AMMAN (Reuters) - Jordan’s King Abdullah watched intently during a presentation of plans for the construction of a new minaret near the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
He was told the minaret — the first structure to be built in over 600 years at Islam’s third holiest shrine — would feature the engraving of a seven-point Hashemite star, like the one on the kingdom’s flag.
“The preservation of Islamic sanctities is a responsibility that I have been bequeathed and I will continue to shoulder in the footsteps of my forefathers,” the king told senior clerics, who also attended the presentation in the Jordanian capital.
The Hashemite ruling clan of Jordan has acted as custodian of the Muslim shrines of Jerusalem since the British mandate of Palestine in the early 20th century.
The family kept this role in the divided holy city even after Jordan lost East Jerusalem and the West Bank to Israel in a 1967 war.
But some say it is not just historical responsibility or piety motivating this latest architectural venture conceived in Amman, only 70 km (40 miles) away from Jerusalem’s eastern hills.
Some analysts say King Abdullah, whose family says it is descended from the Prophet Mohammad, also wants to assert his Islamic credentials in a period of rising radicalism on Jordan’s borders with the Palestinians to the west and Iraq to the east.
The royal family’s role as custodian binds Palestinians to Jordan, which hosts the largest number of Palestinians outside the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Jordanians of Palestinian origin, who settled after the creation of Israel in 1948, have become a majority in the country of over 5.7 million.
“This shows that King Abdullah is also sending not just a message about religious custodianship but that as Hashemites they will not abandon their role in ending Jerusalem’s occupation,” said Adnan Abu Oudeh, a former palace adviser.
Politicians say a wider Jordanian role in the West Bank’s future becomes more plausible as prospects for a Palestinian state are hit by internal Palestinian strife, stalled peace talks and Israeli pressure.
Palestinians seek a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories Israel captured from Jordan and Egypt in the 1967 Middle East war. But analysts say rapid Jewish settlement and expropriation of land could leave Israel with substantial parts of the territories.
Jordan might then be drawn into playing a bigger role in a smaller Palestinian entity, bound to Amman by demography, ethnicity and history.
King Abdullah has already fanned speculation of a more interventionist role after warning last month that the Palestinian dream of nationhood could be lost for ever because of a drift towards civil war and Israeli intransigence.
But Jordanian officials dismiss any talk of a heightened political role in the West Bank that could appear to upstage the Palestinian quest for nationhood.
The symbolism of Abdullah’s concern with Jerusalem’s fate can only appeal to his people.
On the streets of Jordan, pictures of the gilded Dome of the Rock, that has adorned Jerusalem’s skyline for more than 1,300 years, hang beside images of the king and the royal family.
The kingdom spends at least $7 million a year on the upkeep of mosques and Islamic sharia courts in Jerusalem and on the salaries of civil servants working for them.
The Hashemite dynasty’s link to the holy sites in Jerusalem began in 1922 when Abdullah’s great-grandfather donated money to their administration. More than 70 years later, Abdullah’s father King Hussein sold a house near London for $6.5 million to coat the Dome of the Rock with gold.
Last July, King Abdullah restored a pulpit in the al-Aqsa mosque, and at the presentation last month, he listened to members of the Jordanian-run Waqf, or religious trust, as they outlined plans for new carpet and the repair of broken ceramics.
Jordanian officials says they count on Israel, which had in the past sought to prevent Palestinian jurisdiction over the sites by supporting Amman’s role, to agree to the minaret plan.
They privately say Israel has already given assurances it will not make a fuss over the minaret, respecting a clause in a 1994 peace treaty that recognises Amman’s historic role as legal custodian over Muslim sites inside the Old City.
For many Palestinians in both the diaspora and inside the territories, a Hashemite role to preserve the Arab character of Jerusalem prevents Israel from tightening its grip on the city they want as an undivided capital.
“What was done by the Hashemites in the last 20 years surpassed the work of two centuries but there is still much work left for the Hashemites to save Jerusalem,” Palestinian Sheikh Abdul Azim Salhab, deputy head of the Jerusalem-based Islamic Affairs Bureau, whose 500 clerics and administrators in charge of the upkeep of the mosques are on Jordan’s payroll.