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Holy Sites Hold Fast to Status Quo

The Dome of the Rock. Credit: Pierre Klochendler/IPS.

JERUSALEM, Aug 6 2012 (IPS) - “With our spirit, with our blood, we’ll redeem you, O Noble Sanctuary!” the veiled teenagers fervently sing in unison in honour of the Muslim Holy month of Ramadan. Israeli police officers in uniform and full battle gear sit unimpressed under pine trees; others patrol the compound.

This is epicentre of one of the world’s most disputed holy sites, the Al Aqsa mosque and the golden Dome of the Rock, Islam’s third holiest after Mecca and Medina. It is also known as the Temple Mount, Judaism’s most sacred place.

Protection against desecration of, and freedom of access to, the Holy Places has been enshrined in law since Israel took control of the walled Old City 45 years ago, stresses Israeli Police spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld.

“The Temple Mount is accessible 24/7 to the Muslim communities,” says Rosenfeld. “But when security issues must be dealt with, the police implement an age limit. Men under the age of 45 or 50 are forbidden to enter.”

As a goodwill gesture, travel restrictions imposed on the Palestinians have been eased during Ramadan. On Fridays, men over the age of 40 from the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem are allowed access to the Noble Sanctuary. A quarter million are expected to attend the last Friday prayer of Ramadan.

Men and women between the ages of 35-40 require a special permit.

This is a sensitive summer. Ramadan coincides with the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av. That day of fasting comes at the end of a month of mourning marking the destruction, in 70 CE by the Roman armies of Titus, of the Second Temple built by King Herod.

On this day, messianic Jews who aspire to erect a third Jewish temple and call themselves the ‘Temple Mount faithful’ customarily march towards the holy compound in an attempt, mostly symbolic, to assert their rights thereto.

Following the capture of Jerusalem by Caliph Umar in the 7th century CE, the Dome of the Rock was erected on the ruins of the Second Temple.

At the heart of the octagonal shrine whose walls are covered with blue porcelain, lies the Foundation Stone from which the prophet Muhammad is believed to have ascended to heaven.

The Rock is also revered in Jewish tradition as the Holy of Holies – the place inside the First Temple, built by King Solomon some 3,000 years ago, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept.

The Ark is said to have contained the Ten Commandments believed to have been given by God to Moses and the Children of Israel.

After it captured east Jerusalem in June 1967, Israel agreed to leave the Noble Sanctuary’s administration in the hands of the Islamic Waqf who had managed the site continuously since the days when Sultan Saladin captured the city from the Crusaders in 1187. Waqf is a religious institution in charge of Muslim endowments.

Most rabbis prohibit Jews from praying on the area of the site itself due to its sacredness. “Jews aren’t allowed to stop and pray on the Temple Mount,” confirms Rosenfeld.

Jews pray at the foot of the Temple Mount, facing the 2000-year-old Western Wall – arguably Judaism’s most sacred site outside the Mount itself.

“According to Jewish tradition, after the destruction of the Temple, the presence of God left, but stayed at the Western Wall,” explains an Israeli visitor to his Italian friend.

Remnants of the Temple’s ancient retaining wall still surround the compound. Some segments lie invisible below ground level under the foundation archway of old Mamluk buildings.

On Sep. 29, 2000, to demonstrate the right of every Jew to visit the Temple Mount, Ariel Sharon, then candidate to become Israeli Prime Minister, entered the compound with scores of security guards. The provocation sparked the second Palestinian “Al Aqsa Intifada” uprising (2000-2005).

Since then, the status quo between the two monotheistic faiths has been painfully restored.

“The status quo means ensuring that nothing happens to, and occurs on, the holiest site both to the Muslim community and to the Jewish community – the same place, the Temple Mount,” says Rosenfeld. “The most delicate task entails joint coordination between the Israeli police and the Waqf.”

In all about 120 Arabic-speaking Israeli police officers now enforce the status quo on the site 24/7. Not without problems.

Standing at the Moghrabi Gate, the sole entrance for tourists and non-Muslim visitors to the magnificent platform, Abu Kamel from the Waqf authorities gives instructions on his walkie-talkie to his squad of guards who are monitoring the other gates.

Rami stands next to the Waqf official. “Our duty is not only to enforce law and order, but also mutual respect, and protection, of both Jews and Muslims,” says the Israeli police officer who wouldn’t divulge his name because he’s not authorised to speak to journalists.

An Israeli woman suddenly comes to him, complaining angrily. “See that kid in pink T-shirt?” she points in the direction of Palestinian children, “He’s just thrown a stone at my son!” Rami goes quickly towards the group, and admonishes the young suspect without much enthusiasm.

“Allahu Akbar (God is greatest)!” Suddenly, the Noble Sanctuary echoes the chant of young Palestinians marching through the Old City as they parade two of their comrades who have just been released from an Israeli jail. The rowdy procession heads towards the Al Aqsa mosque.

Abu Kamel orders Waqf officials to regroup towards the Cotton Merchant’s gate. Police are on high alert.

“Do not disturb them. Just watch over them from afar,” comes an order transmitted on the police radio channel. The procession enters the compound, undisturbed.

“It’s closed, it’s closed,” a policeman bars a late visitor. Anyway, it’s time for the tourists to clear the place. The bells of the Old City churches are already ringing. Soon, the muezzin will call the midday prayer.

Another morning has just gone by peacefully. And the Holy Place remains locked in status quo, unchallenged by the faithful.

(This is the second of a two-part report on holy cites in a troubled land).

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