Arts, Culture & Media

Jerusalem's holiest of holy sites

A Palestinian official posted an online article recently that said Jews neither revere nor have rights to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The Obama administration condemned the article and it's been taken down. But the episode points to a major challenge for any potential peace deal, as The World's Matthew Bell reports.

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Last week, a Palestinian official put up an article on an official website of the Palestinian Authority that claimed the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem was neither holy to Jews, nor did it belong to the Jewish State, but to Muslims.

The Israeli government quickly condemned the article. On Tuesday, the US State Department followed suit, saying it amounted to �denying historic Jewish connections to the land.�

The offending five-page article has been removed from the website. But the incident highlights a daunting obstacle to any leader who would seek a final status peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

Who will control Jerusalem's holiest site, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary?

Jews pray at the Western Wall, or �Wailing Wall,� because it's the holiest place on earth where they are allowed to pray.

The huge stone wall, which happens to be the most popular tourist destination in Israel, is part of what remains of four ancient retaining walls built to support what Jews call the
Temple Mount.

Judaism teaches that the Temple Mount is the dwelling place chosen by God for his divine presence. It's where God gathered dust to create Adam. It's where the �holy of holies,� which contained the Ten Commandments given by God to Moses, was stored. It's the spot where the first and second temples built by Jewish kings once stood, and some believe, it's where the third Jewish temple will one day be constructed.

�It's our heart,� Shmuel Rabinowitz told me. He's the rabbi of the Western Wall.

�I don't believe Jews need to show anyone that Jerusalem or the Temple Mount is ours.�

But what about sharing this place known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, because it is also where the al-Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock were built centuries ago?

Rabinowitz said he has a difficult time fathoming any Israeli prime minister agreeing to give up Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount.

�It's irrelevant to talk about that,� he said. �Why talk about changing the status quo?�

Here's how the status quo at the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount works.

Israeli law � though not the international community � considers all of the city of Jerusalem as sovereign territory of the Jewish state, including the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary. Israeli police and security forces control the entire Old City, which includes many of the most important holy sites for Jews, Muslims and Christians.

Israel security forces also control access to the to the al-Aqsa mosque compound, which includes the entire Temple Mount complex. During Muslim holy days, for example, men under the age of 50 have been prevented from entering.

But here's where things get complicated. It is the Islamic authorities of the Wakf foundation who are responsible for the religious affairs and administration of the Noble Sanctuary, including the mosques there.

Yusuf Natsheh is an archeologist and historian with the Wakf. He says the status quo with regard to the Haram al-Sharif, as the Noble Sanctuary is known is Arabic, is fundamentally flawed, starting with the way Israelis refer to the site.

�The Haram al-Sharif, it's not the Temple Mount, because using the Temple Mount in our point of view, it's a replacement, an eradication,� Natsheh said. �This area is called the Aqsa mosque for 1400 years. By emphasizing or repeating the Temple Mount, this is like calling someone whose name is Muhammad by calling him John.�

Natsheh said the biggest problem with the status quo is the way Israel maintains sovereignty over the third most important holy site for Islam, after Mecca and Medina.

�It is by force,� he said. �It is not by the Palestinian will. It is not by agreement, it is by might. People are under occupation. If you ask a Palestinian, he will say that the Western Wall is a property of Muslims.�

Israelis often point out, however, that while they have allowed Palestinians to keep some control over the Noble Sanctuary, Jews were not even allowed to visit their most important holy site under the previous authority.

Jordan controlled the Old City of Jerusalem after 1948 and it prevented Israeli Jews from praying at the Western Wall for 19 years. That changed in 1967, when Israeli paratroopers took control of Jerusalem's Old City during the Six Day War. Within hours of the doing so, however, defense minister Moshe Dayan made a historic decision: to give the Islamic Wakf authority over the Temple Mount.

Muslims would have access to the place from which they believe the prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven. Non-Muslims would be forbidden from praying anywhere in the mosque compound.

Former Israeli negotiator Yossi Beilin was a soldier at the time, who visited the Western Wall a few days after Israel's victory.

�We the soldiers went to the Wailing Wall. We were not interested at all in the mosques on the other side. It was a Muslim place,� Beilin said.

�Now, historically, it is more than reasonable to believe that it is the Jewish holiest place. And for the Arabs it is very difficult to admit it, because if this is true, it means that their holy place is built on Jewish ruins.�

Politically, Beilin is an important figure in the Israeli peace camp. He was part of an independent effort between Israelis and Palestianians to map out a workable Middle East peace plan, called the Geneva Initiative.

What about the fact that some Palestinians deny there was ever a Jewish temple on the Temple Mount? The late Yassir Arafat reportedly said as much. Palestinian officials also continue to say that they see no solid archeological evidence that proves the existence of any Jewish temple on the Temple Mount. I asked Beilin how he feels about such claims.

�You know it's not very pleasant, but if you ask me whether it destroys my day, the answer is negative,� he said.

�I am living with my truth and I don't need them to verify it. In any peace treaty, those who would like to go there will be allowed to go there. There is no peace agreement which will prevent Jews from going to the Temple Mount and this is why I believe the problem is more artificial than we think.�

Nonetheless, the problem has never been resolved.

In the summer of 2000, president Clinton sequestered Israeli and Palestinians leaders and they finally started negotiating many of the toughest issues at stake. Control over the Temple Mount proved to be one of the toughest hurdles of all.

According to Clinton's memoir, the Israelis offered the Palestinians �custodianship� over the Temple Mount and �sovereignty� over the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City. But Arafat, Clinton wrote, wanted full sovereignty over the Noble Sanctuary and nothing less. The talks ended without a peace deal. And several weeks later, the second intifada broke out.

During a speech in September 2010, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert detailed a proposal he'd made to the Palestinians two years earlier. Olmert's offer was to create an arrangement where the Temple Mount and Western Wall would be administered by an international trusteeship of Israelis, Palestinians, Saudis, Jordanians and Americans. Olmert says he never got a response to the offer from the Palestinians.

Still, he told an audience in Tel Aviv, there is no other alternative.

�We cannot reach an agreement if any of the sides claim exclusive sovereignty on the Holy Basin,� Olmert said, referring to the Old City and its immediate surroundings.

�About this question of the sovereignty of Holy Basin of Jerusalem. It won't be ours and it won't be the Palestinians',� he said.

Still, even if Palestinians were to buy into such a deal, it's hard to imagine that Israel's current right-wing governing coalition would go along with it.