The issue of Jerusalem is one of the central pieces of any possible Palestinian-Israeli peace. Jerusalem must become the capital of both Palestine and Israel in order for there to be peace.
Jerusalem must remain an open city, not physically divided by walls and fences, in order for it to survive and prosper as an urban center.
Jerusalem’s holy sites must be protected, open to all to conduct their religious rites and to enable people from all religions to appreciate the cultures and civilizations that exist there.
Today Jerusalem is not open, it is not united and there is no free and protected access for all to religious sites. There cannot be peace in Jerusalem unless this changes.
Jerusalem’s religious sites, if not treated with their due respect and honor, have the potential of becoming the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, bringing the entire region to explosion. For this reason, it is essential that we all know more about each other and our connections to the holy city of Jerusalem.
The flashpoint holy site which contains the al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, is referred to as the Temple Mount by Jews, who consider it their holiest site.
This is the place where, Jews believe, God commanded Abraham to take his son for sacrifice and then saved him and commanded Abraham to sacrifice a lamb instead. According to Jewish tradition, it is also the place where the First and Second Temples stood. This is why when Jews pray, they pray toward Jerusalem. When they pray inside Jerusalem, they face the site.
Notwithstanding the overwhelming importance that Judaism places on Jerusalem, Judaism’s mainstream rabbis, the official Rabbinate of the State of Israel and the vast majority of ultra-Orthodox rabbis have all determined that Jews should not even step foot on the site.
The reason for that is the sanctity of the site and the belief that only God can rebuild the Temple. According to Jewish law this will happen when the messiah comes. Until that time, Jews are instructed not to ascend it.
Mainstream rabbis and the chief rabbinate of the State of Israel and all of the important ultra-Orthodox rabbis have not changed their decree, but there is a small minority amongst extremist right-wing elements in Israel that call for Jews to defy the status quo and enter the site anyway.
Among those who have issued such calls are members of the Israeli government, among them Likud MKs and others like Moshe Feiglin, Tzipi Hotovely, Miri Regev, and Jewish Home MK Uri Arieli. They have a following in Israel and during Jewish holidays they attempt to make demonstrative visits to the site.
Most of the time, their visits are prevented in the name of public order and safety. Sometimes, their visits are allowed. Israeli law allows for Jews to visit the site, but not to pray there.
The Camp David negotiations of July 2000 exploded over the issue of Jerusalem when Ehud Barak tried to get President Clinton to get President Arafat’s agreement to have a recognized place for Jewish prayer atop the holy site.
Arafat responded that he was not negotiating Jerusalem solely on behalf of the Palestinians, but also on behalf of more than 1 billion Muslims worldwide.
When Barak broke the Israeli taboo on negotiating Jerusalem, opposition leader Ariel Sharon challenged Barak and demanded the right to visit the Temple Mount.
Sharon’s call and subsequent visit was a provocation against Barak and not against Palestinians or Muslims, but some groups in Palestine, such as Sheikh Raed Salah of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, spread false rumors that Israel was planning to take over the al-Aqsa mosque.
He claimed that the purpose of Sharon’s visit was to take over the mosque and to divide it as is the case of the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, which Jews call the Cave of the Patriarch. This had absolutely no basis on any real facts.
Still, tens of thousands of people showed up to a rally under the banner “al-Aqsa is in danger”. The claims of threats to al-Aqsa spread like wildfire and people were called to stand against Israel’s plans.
But there are no Israeli plans to take over al-Aqsa. There are no plans to demolish the mosque or to divide it and allow a space for Jewish prayer. The Israeli government is well aware of the extremely sensitive nature of this issue.
Those who raise the threat level surrounding al-Aqsa or the Haram are being dangerously irresponsible. Al-Aqsa is not in danger. Those who spread the rumors and the fears otherwise are playing with fire. These kinds of rumors could easily cost countless innocent human lives.
It is absolutely mandatory that responsible people on both sides calm the atmosphere regarding the Haram and al-Aqsa. Responsible leaders in Israel and in Palestine should immediately issue statements that no steps will be taken by anyone that will endanger the holy places or the rights of people to have free access to them.
Israel should repeatedly announce that when there are no threats to public safety, free access to the Haram is ensured, as was demonstrated during the holy month of Ramadan. The policy of free and safe access to holy places must be guaranteed by religious leaders and political authorities.
The author is the co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect Ma’an News Agency’s editorial policy.
Originally Published by the Ma’an News Agency
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.
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