JERUSALEM — A small but growing movement by Jewish activists demanding the right to pray at the site of their destroyed temple, in the heart of this disputed capital’s Old City, is creating a potentially explosive clash with the Muslim world, which considers the spot holy and bans Jews from public worship there.
Each week, hundreds of Jews ascend the creaky wooden ramp built above the Western Wall and enter what is often called the most contested real estate on Earth. Many then embark upon a game of hide-and-seek with their police escorts — whispering forbidden prayers while pretending to talk into cellphones, and getting in quick but banned bows by dropping coins and then bending to pick them up.
Their proposals, long dismissed as extremist, are now being debated in the Israeli parliament and embraced by an expansionist wing in the ruling coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
These political leaders, many in Netanyahu’s party, want Israel to assert more, not less, control over the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Old City, including the place known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary.
“We’re looking for it to be divided between Jews and Muslims,” said Aviad Visoli, chairman of the Temple Mount Organizations, which claims 27 groups under its umbrella. “Today, Jews realize the Western Wall is not enough. They want to go to the real thing.”
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Two millenniums ago, this place was the site of the Jews’ Second Temple, destroyed in A.D. 70 by Roman legions under Titus, who cast the Jews into exile. The Western Wall, visited by 10 million people a year, is part of the remaining rampart built around the raised temple complex. Together, the wall and the site of the destroyed temple are the holiest landmarks in Judaism.
The same courtyard is home to al-Aqsa mosque, one of the oldest in Islam, and the Dome of the Rock, the golden landmark where tradition says the prophet Mohammad made his night journey to heaven.
For Palestinians and much of the Muslim world, any mention of changing the status quo at the site, the third-holiest in Islam, is incendiary. Protecting al-Aqsa has been a rallying cry for generations.
“This place belongs to the Muslim people, and no others have the right to pray here,” said Sheik Azzam al-Khatib, director of the Waqf, the Islamic trust that administers the site. Khatib said the mosque is a unifying symbol for the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims.
“If they try to take over the mosque, this will be the end of time,” Khatib warned. “This will create rage and anger not only in the West Bank but all over the Islamic world — and only God knows what will happen.”
The site, like all of Jerusalem’s Old City, was under Jordanian control until 1967, when it was captured by Israel during the Six-Day War. The Waqf administers and protects the site. Israeli police also patrol the area and accompany Jewish visitors while they visit.
Non-Muslim tourists are welcome to wander freely around the grounds. But non-Muslim prayer is forbidden. Jews in religious garb are taken aside at the entrance by Israeli security officers, screened more closely and sternly warned not to pray, bow, sing, tear their clothes in mourning or display any religious items.
Israel’s Chief Rabbinate has ruled that Jews should not enter the Temple Mount esplanade, for fear they will accidentally walk upon ground that is part of the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the temple, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept and only the high priest was permitted to enter.
But political leaders are urging that this stance be reexamined. Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, deputy minister of religious affairs, has proposed giving Jews an hour a day to pray there.
“There is a growing reality among sectors of the population who want to go up there and pray, and there are rabbis who are encouraging their followers to do so,” Ben-Dahan said at a November committee hearing on the matter in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. “The rabbinate needs to recognize this reality.’’
The hearing quickly devolved into a shouting match. “Every citizen of Israel should have the right to pray at their holy sites without harassment or being attacked,” said Miri Regev , the committee chairwoman. “If Jews want to go up to the Temple Mount to pray, they should have that right.”
“There is no such thing as the Temple Mount!’’ interrupted an Arab Israeli parliamentarian, Jamal Zahalka. “It does not exist. It is not there. ”
Legislators hurled shouts of “Barbarian!” and “Fascist!”
Arab Israeli lawmakers stormed out in protest.
“Because of your games at the al-Aqsa mosque, a third intifada could erupt,” Ahmad Tibi, deputy speaker of the Knesset and leader of the Arab political party Ta’al, told Regev. “You are a dangerous woman — to yourself, your children and all of us. Enough of playing with fire!”
In 2000, in the aftermath of failed peace negotiations mediated by President Bill Clinton, Israeli politician Ariel Sharon — campaigning to become prime minister — visited the Temple Mount with an escort of 1,000 police officers.
Some analysts say the visit sparked the second Palestinian uprising, often referred to as the al-Aqsa Intifada. Others claim that Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat was looking for an excuse to unleash the uprising and found one in Sharon’s action. In a report by former U.S. senator and peace negotiator George P. Mitchell, Sharon’s visit was called “poorly timed” and “provocative.” But the report said Israel’s use of lethal force against rioters in subsequent demonstrations had a greater negative effect.
Today, as yet another round of U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are underway, Khatib and other Islamic clerics warn that proposals to grant “time and space” to Jews looking to pray on the Temple Mount could ignite a holy war.
The clerics say they have pleaded with Israeli police to limit the number of Jews allowed to visit the site and warned that Jewish extremists are trying to change a delicate status quo and create new facts on the ground.
Uri Ariel, Israel’s minister of construction and housing, told reporters after a recent visit: “The Temple Mount is ours, and it cannot be argued about or negotiated. . . . It must be open for prayer at every hour, to every Jew.”
On a recent weekday morning, a dozen Jews led by an activist rabbi assembled at Mughrabi Gate to enter the Temple Mount. Because they had skullcaps and some had long beards and were wearing religious garments, they were escorted by armed Israeli police and trailed by three escorts from the Waqf.
Several times, one of the escorts pointed at a Jewish visitor and said to the police, “Watch that one!” or “Hey! Is he praying?” The atmosphere was tense, but the group was allowed to slowly meander its way around the compound.
“When we come here, it is very uncomfortable. They look at us as if we are serial killers,” said David Nashbaum, a father of six who was born to American parents and raised in Jerusalem. “This is our job as Jews, to come here and pray. I don’t know what they are so afraid of.”
The Israeli Supreme Court has ruled that Jews are allowed to pray at the Temple Mount, but the court also grants the Israeli police power to curtail any activities that would create “a disturbance to the public order.”
Jews who sing the national anthem or religious songs, and who pray, are regularly detained and escorted away.
A frequent visitor to the site is Rabbi Chaim Richman, a director of the Temple Institute, whose mission is to prepare for the building of the Third Temple where the Dome of the Rock now stands.
He says he envisions a new temple rising toward the clouds, with underground parking, Internet connectivity, radiant heating for the sanctified floors (the priests, in accordance with Jewish law, will be barefoot), and a return of burnt offerings and animal sacrifice.
In April, Richman’s Temple Institute moved to a large, renovated space in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, overlooking the Western Wall. The project was funded by Henry Swieca, the billionaire American investor, and his wife, Estee.
Inside, researchers and artisans have created silver trumpets, wooden lyres and three-pronged forks that would turn over burnt offerings. They sewed a priest’s robe with a breastplate of golden thread and 12 precious stones, as described in the Bible and representing the 12 tribes of Israel. There is a golden menorah and an ark for the covenants. And there are architectural plans. Evidence, Muslim leaders say, that proves that the Jews have literal designs on the mount.
“This is not incitement,” Richman said. “Our mission is to kindle the spark of desire for the time when Jews are a light unto the world, and Muslims will agree it is time to rebuild, and all nations of the world will come to the Jews and ask them to rebuild.”
Sufian Taha contributed to this report.