesh Ha’ Kadashim” – the Holy of Holies, where Jews believe the Ark of the Convenant once stood – “we even had Daniel Katz,” a rabbi, “give us the priestly blessing.”
Last month, an estimated 30,000 Jews waving banners and carrying Israeli flags marched through the Old City to celebrate Jerusalem Day, the anniversary of Israel’s victory in the 1967 war. Palestinian protesters clashed with Jewish marchers as they thronged to the Western Wall.
Some left-wing Israelis criticize the event as a provocation. For supporters, the march is a chance to impose a Jewish presence throughout the Old City.
Netanyahu said in a speech that “only under Israeli rule will there be freedom of worship for all religions in Jerusalem. Believers pray at their holy sites not in spite of our rule in the city, but precisely because of it.”
Some Palestinians think it is a matter of time before Temple Mount supporters in the Israeli government propose dividing up prayer times, giving Muslims certain hours to worship and Jews others.
Glick said the momentum is all in one direction.
“The Third Temple, which will be a house of prayer for all nations, will be built very soon,” he said, repeating a mantra of the Temple Mount faithful.
Hamad, who said he has seen a steady change during his 10 years as a Waqf guard, is convinced a crisis is coming.
“It’s going to blow up,” said the 36-year-old. “It’s certain.”
Edited by Simon Robinson