JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Far-right Israelis are pressing for an end to an effective ban on holding Jewish prayers at a Jerusalem holy compound once dominated by Biblical temples and now home to al-Aqsa mosque, one of Islam’s most revered sites.
Palestinians oppose Jewish worship at the vast stone plaza overlooking Judaism’s Western Wall as a potential threat to access for Muslims.
Aware of the volatile mix of politics and religion, Israel has largely stymied such prayer for 46 years by having its police prevent Jewish worship at the site on grounds it could cause a public disturbance.
Palestinian concerns have been heightened, however, by the fact that allies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are among the most vocal advocates of Jewish prayer at the 35-acre site that is revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.
This month alone, Israeli police have hauled away half a dozen Israelis from the site. A Jewish Israeli and an Arab citizen were held in connection with a brawl that injured a Muslim official and four other Jewish men were detained for prostrating themselves on the holy ground.
Several other Israelis have been questioned in the past two months for trying to pray at the compound during police-escorted sightseeing tours. A lamb was seized from another Israeli who had plans to slaughter it in ritual sacrifice.
Israeli police accompany most visitors to the compound, where escorted tours are held frequently. They cross a wooden bridge to a gate where plastic police shields and other riot-control gear are stored, a ready display of how quickly the otherwise serene atmosphere can sometimes go awry.
Visitors are closely watched by both the police and the Muslim religious officials of the Waqf who administer the compound and keep an eye out to make sure no Jewish worship takes place. Anyone wearing Jewish religious garb is generally kept away from the Islamic holy tract.
At the compound, one group of visitors walked past al-Aqsa, drawing shouting from Muslim women sitting in the shade of tree and from Palestinian children attending a day camp. They ignored the catcalls and continued deeper into the plaza.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has denounced the Israeli visits as a part of a “dangerous and an evil plot to demolish al-Aqsa” and build what he calls “an alleged temple”.
Wedged into the compound atop the ramparts of Jerusalem’s walled Old City is al-Aqsa, originally erected 1,300 years ago, rebuilt in the 11th century after an earthquake and now Islam’s third holiest site, and the 7th-century golden Dome of the Rock shrine, the oldest known Islamic monument.
The plaza, from which the Prophet Mohammed is traditionally believed to have ascended into heaven, has an explosive past as a core issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel captured the area, along with the rest of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in the 1967 Middle East war. The Jewish state then annexed East Jerusalem as part of its capital in a move never recognised internationally.
In 2000, Palestinian protests over a visit to the site by then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon spiralled into deadly clashes and a five-year Palestinian uprising in which thousands died.
Palestinian Religious Affairs Minister Mahmoud al-Habash said last month the conflict over the plaza “may lead to an explosion” and that Palestinian authorities had complained to the United States and other Western intermediaries.
Also in May, Israeli Housing Minister Uri Ariel, a Jewish settler in the occupied West Bank who is from the far-right Jewish Home Party, said in a largely tongue-in-cheek remark in parliament that he would “definitely be happy” to be assigned the job of rebuilding a new holy temple.
While some Jewish zealots advocate such construction, such a project has never been on the agenda of Israeli governments.
However, one member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, legislator Tzipi Hotovely, visited the compound on the eve of her wedding last month. She said her pilgrimage was symbolic of a historic yearning “to rebuild on the ruins of Jerusalem”. A Likud colleague, Miri Regev, has said the site should be shared between Islam and Judaism so that Jews could pray there openly.
Israeli police have barred further visits by another Likud lawmaker, Moshe Feiglin, an ultra-rightist who has been arrested in the past for what police said were attempts to worship on the plaza. Officials said they feared Feiglin’s presence could stir violent Palestinian protests.
Most of those campaigning for Jewish prayer in the compound represent a far-right minority, but many Muslims “see a provocation, and blame the (Israeli) government, so we have a big problem”, said Israeli political scientist Yitzhak Reiter.
Many Orthodox Jews once rejected the idea of praying in the compound, citing religious rules barring anyone not descended from one of the ancient priests from stepping on hallowed ground where holy scriptures were once kept.
Israel has held Jewish prayers instead at the nearby Western Wall remnant of one of the ancient temples.
But the idea of holding prayers inside the elevated compound as well has acquired more political significance over the years.
Pro-settler Israelis fear that yielding any control over the compound could lead to a withdrawal from other occupied territory they see as a biblical birthright and which Palestinians seek for a state.
“This isn’t a religious issue at all,” Feiglin told Reuters in a recent interview. “The question is who does the mount belong to, the Jews or the Arabs?”
Friction at the site also looms over an Israeli plan to expand the concrete prayer plaza at the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites, to try and accommodate Jews seeking more liberal prayer services than most Orthodox custom permits.
Currently Israel must deploy hundreds of police to prevent violence whenever angry ultra-Orthodox protesters confront women activists who hold monthly prayer sessions at the site.
Muslims reject any Israeli construction in the area, though, and worry that any expansion of the Western Wall plaza may involve moving the footbridge at what is known as the Moghrabi Gate entrance to the compound and its Islamic holy sites.
Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan, Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich