Far-right Israelis are pressing for an end to an effective ban on holding Jewish prayers at a Jerusalem holy compound once dominated by Biblical temples and now home to al-Aqsa mosque, one of Islam’s most revered sites.
Palestinians oppose Jewish worship at the vast stone plaza overlooking Judaism’s Western Wall as a potential threat to access for Muslims.
Aware of the volatile mix of politics and religion, Israel has largely stymied such prayer for 46 years by having its police prevent Jewish worship at the site on grounds it could cause a public disturbance.
Palestinian concerns have been heightened, however, by the fact that allies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are among the most vocal advocates of Jewish prayer at the 35-acre site that is revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.
This month alone, Israeli police have hauled away half a dozen Israelis from the site. A Jewish Israeli and an Arab citizen were held in connection with a brawl that injured a Muslim official and four other Jewish men were detained for prostrating themselves on the holy ground.
Several other Israelis have been questioned in the past two months for trying to pray at the compound during police-escorted sightseeing tours. A lamb was seized from another Israeli who had plans to slaughter it in ritual sacrifice.
Israeli police accompany most visitors to the compound, where escorted tours are held frequently. They cross a wooden bridge to a gate where plastic police shields and other riot-control gear are stored, a ready display of how quickly the otherwise serene atmosphere can sometimes go awry.
Visitors are closely watched by both the police and the Muslim religious officials of the Waqf who administer the compound and keep an eye out to make sure no Jewish worship takes place. Anyone wearing Jewish religious garb is generally kept away from the Islamic holy tract.
At the compound, one group of visitors walked past al-Aqsa, drawing shouting from Muslim women sitting in the shade of tree and from Palestinian children attending a day camp. They ignored the catcalls and continued deeper into the plaza.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has denounced the Israeli visits as a part of a “dangerous and an evil plot to demolish al-Aqsa” and build what he calls “an alleged temple”.