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.