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Middle East

Jerusalem's famous flashpoint

Jerusalem's status is a bone of contention between Israelis and Palestinians. One flashpoint is the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, a sacred site of Muslim prayer - known as Temple Mount to Jews.

One hundred female Israeli soldiers and 35 Orthodox Jews from the US were recently guided onto the site in the Old City. The group was accompanied by journalist and radical rabbi Yehuda Glick, a former head of the Temple Institute. Israeli settlers have also entered the site in the past weeks, with one scaling the side of the

Dome of the Rock

in protest of the site being closed to non-Muslims during the day. The settlers reportedly exchanged verbal blows with Muslim worshippers.

Glick has campaigned that a third temple should be built in the place of the Dome of the Rock and

Al-Aqsa mosque

. Sheikh Azzam Al-Khatib, the general director of Muslim Endowment and Al-Aqsa Mosque Affairs, has condemned the actions, calling them "a provocative and dangerous step."

Restrictions for non-Muslim visitors

The site of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock is known as the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims and is their third holiest site. The plaza on which they both sit is known as Judaism's most holy place - the Temple Mount - where Jews believe the First and Second Temples once stood. The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.

Today, the site is one of the most contested holy sites in the world and the place of frequent tensions. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently cancelled his visit to the Dome of the Rock, citing security reasons.

The plaza has been the site of repeated violent demonstrations, clashes, stonings and shootings, despite being steeped in religious symbolism for Jews, Christian and Muslims alike.

Non-Muslim visitors are restricted from entering the site of Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, it is rare to have had a glimpse inside either.

golden dome Copyright: Kate Shuttleworth

All that glitters is not gold - at least for some

Al-Aqsa is located in East Jerusalem, a part of the internationally recognized Palestinian territories that have been occupied by the Israeli military since 1967. The glittering gold dome of the Dome of the Rock dominates the Skyline of Old Jerusalem and overlooks the Western Wall.

The head of the Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch told DW he did not accept Muslims preventing Jews from going up onto the plaza housing Al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock.

A holy monopoly?

"The Jewish way says we do not have a monopoly over god - that's why this place [The Western Wall] is open to everyone. A holy place should not be closed for anyone, no matter what his religion is, or what his view on life is."

Unlike radical Yehuda Glick, Rabbi Rabinovitch says Jews should not visit the site, he has put signs about the entrance to the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque saying it is forbidden for Jews to enter.

According to mainstream Jewish religious leaders, Jews are forbidden from entering for fear they would profane the "holy of holies," or the inner sanctum of the Second Temple.

Rabbi Rabinovich said Judaism also prevented them from digging inside the Temple Mount. When asked what he would like to see in a peace agreement if one arose this year he said he could not see a resolution for the claims over Jerusalem.

"Jerusalem is one of the more problematic places to come to agreement on - not everything has a solution. It will be impossible to remove Jews from the Western Wall and I am not sure there is a solution for the Old City of Jerusalem. I do want the world to know that Jews are peaceful and we do have ethics," he said.

Jerusalem and its holy sites came under Jewish control after the Six Day War in 1967. Since then Jerusalem has become the focal point of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as Palestinians insist Jerusalem is the capital of their intended state.

Western Wall tunnels

man next to a screen copyright Kate Shuttleworth

A site of major controversy

A lesser known part of Jerusalem's Old City are tunnels that weave underneath properties in the Muslim Quarter along the length of the Western Wall, a site sacred to Jewish people.

Today, the Western Wall tunnels that border the sacred sites of Al-Aqsa, Dome of the Rock and Temple Mount are open to tour groups. They were cleared out by the Israeli government and follow the length of the Western Wall. At first glance the tunnels seem to be carved out underground, but in reality they were built above ground.

The secretary to the Rabbi of the Western Wall and tunnel guide Devora Birkin said Muslims wanted to build their homes in the valley next to the western wall. "They decided to build a neighborhood in the air, you do this by elevating it with arches. Finally the neighborhood is completed and it's much closer to the height of the temple mount granting easy access into the mountain," said Birkin.

At the time the Ministry of Religious Affairs began excavations that show the continuation of the wall. Houses were cleared in front of the part of the Western Wall where today 57 meters of the wall are used for Jewish prayer. The remaining 438 meters can be seen in the tunnels.

Inside the tunnels there is a women's section for prayer overlooking the Western Wall, a 2,000-year-old room beside the Temple Mount with Roman features and an ancient Roman Street leading to Temple Mount. About 46 meters into the tunnel is a sealed entrance known as "the cave."

Old City Jerusalem Copyright: Kate Shuttleworth

Tour guide inside the western Wall tunnels

While early Muslims allowed Jews to pray there for hundreds of years, these days the site has become a focal point for the disputes and differences between the two sides. A resolution of the problem seems as distant as a solution to the Jerusalem question as a whole.

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