Jerusalem Seethes as Competing Claims to Holy Site Turn Violent
By Jonathan Ferziger
Shrouded head to toe in black, the women slowly circled the domed mosque in east Jerusalem’s Old City, chanting, “Allahu akbar,” the Muslim declaration of faith.
“This is our home,” said a woman who introduced herself as Oum Mustafa, speaking through a gauze veil that fully covered her eyes. “Nobody can move us from here.”
No place in the Holy Land is as fiercely contested as the 37-acre hilltop compound where the Al-Aqsa mosque stands. The sacred ground has once again become the front line in competing claims to the city, pitting Jews demanding to pray at the shrine they call the Temple Mount against Palestinians who see that demand as an attempt to cement Israel’s grip on a city they hope to make their capital.
Amid a stalemate in peace negotiations, the Palestinian outrage is growing increasingly violent, leading to clashes with police at the compound that have infuriated parts of the Muslim world.
“Jerusalem is among the most sensitive issues in the conflict and it matters to Muslims all over the world,” said Jacob Perry, Israel’s science and technology minister and former head of the Shin Bet intelligence agency. “It is vital for both sides that anything involving the al-Aqsa mosque be handled in the most careful way possible.”
The unrest at the site is feeding off violence that has been simmering in Arab areas of Jerusalem since a Palestinian youth was burned alive in July in suspected retribution for the kidnapping and killing of three Jewish youths in the West Bank. Fanning the unrest, Palestinian leaders say, is the breakdown of U.S.-sponsored peace talks, Israel’s 50-day conflict with Gaza Strip militants and Jewish settlement on land Palestinians claim for a state.
Some analysts warn that the clashes in Jerusalem will explode into a third Palestinian uprising against Israel; others say support for another revolt just isn’t there.
Jews venerate the Temple Mount above all other holy sites, as the location of their ancient biblical temple. For Muslim faithful, the al-Aqsa complex is Islam’s third-holiest shrine, the place they believe the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven.
Political narratives collide on the mount, too. Palestinians claim all of east Jerusalem, including the Old City’s holy places, for the capital of a future state; the current Israeli government says it won’t cede Jerusalem’s eastern sector, annexed after the 1967 war in a move that isn’t internationally recognized. Peace negotiations have been tortured by disputes over control of the Old City.
The dueling claims have repeatedly touched off unrest. Rumors that Israel sought to destroy al-Aqsa to build a third temple ignited riots in the 1990s that left dozens of Palestinians dead. Ariel Sharon’s visit there in 2000 in a show of Israeli sovereignty touched off a cascade of violence that evolved into the second Palestinian uprising. Confrontations over Israeli excavation and construction at the shrine have sparked protests across the Muslim world.
After Israel captured the site from Jordan in 1967, it banned Jewish prayer there and left an Islamic trust known as the Waqf in charge of its administration. More Jews have begun questioning the ban on Jewish prayer and want to overturn it.
“I call on the public to visit the Temple Mount and on lawmakers to join the call to change the status quo to let Jews go to the Jewish people’s holiest place,” Deputy Transportation Minister Tzipi Hotovely said in a Nov. 4 post on her Facebook page.
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