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Published December 11, 2015
Jewish and Muslim grassroots groups, self-declared defenders of their faiths, have played a key role in rising Israeli-Palestinian tensions, stepping up activities at a contested Jerusalem shrine at the heart of the current violence.
Each side has accused the other of causing provocations, as religious activists become more organized.
Israel pins much of the blame on a domestic fundamentalist group, the Islamic Movement, saying it whipped up Palestinian anger with claims that Israel is plotting to take over the Muslim-run site. Those claims, dismissed by Israel as incitement, reflect widespread Palestinian fears fueled by the doubling of Jewish visits to the shrine since 2010.
Backed by senior Israeli politicians, activists have become more vocal in demanding Jewish prayer rights on the mount. Some call for the site's partition and the rebuilding of the biblical Jewish Temple that once stood there.
"As more and more Jews are going up, it is clear that this is bringing us closer to the immediate goal of prayer (rights), and afterward, the Temple," said Elishama Sandman, 19, who has led Jewish tours on the mount.
Muslim activists have also beefed up their presence in recent years, with funding and logistical support from the Islamic Movement and Palestinian factions in the West Bank.
Young Palestinians sporting headbands of different factions, including the militant Hamas, have clashed with Israeli police, throwing stones and firebombs from a mosque in the compound and drawing tear gas and stun grenades.
Scores of older Muslims, many bused to the shrine by the Islamic Movement, spend hours on the mount each day, some disrupting visits of Jews with curses and chants of "God is Great."
Israelis "got our land and now they want to get our holy places," said a 65-year-old Muslim man. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions from authorities after he yelled at Jewish visitors.
Frictions have peaked during Jewish holidays, a busy time for Jewish visits. Since the Jewish New Year in mid-September, repeated clashes between Palestinians and police at the compound triggered deadly violence in other parts of Jerusalem, across Israel and in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
With religious passions unleashed, violence could rapidly escalate — as it did in 2000 after then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited the shrine in a demonstrative act that helped trigger the second Palestinian uprising.
WHY IS THE SHRINE SO IMPORTANT?
The 37-acre (15 hectare) holy site — the size of 21 soccer pitches — anchors competing religious and national identities of Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians.
Known to Jews as the Temple Mount, it's the holiest site in Judaism. The devout believe that God's presence is most keenly felt here and revere it as the home of the biblical Jewish Temples. Believers say Jewish religious practice is only complete once the Temple has been rebuilt.
Leading rabbis, citing religious purity laws, have banned entry to the compound since Israel captured it in 1967, along with the rest of east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. Israel's chief rabbis reaffirmed the ban in 2013, but several leading clerics from the religious Zionist stream linked to the settler movement had already given the go-ahead to ascend.
Most Jews continue to worship exclusively at the adjacent Western Wall, a Temple remnant.
For 1.6 billion Muslims, the hilltop is the third holiest site of their religion, marking the spot where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. The enclosure houses the gold-topped Dome of the Rock and the thousand-year-old Al-Aqsa Mosque. A prayer performed here is believed to be 500 times more powerful than one in an ordinary mosque.
The compound is run by Islamic religious officials, while Jordan, which controlled the site before 1967, serves as guardian. After nearly half a century of living under Israeli occupation, many Palestinians feel the shrine is the only spot that remains truly theirs.
Israel reopened the compound to non-Muslim visitors in 2003, three years after Sharon's visit.
Police say they coordinate the visits with the Waqf, or Muslim administration. The Waqf says it no longer has a decisive say in the matter.
Initially, the number of Jewish visitors was relatively small — just under 5,800 in 2010. It has grown since to just under 11,000 last year, according to figures Jewish activists say they obtained from police and that are roughly in line with those provided by the Islamic Movement.
"People suddenly realize, yes, we have to go there (to the shrine)," said Yehuda Glick, a prominent Temple Mount campaigner who was shot and seriously wounded by a Palestinian last year. "All our activity is bringing the awareness of the Temple Mount."
More grass-roots groups have sprung up.
A year ago, Jerusalem tour guides began organizing courses for those taking groups around the mount. Since then, 30 have been trained, and one is present at the shrine every day, said Aviya Fraenkel, a founder of the ad hoc group.
"These are dreams that every child in kindergarten is familiar with, and it takes people a bit of time to say, 'Wait a moment, perhaps this is not just a dream, perhaps this can be reality'," said Fraenkel, 29.
Under the "status quo," or post-1967 understandings between the Waqf and Israel, Jews are not allowed to pray in the compound. Religious Jews are escorted by police, who remove those who appear to be praying.
Last week, police were seen escorting a teenage boy out of the compound. Jewish seminary student Meir Taler, 23, said the teen had been one of five people in his group.
Taler and other activists said they don't want to cause trouble, framing their demands as a freedom of worship issue. "It's a lie to say that we are the ones who are not OK, that we are creating tensions," Taler said.
Senior Israeli politicians, including members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Cabinet and Likud party, have taken up the cause, giving it wider attention in Israel's public discourse. Housing Minister Uri Ariel of the Jewish Home, Netanyahu's main coalition partner, has frequently entered the site.
Netanyahu has tried to cool the atmosphere, saying repeatedly he does not intend to change the status quo. He also ordered Cabinet ministers and legislators to refrain from visits to the shrine.
A branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, led by fundamentalist preacher Raed Salah, has made the mosque compound its banner issue. Salah has alleged in speeches and annual rallies under the heading "Al-Aqsa is in Danger" that Israel plans to expand its control there.
Since 2001, the Islamic Movement has bused tens of thousands of supporters to the mosque compound every year to strengthen the Muslim presence. It also translates Hebrew-language commentary and news stories relating to the shrine into Arabic, and the translations are widely published in the Palestinian media.
Several years ago, the movement helped form groups of male and female activists, known as "Morabitoun" — loosely translated as defenders of Islamic lands — who spend hours each weekday at the shrine and try to disrupt visits by Jews. Movement officials are evasive about financing, but one participant said those spending their days on the mount, including attending Islamic study circles, would get about $400 a month for expenses.
On a recent morning, about 200 activists, most women, sat in small circles under pine trees across the compound. At one point, the shouts of "God is Great" could be heard. Muslim activists, some cursing, were shouting at about 30 religious Jews, alleging some had attempted to pray. Police rushed the Jews off the mount.
Tensions rise on days when large numbers of Jewish groups are expected, including Jewish holidays. Police often ban younger Muslims from the shrine on such occasions, saying it's a way to reduce friction.
Typically, several dozen young Palestinians spend the night inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque before the age restrictions kick in, and clash with police trying to sweep the compound the next day. Police have fired tear gas, stun grenades, rubber-coated steel pellets and some live rounds, while Palestinians have thrown stones, firebombs, firecrackers and metal chairs.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has urged Palestinians to stick to "popular resistance," or marches and stone-throwing, arguing that armed attacks undermine Palestinian interests.
However, he also suggested that Israel poses a threat to the mosque compound.
"We tell the Israeli government, 'Stay away from our holy places, the Islamic and Christian holy places'," he said last week. In previous comments, he blamed Israelis for clashes and said, using particularly harsh words, that "we will not let them desecrate (holy sites) with their filthy feet."
Netanyahu has accused Abbas and the Islamic Movement of inciting to violence. On Sunday, he discussed possible steps against the Islamic Movement, including outlawing it, with his Cabinet.
Israeli authorities have banned Glick and Salah from the shrine, along with other activists from both sides. During periods of tension, police at times block busloads of Islamic Movement supporters from Jerusalem. Earlier this year, Israel outlawed three associations suspected of funding the Morabitoun and last month declared the group itself illegal.