The Al Aqsa mosque compound is considered the third holiest site in Islam and was built in the late 7th century
Jewish Orthodox men look on the Dome of the Rock in the Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City. For many, the golden cupola of the Dome of the Rock is a symbol of Jerusalem. But for a growing number of Jewish zealots, the dream is to see a different skyline -- one dominated by the outline of a Third Jewish Temple. © Khaled Desouki - AFP/File
The Al Aqsa mosque compound  is considered the third holiest site in Islam and was built in the late 7th century
Jonah Mandel, AFP
Last updated: February 27, 2012

Modern day zealots envision new Jewish Temple in Jerusalem

"No singing. No dancing. No praying. No animals," reads the curiously worded sign greeting visitors heading up the rickety wooden ramp to the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City.

For the non-Jewish visitor, it takes a few moments for the significance of the words to sink in.

But for Jews, who revere the site as the former location of the First and Second Temples, it is a bitter reminder of a harsh reality -- they are not allowed to worship at Judaism's holiest site.

Known to Jews as the Temple Mount, the plaza is referred to by Muslims as Al-Haram Al-Sharif and is considered the third holiest site in Islam.

Home to the Al-Aqsa mosque and the golden-topped Dome of the Rock, the plaza is one of the most sensitive places in the Middle East.

For many, the golden cupola of the Dome of the Rock which dominates the Jerusalem skyline is a symbol of this Middle Eastern city.

But for a growing number of Jewish zealots, the dream is to see a different skyline -- one dominated by the outline of a Third Jewish Temple.

For the Palestinians and the Muslim world, such a move would be viewed as no less than an act of war, and one which could trigger unforeseeable consequences.

In September 2000, a controversial visit to the compound by Israel's hawkish opposition leader Ariel Sharon sparked the five-year second intifada.

And any Israeli attempt to build or to dig in the area around the Al-Aqsa compound tends to spark a furious reaction from the Palestinians, who frequently accused the Jewish state of trying to undermine the sacred plaza.

Early on a bright winter morning, a handful of nondescript Israelis gather among the hoards of tourists waiting to be checked by police before going through the Mughrabi Gate, the only entrance which is open to non-Muslims.

"We are not here as tourists, but as Jews who are ascending to God's mountain," explains Assaf Fried, the group's burly leader.

For him, these weekly visits have one goal: to build the Third Temple.

"Coming up here is so important, because it promotes the construction. You can't build without ascending," he says.

Bringing Jewish visitors to the site, Fried says, is crucial to raising awareness about the divine commandment to build the Temple.

"Building is a process that is also physical, but to reach that phase one must pass through many stages," he says, referring to the Jewish principle that 'deeds lead the heart' -- if you get the people to come, the desire to act will follow.

The Temple Mount is where the Bible says Solomon built the First Temple some 3,000 years ago to house the Ark of the Covenant.

In 586 BC, the Babylonians destroyed the Temple and sent the Israelites into exile, but work on the Second Temple began several decades later and it was finished in 516 BC.

Nearly 500 years later, the Temple was completely renovated and the plaza extended by the Roman ruler Herod, only to be sacked in 70 AD during the Roman siege of Jerusalem.

Today, few remnants remain, the most well-known of which is the Western Wall, one of the plaza's supporting walls.

The site remained empty until construction in the late 7th century of the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, which have remained there to this day.

Following the 1948 war which accompanied Israel's establishment, the site fell into Jordanian hands until 1967, when Israel occupied and later annexed east Jerusalem.

But despite declaring its sovereignty over the entire city, Israel left control of the compound in the hands of Jordan's Islamic Waqf.

Walking around the plaza, Fried explains where key elements of the Temple once stood, the small group closely guarded by two armed Israeli policemen -- and a Waqf "minder."

He watches them carefully to see there are no violations of the ban on prayer -- an Israeli court-sanctioned prohibition aimed at maintaining the fragile status quo.

"Why don't you show us what the priestly blessing would have sounded like?" prompts one of the group in a carefully staged suggestion.

Fried discreetly murmurs the prayer quickly, watched warily by the Waqf official who chooses to ignore this routine violation of the rules.

Most religious Jews pray daily for the restoration of the Temple, but for the vast majority, going up to the site is forbidden for reasons of ritual impurity.

"The discussion here is not political or diplomatic," says Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, head of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.

"Jewish law absolutely prohibits going to the Temple Mount, as long as we don't have the ability to cleanse ourselves from the impurity."

But for Fried and his ilk, the only way to ensure a restoration of the biblical order of things is for Jews to start returning to the site which for centuries served as the centre of Jewish sacrificial worship.

There are around 20 Jewish groups working to rebuild the Temple, one of which is the Temple Institute. It is working to make all the sacred vessels and priestly garments which will be used in the Third Temple.

Made from gold, copper, silver, wood and precious stones, they have been meticulously crafted in line with the exact specifications laid out in the Bible.

It is also researching the structure of the Temple, and trying to put together a working architectural plan for its reconstruction.

For many Israelis, such activities are not taken seriously. But the Palestinians see it as a dangerous trend.

"These are unacceptable actions that affect the feelings and sanctities of Muslims, and are construed on a dangerous empty logic," says Adnan al-Husseini, the Palestinian governor of Jerusalem.

"They are playing with fire," he tells AFP. "The Israeli government should prevent them from entering the Al-Aqsa compound.

"It is a group that operates with the knowledge of the Israeli government as part of the battle over the compound to change the status quo," Husseini charges.

Although the weekly visits are grudgingly tolerated, they often spark tension.

Over the past week, police and stone-throwers have clashed four times inside the compound, with more than 30 people arrested and dozens injured by stones or tear gas.

In three cases, the disturbances were sparked by the presence of religious Jews, or by rightwing extremists announcing plans to visit the flashpoint site.

"There are clear guidelines as to what is allowed and what is not," police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told AFP.

"Police intervene in the case of any violation, and carry out patrols to ensure the safety and prevent friction."

Among the Palestinians, the overriding fear is that these modern day zealots are bent on tearing down the Muslim shrines before the Temple can rise.

Their fears are not completely unfounded.

In 1984, police found a huge cache of weapons and explosives on the outskirts of Jerusalem and subsequently arrested more than 20 Jewish extremists in connection with a detailed a plot to blow up the mosques on the Temple Mount.

But even the most extreme Jewish nationalists know that such an act would spark nothing less than all-out war.

And today, most say they subscribe to a "two-shrine solution" which would see the Temple standing alongside the two mosques.

"We have no interest in Al-Aqsa, it is outside the limits of the Temple Mount," explains Fried, who says the Temple stood on the site now taken by the Dome of the Rock.

"We want the Temple where the Temple's place is, and Al-Aqsa can remain Al-Aqsa," he says.

"We're not here to provoke the Muslims, they don't interest us."

Religious groups claim that the number of Jews going up to the Temple Mount is growing, with a record number visiting the site last year.

But they do not provide figures, and they are far from sure when their ancient dream will be transformed into a reality.

"It will take a few more years," shrugs Fried.

"We're not working with stopwatches. But with God's help, I hope it will happen in this generation, in our time.

Known to Jews as the Temple Mount, the plaza is referred to by Muslims as Haram Al-Sharif and considered the third holiest site in Islam. Duration: 00:58.

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