Features

Old City sparks

Middle East | Clashes over Jerusalem's holy sites won't cover rifts in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations

Issue: "'Into captivity they shall go'," Feb. 24, 2007

The intensity of Jerusalem's Old City landscape stirs the soul of those who enter its gates. The glistening gold of the Muslim Dome of the Rock shines from its perch on the Temple Mount while the Western Wall, which supports the plaza, draws flocks of Jewish worshippers to pray-the closest they can get to where the temple once stood. The 35-acre compound, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount, is believed to be the most contested piece of real estate in the world. Even the slightest alteration, religious faux pas, or addition to its structures can ignite a fire of protest across the city and the Middle East.

Earlier this month tempers flared and Palestinian stone-throwers clashed with Israeli troops who had to use tear gas to clear protesters from the area. Dozens of both troops and Palestinians were injured. The latest skirmishes center around a decrepit, centuries-old walkway leading to the Mugrabi Gate-the only entrance to the Temple Mount where non-Muslims are granted access.

Muslims launched a string of riots at the beginning of February, claiming newly initiated reconstruction efforts on the walkway could damage the foundation of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Although Jerusalem's mayor has postponed the controversial construction, preparatory excavations continue, and Muslim ire has grown thick across the city.

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The project also drew criticism from afar: The Arab League called the plans a "criminal attack," and Jordan's King Abdullah said they were "unacceptable under any pretext."

Israelis say the protests are aimed at manufacturing a crisis. The walkway was damaged during an earthquake and a snowstorm in 2004, and a temporary wooden bridge was erected. Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar says the proposed renovations and mandated preliminary excavations pose no threat to Al-Aqsa-more than 200 yards from the construction-and claims the real threat comes from the Muslim caretakers of the compound. "There is no connection whatsoever between their claims and reality," Mazar told WORLD. "What we have learned is that these are the very people who are responsible for the immense destruction of antiquity inside the Temple Mount compound."

But while those renovations are attracting controversy and violence, Jordan is actively pursuing plans to erect a fifth minaret on the eastern wall of the Temple Mount near the Golden Gate-the first to be built on the plaza in over 600 years and the largest of the five.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's tacit approval of the addition has spawned its own stream of protests among Israelis. Mazar, who has worked on Temple Mount excavations and is a member of the Public Committee for Preventing the Destruction of Antiquities of the Temple Mount, argues that the compound is a historical site that should be preserved: "I'm amazed, really. I don't know what got into [Olmert's] mind. It's not a private issue."

Embodied in the temple remnants and the historic Islamic structures above are two divergent views of history. The site was home to the first and second temples and became the center of the Jewish faith. Jews (and Christians) believe Abraham offered his son Isaac upon the rock currently housed in the Dome of the Rock. Centuries after the second temple's destruction, Islam was born, and subsequent Muslim conquests included Jerusalem and the construction of the mosques in the temple compound.

Jerusalem-Islam's third-holiest city-is not mentioned in the Quran, but Muslims believe Muhammad made a spiritual "night journey" to the location of Al-Aqsa, and they revere the Dome of the Rock as the site where they believe Abraham offered Ishmael as a sacrifice.

Suspicion of Jewish plots to decimate the Islamic shrines and rebuild the temple have made Muslims edgy over the years. Meanwhile, Muslim claims over the entire compound as well as a past Arab monopoly over East Jerusalem make Israelis wary of any changes to the status quo.

The history behind the Old City points to the root cause of a conflict Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to address on Feb. 19 with Prime Minister Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Rice will likely peg the discussion to a meeting this month in Mecca-Islam's holiest city-between Fatah and Hamas leaders, which resulted in the two warring factions attempting to form a coalition government. But Hamas leaders continue to deny Israel's right to exist, a stumbling block for those seeking peace and mutual rights to Old City shrines.

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