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Faith and Rage Intersect at Jerusalem Holy Site

Contention over the Temple Mount, sacred to Jews and Muslims alike, mirrors conflict between Israeli and Palestinian aspirations.

September 27, 2003|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — For his first visit to Judaism's holiest site, Daniel Kaszovitz took a ritual bath before setting out this week, cleansing himself of impurity. He wore a skullcap on his head and sandals on his feet, in keeping with a religious prohibition against leather shoes on holy ground.

Then he and several neighbors from a Jewish settlement in the West Bank climbed a chewed-up dirt ramp overlooking the Western Wall and stepped onto the Temple Mount, an open-air plaza high above this ancient city.

For Kaszovitz, 33, the visit was fraught with personal significance.

"This is the first opportunity I've had to come up here," he said. "It's very moving."

But the visit was also fraught with tension, in a place where holiness and explosive anger often intersect.

The site is revered by Jews as the spot where their first and second temples stood, but the 36-acre plaza is also sacred to Muslims, who are the custodians of the site and call it the Noble Sanctuary, the place where Muhammad ascended into heaven for a glimpse of the divine.

Their competing claims have turned the plateau into one of the most contentious patches of real estate on Earth, a symbol not only of two age-old faiths but also, to many, of Israeli and Palestinian national aspirations.

Three years ago Sunday, then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon paid a visit to the mount to assert Israeli claims to all of Jerusalem. The visit sparked riots that eventually coalesced into the ongoing Palestinian uprising, which is known as the Al Aqsa intifada after one of the sanctuaries on the site. For most of the last three years, the compound was closed to non-Muslims by the Islamic trust that maintains it.

But not anymore. This summer, the Israeli government decreed the limestone plaza open to visitors once again.

And once again, passions are inflamed.

"This is Muslim! This is Muslim!" guardians of the Al Aqsa mosque shouted as Kaszovitz and about 30 others -- some his neighbors, some from another group -- stood in the mosque's shadow last week. They were on a tour being guided partly by Yehuda Etzion, a Jewish extremist who went to prison in the 1980s for plotting to blow up the mosque.

Israeli police in dark blue flak jackets swiftly converged on the scene. So did several Muslim men, who came running to protect the mosque from what they regarded as disrespectful encroachment by religious Jews, although most of the visitors were standing around quietly.

There were shouts, and some shoving. A barefoot young Jewish man accused of publicly praying -- strictly forbidden for Jews on the site -- was hustled away, while police pushed back the rowdy Palestinians, some of whom muttered curses and pointed fingers in the visitors' faces.

For the rest of the hourlong tour, as they strolled beneath the olive and cypress trees that line the plaza's perimeter, the Jews were trailed -- and sometimes surrounded -- by a bevy of security officers and Muslim worshipers. Several times, confrontations erupted, each side blaming the other for starting it.

For Harold Dershowitz of New Jersey, whose daughter lives in the same settlement, Alon Shevut, as Kaszovitz, the clashes between his tour group and the Muslims reinforced his reasons for making the pilgrimage.

"If we didn't do it, we'd lose it. Clearly these people think they own the place," said Dershowitz, 58.

"It's absolutely vital" for Jews to visit the Temple Mount, he added. "It's part of reclaiming the land. That's what I'm trying to do."

That's also precisely what Muslims fear. With the general reopening of the plaza, many Muslims charge that a plot is afoot to drive them from their third-holiest site, behind only Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.

The Israeli government contends that it is simply restoring the situation that prevailed before Sharon -- who is now prime minister -- visited three years ago.

Then, thousands of tourists trudged up to the plaza every day, including Jews and Christians.

Far fewer make the climb now, reflecting a precipitous drop in tourism throughout the Holy Land. A busy day might mean about 250 visitors, who are restricted to morning hours and limited time in the afternoons on Sunday through Thursday.

Most visitors appear to be tourists, some of them secular Jews, whose presence causes no incident as they wander the plateau, admiring the spectacular view and the two ancient Muslim sanctuaries, Al Aqsa and the golden-topped Dome of the Rock, which dominate the Jerusalem skyline.

But Adnan Husseini, the head of the Waqf, or trust, that maintains the compound, said the situation is different than before Sharon's visit. He said a larger proportion of visitors are religious Jewish settlers, many of whom embrace an ideology of "redeeming" land they believe was given to them by God, including all of Jerusalem and the West Bank.

"Now they allow 30, 40, 50 settlers in at a time. This is new," Husseini said. "And this gives them some power. The settlers can start doing religious activities.... It is very provocative for us."

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