Once dismissed as a fringe group with limited public support, a movement of religious Jewish activists seeking to pray at Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site has provoked a wave of Palestinian violence that has raised fears of a slide into a religious war.
The activists’ efforts to gain greater access to the area in Jerusalem’s Old City known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary has triggered a fierce Palestinian backlash. A string of Palestinian attacks has killed 11 people in the past month in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the West Bank, the worst eruption of such violence in years and a sign of the explosiveness of the dispute.
The focus of the conflict is a compound on a raised plateau that contains Al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, and the gold-covered Dome of the Rock shrine, built over the place where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad made a night journey to heaven. The same area is the holiest site in Judaism, revered as the location of the ancient first and second Jewish temples.
Under arrangements put in place after Israel captured the site in the 1967 Six-Day War, only Muslim prayer is permitted in the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, although Israelis and foreign tourists can visit. The area is run by the Waqf, a Muslim trust funded and run by Jordan, whose king is regarded as the custodian of the Muslim holy places.
Moshe Dayan, Israel’s defense minister in 1967, agreed to Muslim control of the site in deference to longstanding practice and to avoid provoking religious tensions. At the same time, Israel’s chief rabbinate ruled that Jews were forbidden to enter the area because modern life was likely to have made them impure and unfit to enter such a holy site.
Small right-wing groups in Israel have long lobbied for lifting the ban on Jewish prayer at the compound. But they have ramped up their efforts over the past year, with increasing support from rightist politicians and among religious nationalist Israelis.
A cabinet minister and lawmakers advocating greater Jewish access have recently made high-profile pilgrimages to the site, and another rightist legislator has sponsored a bill to change prayer arrangements there. Growing numbers of Jewish activists have been going to the compound during visiting hours for non-Muslims, sometimes attempting to sneak a prayer under the watchful eyes of police and Waqf officials.
The campaign has alarmed Palestinians who fear that Israeli authorities are seeking to change the longstanding prayer arrangements as part of a plan to take the site over.
“This has been a Muslim mosque for 1,400 years, and the people claiming the right to pray there are doing it for political reasons,” said Sheikh Azzam al Khatib, the director of the Waqf. “This is a tactical position. It is the first step. The second step is the complete destruction of the site.”
Such fears are fueled by organizations like the Temple Institute, a group advocating the construction of a third Jewish temple on what is now the site of the Dome of the Rock.
The institute runs a visitors center in the Jewish quarter of the Old City, where it displays recreated ritual objects based on those from the ancient temples, including a golden menorah, a breastplate inlaid with gemstones used by the high priest and silver trumpets.
Rabbi Chaim Richman, head of the group’s international department, denied in an interview that his group sought the imminent destruction of Muslim shrines on the Temple Mount in order to build a new temple.
“We have no intention of getting rid of anything,” he said, citing biblical prophecies that the temple will be rebuilt at a future time “when the Jewish people will be ready to be a light unto the world” and all nations will want to worship there.
Until that vision is realized, Richman says, his group is carrying out research and planning for the hoped-for reconstruction. In September, the institute announced that it had raised $100,000 to commission architectural plans for “a fully modern third temple,” including underground parking and heating.
But the focus of the current right-wing campaign is more immediate: lifting the ban on Jewish prayer at the Temple Mount. That demand is viewed as incendiary by Palestinians and others throughout the Muslim world who reject Jewish claims to what they consider an exclusively Islamic holy place, mentioned in the Quran.
Yehuda Glick, a prominent Israeli religious activist leading the effort to promote Jewish prayer at the site, was shot and seriously wounded in Jerusalem last month, and the suspected Palestinian attacker was later killed by police.
Pictures of Glick and other activists have been published in Palestinian social media with a Hebrew warning: “Al-Aqsa mosque is solely for Muslims, and we will not let you take it over.”
Yaacov Hayman, Glick’s colleague in an organization known as HaLiba, which advocates for Jewish prayer at the contested compound, says the issue is a matter of civil rights and freedom of worship.
“The Temple Mount should be open to any human being who wants to pray to God,” Hayman said in an interview. “Non-Muslims are being discriminated against on the Temple Mount. We want everyone to be able to pray there.”
Richman, of the Temple Institute, said the struggle was “to be allowed to humbly and reverently move our lips at the holiest place for the Jewish people.”
But Sheikh Mohammad Hussein, the highest-ranking Muslim cleric in Jerusalem, known as the Grand Mufti, said in an interview that Jews had no legitimate claim to the site. “This is solely a Muslim mosque, and it is forbidden for anyone else to worship there,” he said. “This is a ruling of Islamic law.”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has vowed that Palestinians would not allow their holy places to be “defiled,” and he has accused Israeli leaders of trying to divide the Al-Aqsa compound between Muslims and Jews, a move he warned would lead to a “religious war.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has given repeated assurances that there are no plans to alter the status quo at the compound, and he has accused Abbas of inciting violence with false accusations of Israeli schemes to change prayer arrangements there.
Still, the perceived threat to Al-Aqsa has become a rallying cry for many Palestinians, grafted onto grievances against decades of Israeli occupation.
“They want to divide Al-Aqsa,” said Muntasir Salameh, a 19-year-old Palestinian from East Jerusalem. “Would you let someone do that to your home? That’s the reason for this whole mess.”