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Jerusalem's Temple Mount remains obstacle in peace talks

JERUSALEM, Israel, 31 August 2000 (Newsroom) -- As Israeli and Palestinian
leaders continue their pursuit of an illusive peace agreement, the question of
who will control Temple Mount -- sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims -- looms
as the biggest obstacle to a settlement.

Discussion about the status of Temple Mount was taboo in Israel until recently.
Opening the subject for debate has provoked powerful opposition from the Israeli
nationalist-religious camp, which claims broad support from Jews around the
world and has threatened violence if the sacred site comes under Palestinian

Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Conference of Islamic countries, meeting in Morocco, on
Tuesday adopted a resolution calling for the creation of a Palestinian state
with Jerusalem as its capital and Palestinian sovereignty over Muslim and
Christian holy places. The conference also called on the United States not to
move its embassy to Jerusalem.

Temple Mount is sacred to Jews as the site of the First and Second Temples (the
temples of Solomon and Herod the Great) and to Christians as the mountain where
Jesus of Nazareth preached. Judaism maintains that the Temple Mount will be the
place where the Messiah will come. Many Christians share that belief with
respect to Jesus. Today the compound contains the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa
Mosque, Islam's third-holiest site after Mecca and Medina, because it is
believed to be the place where Muhammad ascended into heaven.

Known in the Arab world as Al-Haram al-Sharif, the Temple Mount was annexed by
Israel in 1967. The Israelis declared that the Mount would remain a Muslim site,
but Jews could visit. The de-facto policy, however, was that Jews would not turn
it into a place of worship. That policy has held because the chief Israeli
rabbis ruled that Jews should not set foot on the Mount due to its sanctity.
Although Israel retains formal sovereignty over the Temple Mount, the site is
governed by an Islamic trust that allows non-Muslims to visit the compound
during limited hours and prohibits Jewish or Christian worshipers from reading
prayers aloud. The Chief Rabbinate, which was to make a decision on the
establishment of a synagogue on the Temple Mount last week, delayed its verdict
under pressure from the Israeli government.

Peace negotiators are focusing on a proposal where no one would have sovereignty
over the Temple Mount, but Palestinians would have authority over the Al-Aqsa
Mosque, and there would be a place on the site where Jews could pray.
Egypt, under pressure from the U.S. to soften the position of Palestinian leader
Yasser Arafat, has suggested a compromise by which the Palestinians would have
sovereignty over Al-Aqsa, but not the Temple Mount, and Arab neighborhoods in
east Jerusalem. Ultimate responsibility for security within the city would
remain with Israel.

Arafat, meanwhile, is seeking international Christian support for Arab
sovereignty over the entire site. The Palestinian leader frequently declares
himself to be not only the guardian of Islamic sacred sites, but of Christian
holy places as well. Palestinians are continuing construction work on the Mount,
however, turning the underground vaults (Solomon's Stables) into a mosque and
damaging archeological layers that contain remnants of Jewish temples.

"(Prime Minister Ehud) Barak and Clinton were naive to think that Arafat could
sign an agreement recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Haram," asserted
Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy Research. "Never
has a Muslim leader, in the history of Islam, willingly abandoned sovereignty
over holy places. ... That would make Arafat a pariah in all the Arab and Muslim

During the Camp David talks in July, three Jerusalem Patriarchs -- Latin, Greek
Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox -- and the Vatican-appointed Custos of the Holy
Land sent a letter to U.S., Israeli, and Palestinian leaders asking to keep the
Old City of Jerusalem undivided, to preserve the status-quo of churches, and to
allow their representatives to participate at that summit and at all future
talks to guarantee Christians' rights in the Holy City.

In Morocco this week, a delegation of six envoys from Christian churches in
Jerusalem took part in the conference for the first time. The head of the
delegation argued for the return of Jerusalem to Arab control.

"Al-Quds (the Arab name for Jerusalem) is an Arab and Palestinian city with its
holy shrines, holy Islamic and Christian shrines," maintained Atallah Hannah,
the Greek Orthodox head of the delegation and an ethnic Arab. "There will be no
peace in the region unless the city is returned to its legitimate owners and
becomes the capital of the Palestinian independent state."

However, Shmuel Avitar, the Jerusalem mayor's adviser on Christian affairs, told
Newsroom that Jerusalem's historic Christian communities, the majority of whom
are ethnic Arabs, fear the Palestinian Authority because of its record of
corruption and discrimination against Christians. They reject any division of
the Old City. Since it is Israel which now rules there, such a stand implies the
continuation of Israeli control.

At the same time, the churches have renewed their call for international
guarantees for the holy places. "In the past such calls were seen as directed
against Israel, but there has been almost universal praise for Israel's
administration of the holy sites," Avitar said. "With the perspective of
Palestinian control, the guarantees might well be something the churches now
sincerely want."

Approximately 5,000 Christian Arabs, 2,300 Armenian Orthodox, and 23,000 Muslims
live in the Old City. The Christians are mainly middle-class shopkeepers, while
Muslims typically are laborers or depend on Israeli unemployment benefits. The
Christian and Armenian populations are dwindling rapidly, however.
"The Christians have left because of Muslim social and political pressure and
the rise of Islamic nationalism," explained Amir Cheshin, an adviser on East
Jerusalem to the previous mayor of Jerusalem.
Most of the Christian Arabs, according to the polls, favor Jerusalem becoming an
international city, run by the UN. Israeli and Palestinian leaders reject that

Because of the emotional and symbolic significance of the Temple Mount, neither
side is prepared to cede complete sovereignty to the other. Both Barak and
Arafat argue that their people would never accept such an agreement.
In recent weeks, Jewish radical groups have staged protests near the Temple
Mount, threatening violence if Israel gives up the site. The group "Temple Mount
Faithful" was prevented by Israeli police from entering the site for prayer and
filed a new High Court petition. Jan van der Hoeven of the International
Christian Zionist Center told Newsroom that the center is trying to "rally
international Christian support" for Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert and former
Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, who strongly oppose negotiating the Mount's

Gershon Baskin, director of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and
Information, contends that the only possibility for resolution "is that the
Palestinians may give on some kind of 'divine sovereignty' over the Temple
Mount. There would be deniability of the other side's sovereignty."
Shikaki proposes a purposefully vague formula whereby both sides could claim
sovereignty over the holy sites. "The Palestinians could have 'effective
sovereignty' and Israel could retain formal sovereignty, though the part about
Israel won't appear at all in the agreement," he suggested. "Arafat would just
not mention it, but Barak could tell his people the day after the signing that
Israel never renounced its own sovereignty."