By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 17, 2009; A20
JERUSALEM -- It is one of the most watched pieces of real estate in the world, 35 acres where an under-the-breath prayer or a whiff of a rumor can rouse warnings of war.
In both Judaism and Islam, the area known respectively as the Temple Mount and the Noble Sanctuary is considered a formative location. Jews believe it to be the site of Solomon's Temple and key biblical events. Muslims regard it as the spot where Muhammad was brought by the angel Gabriel before embarking on a trip to heaven to visit the other prophets.
It also remains a flash point, and a series of disturbances there this fall showed just how difficult it will be for Israelis and Palestinians to reach agreement on an area over which they negotiate not just as political entities but also as representatives of two faiths with an often-troubled relationship.
The recent round of clashes may have ebbed, but on any given day the depth of the standoff is apparent: Last week, Jordan's ambassador to the United States warned of the implications if, as Muslims often worry, Jewish extremists were to bomb one of the Muslim sites. Israeli Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, meanwhile, reminded an audience in Jerusalem that his government would never share control of a city that is the object of daily Jewish prayer and the hoped-for site of a third temple. Under Muslim administration since the Crusades, the compound -- a largely open-air plaza that includes the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock -- is under Jordanian authority, an arrangement that Israel agreed to maintain after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the creation of the Palestinian Authority in the 1990s.
The oversight from Amman, whose ruling Hashemite family is also the formal custodian of the preeminent mosques in Mecca and Medina, reflects how any agreement over Jerusalem will have to go beyond the bounds of what the Palestinians on their own can negotiate.
If the Palestinians "want to let go of an area in the West Bank, no one from the outside is going to say anything," said Abdul Fattah Salah, Jordan's minister of religious affairs. "But when it comes to Jerusalem, they can't. It is tied to all Muslims." The Jordanian ministry employs 500 people who staff the Jerusalem compound.
Salah said the hope is that if part of Jerusalem becomes the capital of a Palestinian state, Muslims from any country will be able to begin visiting a site where it is considered a special blessing to pray -- access that he said Israel is unlikely to grant if it maintains sole sovereignty over the city.
On the other side, activists with organizations such as the Temple Institute in Jerusalem are arguing for broader Jewish freedom of action in the complex -- an issue they are pushing in the Israeli Supreme Court and in recent meetings and publications.
Israeli police impose strict rules on access. They frequently forbid Muslims under 40 from entering, to limit those they regard as most likely to join stone-throwing riots. But the police also restrict Jews from taking Bibles or other religious artifacts into the area and from praying there.
"It causes tension, and it escalates," said police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld. The outdoor areas of the complex are open to non-Muslims for a short period on most weekdays, though non-Muslims are generally not allowed to enter the mosque.
The recent violence showed how cycles of rumor and mistrust can spiral.
The "vast majority" of Jews would not go to the area, abiding by religious rulings that it is too sacrosanct to approach, said Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who oversees the Western Wall prayer area on the outside of the compound that marks the closest most Jews would consider coming. But the anticipation that small groups might try to pray in the area as Yom Kippur approached in late September led to calls among some Muslim clerics for men to rally at the mosque to prevent it. In the background are deeper concerns on both sides -- the one framed by a series of threats that Jewish extremist groups have made over the years to bomb al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock as a precursor to Jewish control of the site; the other by Muslim denial of Jewish history in the area.
Members of the gathering ended up throwing rocks, and a larger clash developed as riot police dispersed the crowd. Similar calls went out in ensuing weeks, with clashes in the complex itself and surrounding neighborhoods, and groups of men cloistered in the mosque for several days.
Given recent history, the fall riots were viewed by some here as a cause for optimism. They were on a comparatively small scale, led to no deaths on either side and, after a tense period from Yom Kippur through late October, appear to have dissipated without consequence.
Far worse has happened: Dozens of people died in 1996 in clashes that erupted after access was opened for tourists to a tunnel that ran on an ancient street alongside the wall. And a visit to the area by former prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2000 helped trigger the multi-year uprising known as the al-Aqsa Intifada.
It was nevertheless a close call, said Mohammed Tamimi, director of the Jerusalem Waqf, the agency that oversees the compound on Jordan's behalf.
"For those who want to stir up trouble, it is not difficult," Tamimi said. "I am concerned that if there is an explosion here, it will spill across the world."