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Despite Arab government denials, Muslim officials on the ground confirm Jewish extremists are escalating plans to destroy Al-Aqsa Mosque

By Khaled Amayreh in occupied Jerusalem *

Government-backed Jewish religious extremists have stepped up their efforts to seize a foothold at Al-Aqsa Mosque esplanade in East Jerusalem, ostensibly in order to erect there a Jewish temple.

Al-Aqsa Mosque is one of the three holiest Islamic sanctuaries. The other two are the Sacred Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet Mohamed's Mosque in Medina in Saudi Arabia.

On Sunday, 25 October crack Israeli soldiers stormed the Al-Aqsa site, firing rubber-coated bullets, stun grenades and tear gas canisters at Muslim worshipers. The troops also savagely beat Palestinian worshipers, including women and children. The paramilitary police, known as the Border Guard, also briefly shut off the Noble Sanctuary (the 141,000-square metre court housing Islamic holy places), barring Muslims from accessing the site.

More than 20 were injured, some badly, and dozens of others arrested. The Israeli occupation authorities also cut off electricity to the Old City of Jerusalem, including Al-Aqsa Mosque.

The new violation of the holy site by Israeli forces followed a call by Muslim leaders in Jerusalem alerting inhabitants to go to the mosque and maintain a presence there to repulse a fresh attempt by Jewish extremists to storm the Noble Sanctuary and seize a foothold to practise Jewish rituals. Jewish extremists, along with some government officials, hope that persistent provocations at the exclusively Islamic holy site will allow them to worship at the site and eventually build a Jewish temple.

Many Jews believe that the ancient Temple of Solomon stood where Al-Aqsa Mosque was built more than 1,300 years ago. Destroying Al-Aqsa Mosque and building a Jewish temple in its place is said by some extremists to be a condition for the second coming of Christ.

In recent days and weeks, Talmudic extremists placed a huge menorah — a Jewish religious symbol — opposite the Dome of the Rock Mosque. Other extremists erected at the same place a model of the so-called Temple of Solomon. Israeli occupation authorities made no effort to stop the manifestly provocative acts.

Meanwhile, the religious Zionist camp in Israel, which spearheads anti-Islam provocations at Al-Aqsa esplanade, held a meeting in West Jerusalem during which Jews were urged to descend to the Islamic holy place and wrest it from the hands of the "goyem" (a derogatory epithet for non-Jews). The meeting was attended by several prominent rabbis affiliated with the settler movement, as well as several Knesset members and other extremist leaders.

Following the meeting, a statement issued called on Jews to maintain a presence at the "Temple Mount" to prevent Arabs from turning the site into "a theatre of violence". Participants urged Jews interested in "changing the status quo at the Temple Mount" to "work more and speak less" and to carry out their task "quietly and through subterfuge".

Earlier, the Israeli media reported that Israel was planning a "major archaeological excavation under Al-Buraq Court", renamed "the Western Wall plaza". Historically, the place had always been part of Al-Aqsa Mosque until the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem in 1967. The excavation, Muslim leaders argue, could seriously destabilise the foundations of Al-Aqsa Mosque and other nearby historic Muslim structures. Israeli officials pay little or no attention to Muslim protests and often invoke the mantra that Jerusalem is Israel's eternal and undivided capital.

Adnan Al-Husseini is the head of the Supreme Muslim Council, the body overseeing and running the Haram Al-Sharif compound. He accuses Israel of "planning to destroy Al-Aqsa Mosque by way of digging subterranean tunnels in its vicinity."

"When they speak to the media or meet with some Muslim officials from Turkey or Egypt and Jordan, they assure them that everything is fine and that the Islamic holy site faces no danger. However, we who live here and see things with our eyes on a daily basis are sure 100 per cent that Israel's ultimate goal is the demolition of the mosque and the building of a Jewish temple." Al-Husseini added: "Are we to believe Israeli lies and mendacious denials or our own eyes?"

Sheikh Mohamed Hussein, another prominent Muslim official at Jerusalem's Noble Sanctuary, described the situation as "very, very dangerous". "The Israeli authorities are trying to desensitise Muslim public opinion in the hope that Muslims at a certain point would accept a partitioning of this Islamic holy place. But, of course, this will never ever happen."

Hussein urged Muslim governments and peoples "to do away with words and routine condemnations and take meaningful measures to protect Al-Aqsa Mosque from Israel's evil design." He added: "The situation can't continue like this. The Arab-Muslim world must take immediate action to protect Al-Aqsa Mosque. Muslim states that have diplomatic ties with Israel must act as well."

According to Sheikh Taysir Tamimi, the chief judge of the Palestinian Authority, present Israeli provocations in Jerusalem are aimed primarily at partitioning Al-Aqsa esplanade.

"They want to take over Al-Aqsa Mosque step by step as they did with the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron following the massacre of 1994." There Israeli occupation authorities partitioned the mosque, one of the most ancient in occupied Palestine, between Jews and Muslims, giving Jews the lion's share of the ancient structure where the patriarch Ibrahim (Abraham) is believed to be buried. (In Islam, Ibrahim, Isaac, Jacob and other Israelite prophets are also considered Muslim prophets).

Muslims never accepted the partitioning, stressing that the mosque was an Islamic site of worship for more than 1,300 years.

On Al-Aqsa, demonstrations have taken place in several Muslim countries, calling on Muslim governments to take proactive steps against Israel, including severing diplomatic ties. However, it is highly doubtful that token protests by Muslims will deter Israel and stop extremist Jewish groups from pursuing their designs against the main symbol of Islam in occupied Palestine and the Levant region.

Indeed, it is quite likely that this crisis, which is a ticking bomb, will reach a critical point. One foreign observer in Ramallah remarked that "the peace process is nearly dead even without this powder keg surrounding Al-Aqsa Mosque. All I can say is that I foresee a lot of trouble and violence ahead."

* Khalid Amayreh a journalist based in the Occupied Palestinian town of Dura.

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