29 February 2012

Zealots eye New Jewish Temple in Jerusalem

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man stands in front of the Dome of the Rock during a visit by a group of religious Jews to the Al-Aqsa mosques compound under Israeli police protection in Jerusalem's Old City. (Ahmad Gharabli, AFP)
Jerusalem - "No singing. No dancing. No praying. No animals," reads the curiously-worded sign greeting visitors heading up the rickety wooden ramp to the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City.
For the non-Jewish visitor, it takes a few moments for the significance of the words to sink in.

But for Jews, who revere the site as the former location of the First and Second Temples, it is a bitter reminder of a harsh reality - they are not allowed to worship at Judaism's holiest site.

Known to Jews as the Temple Mount, the plaza is referred to by Muslims as Al-Haram Al-Sharif and considered the third holiest site in Islam.

Home to the Al-Aqsa mosque and the golden-topped Dome of the Rock, the plaza is one of the most sensitive places in the Middle East.

For many, the golden cupola of the Dome of the Rock which dominates the Jerusalem skyline, is a symbol of this Middle Eastern city.

Act of war

But for a growing number of Jewish zealots, the dream is to see a different skyline - one dominated by the outline of a Third Jewish Temple.

For the Palestinians and the Muslim world, such a move would be viewed as no less than an act of war, and one which could trigger unforeseeable consequences.

In September 2000, a controversial visit to the compound by Israel's then hawkish defence minister Ariel Sharon sparked the five-year second intifada.

And any Israeli attempt to build or to dig in the area around the Al-Aqsa compound tends to spark a furious reaction from the Palestinians, who frequently accuse the Jewish state of trying to undermine the sacred plaza.

Early on a bright winter morning, a handful of nondescript Israelis gather among the hordes of tourists waiting to be checked by police before going through the Mughrabi Gate, the only entrance which is open to non-Muslims.

"We are not here as tourists, but as Jews who are ascending to God's mountain," explains Assaf Fried, the group's burly leader.

Biblical history

For him, these weekly visits have one goal: To build the Third Temple.

"Coming up here is so important, because it promotes the construction. You can't build without ascending."

The Temple Mount is where the Bible says Solomon built the First Temple around 3 000 years ago to house the Ark of the Covenant.

In 586 BC, the Babylonians destroyed the Temple and sent the Israelites into exile, but work on the Second Temple began several decades on and was finished in 516 BC.

Nearly 500 years later, the Temple was completely renovated and the plaza extended by the Roman ruler Herod, only to be sacked in 70 AD during the Roman siege of Jerusalem.

Today, few remnants still stand, the most well-known of which is the Western Wall, one of the plaza's supporting walls.

Under guard

The site remained empty until construction in the late 7th century of the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, which are still there to this day.

Following the 1948 war which accompanied Israel's establishment, the site fell into Jordanian hands, until 1967 when Israel occupied and later annexed east Jerusalem.

But despite declaring its sovereignty over the entire city, Israel left control of the compound in the hands of Jordan's Islamic Waqf, or trust - the custodian of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem in co-ordination with the Palestinians.

Walking around the plaza, Fried explains where key elements of the Temple once stood, the small group closely guarded by two armed policemen - and a Waqf minder who watches them carefully.

"Why don't you show us what the priestly blessing would have sounded like," prompts one of the group, in a carefully-staged suggestion.

Fried discreetly quickly murmurs the prayer, watched warily by the Waqf official, who chooses to ignore this routine violation of the rules.


Most religious Jews pray daily for the restoration of the Temple, but for the vast majority, going up to the site is forbidden due to ritual impurity.

"The discussion here is not political or diplomatic," says Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, head of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.

"Jewish law absolutely prohibits going to the Temple Mount, as long as we don't have the ability to cleanse ourselves from our impurity."

But for Fried and his ilk, the only way to ensure a restoration of the Biblical order of things, is for Jews to start going back to the site which for centuries served as the centre of Jewish sacrificial worship.

There are around 20 Jewish groups working to rebuild the Temple. One, the Temple Institute, is working on making all the sacred vessels and priestly garments which will be used in the Third Temple.

Made from gold, copper, silver, wood and precious stones, they have been meticulously crafted in line with the exact specifications laid out in the Bible.

Dangerous trend

The institute is also researching the structure of the Temple, and trying to put together a working architectural plan for its reconstruction.

For many Israelis, such activities are not taken seriously.

But the Palestinians see it as a dangerous trend.

"These are unacceptable actions that affect the feelings and sanctities of Muslims, and are construed on a dangerous empty logic," says Adnan al-Husseini, the Palestinian governor of Jerusalem.

"They are playing with fire," he said. "The Israeli government should prevent them from entering the Al-Aqsa compound.

"It is a group that operates with the knowledge of the Israeli government as part of the battle over the compound to change the status quo," he charged.

1 person killed

Though the weekly visits are grudgingly tolerated, they often spark tension.

Over the past week, police and stonethrowers clashed several times inside the compound, with one person killed, more than 30 people arrested and dozens injured by stones or teargas.

In three cases, the disturbances were sparked by the presence of religious Jews, or by right-wing extremists announcing plans to visit the flashpoint site.

"There are clear guidelines as to what is allowed and what is not," police spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld said.

"Police intervene in the case of any violation, and carry out patrols to ensure the safety and prevent friction."

Some of these modern-day zealots believe the Muslim shrines must first be torn down before the Temple can rise. Others say they subscribe to a "two-shrine solution".

Growing interest

"We have no interest in Al Aqsa, it is outside of the limits of the Temple Mount," explains Fried who says the Temple stood on the site where the Dome of the Rock now stands.

"We want the Temple where the Temple's place is, and Al-Aqsa can remain Al-Aqsa," he says.

"We're not here to provoke the Muslims, they don't interest us."

Religious groups claim the number of Jews going up to the Temple Mount is growing with a record number visiting the site last year.

But they don't provide figures. And they are far from sure when their ancient dream will be transformed into a reality.

"It will take a few more years," shrugs Fried.

"We're not working with stop-watches. But with God's help, I hope it will happen in this generation, in our time."

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