In 2005, Muslim worshippers gather outside the Dome of the Rock Mosque, in the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, also known to Jews as the Temple Mount.
JERUSALEM (MCT) — A simple, ancient ritual is threatening the delicate security balance atop Jerusalem's most sacred plaza: Jews are praying.
On most days, dozens — sometimes hundreds — of Jewish worshippers ascend to the disputed 36-acre platform that Muslims venerate as Al Aqsa mosque and Jews revere as the Temple Mount with an Israeli police escort to protect them and a Muslim security guard to monitor their movements.
Then, they recite a quick prayer, sometimes quietly to themselves, other times out loud.
Jewish activists call the prayers harmless acts of faith. Police and Muslim officials see them as dangerous provocations, especially given the deep religious sensitivities of the site and its history of violence. Twelve years ago, the presence of Jews on the plaza was so controversial that a brief tour by Israeli politician Ariel Sharon helped trigger a Palestinian uprising that lasted more than four years.
But today Jewish worshippers are commonplace, coming in greater numbers than at any time since Israel's founding and perhaps, some scholars say, as far back as half a millennium ago. Their goal? To challenge the Israeli government's tacit acceptance and enforcement of a ban on Jews praying there by the Islamic trust that has continued to administer the site even after Israel captured the Old City in 1967.
Jewish visits to the plaza are expected to surpass 12,000 this year, up 30 percent from 2011, according to estimates by Jewish worshipper groups.
"What is provocative about a person wanting to pray?" Rabbi Chaim Richman asked after defying mainstream rabbinical religious rulings and risking arrest by praying on a recent morning near the golden Dome of the Rock. The world's oldest surviving Islamic monument, it's built atop the site where Jews believe their first temple held the Ten Commandments.
"It's the most basic human right," said Richman, international director of the Temple Institute. "I'm not asking to build a temple. I'm just asking to move my lips."
His group and others that advocate the rebuilding of a Jewish temple have often been dismissed by other Israelis and the international community as extremists and zealots who seek to destroy the Dome and the nearby Al Aqsa mosque. Now they are betting this prayer campaign will give their cause more mainstream support, portraying it as a matter of religious equality and free speech.
How can it be, they ask, that in the state of Israel, Jews and Christians are banned from praying at Judaism's holiest site, while Muslims can worship freely? Even the U.S. State Department has cited Israel's ban on non-Muslim prayer on the plaza in its annual report on religious freedom, they note.
The groups want the Israeli government to implement a time-sharing plan that would set aside certain hours for Jewish worship, similar to one used to divide Hebron's Cave of the Patriarchs, a holy site for both Muslims and Jews.
Palestinians and Muslim leaders call the prayer campaign the latest ruse designed to instigate clashes so Israel can justify putting the plaza under military control.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas last month accused Israel of launching a "fierce assault" on the mosque after soldiers broke up a Muslim riot triggered by a group of Jewish worshippers.
Jordan, which has maintained day-to-day supervision of the plaza through an Islamic trust called the Waqf, is asking the U.N.'s cultural body, UNESCO, to condemn Israel for permitting an increase in Jewish prayers.
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"The Israeli strategy is to take it over," said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, chairman of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, a Jerusalem think tank. "We don't want to share — not because we don't accept them, but because we don't trust them." He said the Hebron agreement was supposed result in sharing, but it led to bloody clashes between Jews and Muslims, and finally a military takeover.
Hadi also noted that temple-rebuilding extremists set fire to Al Aqsa mosque in 1969 and plotted to bomb the Dome of the Rock in the 1980s.