By JODI RUDOREN — New York Times
Published: September 21, 2013
JERUSALEM — Small groups of Jews are increasingly ascending the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, a sacred site controlled for centuries by Muslims, who see the visits as a provocation that could undermine the fragile peace talks started this summer.
For decades the Israelis drawn to the site were mainly a fringe of hard-core zealots, but now more mainstream Jews are lining up to enter, as a widening group of Israeli politicians and rabbis challenge the longstanding rules constraining Jewish access and conduct. Brides go on their wedding days, synagogue and religious-school groups make regular outings, and many surreptitiously skirt the ban on non-Muslim prayer, like a Russian immigrant who daily recites the morning liturgy in his mind, as he did decades ago in the Soviet Union.
Palestinian leaders say the new activity has created the worst tension in memory around the landmark Al Aksa Mosque and Dome of the Rock, and have called on Muslims to defend the site from “incursions.” A spate of stone-throwing clashes erupted this month: on Wednesday, three Muslims were arrested and an Israeli police officer wounded in the face. And on Friday thousands of Arab citizens of Israel rallied in the north, warning that Al Aksa is in danger.
“We reject these religious visits,” Sheik Ekrima Sa’eed Sabri, who oversees Muslim affairs in Jerusalem, said in an interview. “Our duty is to warn,” he added. “If they want to make peace in this region, they should stay away from Al Aksa.”
The 37-acre site is perhaps the most religiously contested place on earth. Jews revere it as the home of the First and Second Temples more than 2,000 years ago. For Muslims, who call the site the Noble Sanctuary, it is the world’s third holiest spot, from which Muhammad is believed to have ascended to heaven. More than 300,000 foreign tourists also flock there annually, many of them Christians drawn to the ruins of the temple Jesus attended.
Politically, the competing claims to the area are the nut around which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict revolves, the symbolic heart of each side’s religious and historical attachment to Jerusalem that has made its governance one of the thorniest issues in peace negotiations.
Israel captured the site along with the rest of East Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1967, with a general declaring dramatically, “The Temple Mount is in our hands!” But the government immediately returned control to the Muslim authorities, and ever since, a de facto accommodation has prevailed in which Muslims worship at Al Aksa above and Jews at the Western Wall below, a remnant of the retaining wall around the ancient Second Temple. […/]