JERUSALEM – A new Israeli proclamation to uphold a ban on Jewish prayer at Jerusalem's most sensitive holy site should have dealt a sobering blow to the die-hard activists who have spent years fighting for the right to worship at the spot, which is sacred to Muslims as well as Jews. Instead, it has only emboldened them.
The Jewish activists, whose visits to the site are at the center of a current round of violence are now pledging to step up their attempts to change the decades-old status quo by expanding their presence at the spot where the ancient Jewish Temple once stood.
A decade ago, there were only 200 or 300 Jewish visitors annually. Last year, activists say there were about 10,000.
"When we have 100,000 Jews visiting the Temple Mount, we will be able to demand Jewish prayer," said Yehuda Glick, a leading activist who survived an attempt on his life last year by a Palestinian gunman.
What Jews call the Temple Mount is known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, and it has become the focus of the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
Revered as Islam's third-holiest spot, it is home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the iconic gold-topped Dome of the Rock, which is where Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammad ascended to heaven. Jews believe the rock may be where the holiest part of the two ancient temples stood more than 2,000 years ago — and where religious Jews pray that a third temple will one day be built.
The site is so holy that Jews have traditionally refrained from praying on the hilltop, congregating instead at the adjacent Western Wall, a retaining wall of the ancient temple complex, which has become the top holy spot for Jewish prayer.
In a religiously subversive act, however, Jewish activist groups in recent years say Jews should instead focus on pushing for prayer at the contested hilltop compound itself.
For decades, these religious Jews who ignored rabbinic warnings that the site was too holy for Jews to tread on were seen as a fanatic fringe group. Their numbers have grown, however, and their cause has gained support among mainstream religious Jews and Israel's government.
In recent years, a parliamentary committee headed by Miri Regev, who is now a Cabinet minister from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party, held discussions about allowing Jewish prayer at the site.
This week, after Netanyahu pledged to uphold the status quo, Israel's deputy foreign minister and deputy defense minister, both devout Jews, told Israeli media they would like to see the Israeli flag flying over the Temple Mount. Their comments quickly drew a rebuke from Netanyahu's office and clarifications from both that they were expressing personal opinions.
Glick, who also is a senior member of Likud though he does not serve in parliament, pressed his case in a recent meeting with Netanyahu and in discussions with Israeli lawmakers this week. Reading between the lines, he thinks Netanyahu is saying there will be no Jewish prayers at the site for at least the time being.
"It does not say Jews are prohibited to pray," Glick said, referring to the statement by Netanyahu.
For Temple Mount activists, it is a numbers game.
Jewish visits to the site have increased by 20 percent each year for the last five years, Glick said, leading to about 10,000 Jewish visits by the end of 2014. That still pales in comparison to the approximately 3 million Muslims who visited the site last year, according to Glick's count. He predicts there will have been 14,000 Jewish visits to the site by the end of 2015.
Tension surrounding Jewish visits to the site is what helped spark the recent violence. Usually a few dozen Jews visit the site in a day, but calls by religious activists to go there last month on the eve of the Jewish New Year resulted in visits by about 300 Jews, including Agricultural Minister Uri Ariel, who was filmed reciting a Jewish prayer in front of his Israeli police escorts, openly flouting Israeli restrictions on worship.
These visits, coupled with some Israeli restrictions on Muslim access to the compound, fueled rumors among Palestinians that Israel was planning to disrupt the delicate status quo. Israel has adamantly denied the accusations.
Even in the last month and a half of violence, Temple Mount activists say there has been a steady increase in Jewish visitors, with at least a few first-timers joining the veterans each day. The Islamic Waqf, which administers religious affairs at the site, said 1,575 Jews visited in September and about 975 in October so far.
There are about 27 Jewish organizations dedicated to boosting Jewish visits to the site, according to the United Temple Mount Movement, an umbrella group representing them. These include groups of students, ultra-Orthodox Jews, women and one that has fashioned a golden menorah and other accouterments for use in a future temple.
Glick's group, the Temple Mount Heritage Foundation, has trained 100 tour guides for the site, and it recently published a booklet for visitors. Others post calls on social media for group visits, recruit leading rabbis to join them, and offer telephone consultations to religious Jews concerned about the rabbinic ban.
The groups mostly focus on boosting visitors and pushing for prayer rights, but they all maintain their goal of a messianic age when a Jewish Temple will be built — by most estimations where the Dome of the Rock stands today — and an altar added for the ritual slaughter of animals as prescribed by the Bible.
Until that time comes, Jewish visits continue as usual. On a recent morning, a group of six religious Jewish Israelis toured the perimeter of the site, surrounded by an entourage of six armed Israeli police and three Islamic Waqf guards who closely watched their movements.
The visits usually follow a well-choreographed pattern. As Jewish visitors pass the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Muslim women sitting in the shade chant "God is greatest," and Jews and Muslims take video of each other with their cellphones. Officers keep the Jewish group moving, and the chanting dies down.
One of the Jewish visitors was a woman from the West Bank settlement of Eli who was to be married that evening. She said, with a smile, that she had hoped the wedding could take place on the Temple Mount alongside the third Jewish Temple.
A Muslim with a white beard shouted at the passing group: "Get out of here! You have nothing to do with this place." The Israeli police escorts, who had until then maintained a stern demeanor, laughed along with the visitors. One veteran visitor said the man always shouts the same thing.
"He is crazy," one police officer said.
The Israelis took selfies in front of the Dome of the Rock before exiting the compound walking backward, careful not to turn their backs to the holy spot.
Once he passed the doorway, Gilad Hadari, an activist from the West Bank settlement of Alon Moreh, covered his face and whispered a Jewish prayer. Then he sang a Hebrew chant, "May the Temple be rebuilt," and walked up a cobblestone alley in Jerusalem's walled Old City.
As Hadari gave an interview to a TV crew, a Palestinian onlooker, Kifah Daana, heckled him.
"Have some respect. That just as we don't go to the Western Wall, don't go to our places," Daana said. "There is no Temple here. This is the Al-Aqsa Mosque."
Hadari said: "The place, mainly, is a place that belongs to the Jewish people."
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