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Thursday, 19 July, 2001, 15:12 GMT 16:12 UK
Rabbis urge Temple Mount visit
Temple Mount
The most emotional patch of ground on earth
By Paul Wood in Jerusalem

An influential group of Jewish settler rabbis has called on Israelis to join a mass visit to the disputed Temple Mount in Jerusalem - sovereignty over which has been one of the most difficult issues in the stalled peace process.

The Rabbinical Council of Judea, Samaria and Gaza said it was overturning a religious ban on visits to the Temple Mount - and was calling on rabbis to bring their communities to visit it, while urging the Israeli public to do the same.

This rabbinical appeal for Israelis to visit the Temple Mount can scarcely have come at a worse time for the peace process, with the Israeli-Palestinian truce faltering and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon under pressure as never before from the right-wing and religious Jews who helped elect him.

It often seems as if more emotion - grief, anger and hope - is invested in the Temple Mount than in any other patch of ground on earth.

Controversial visit

To Muslims, it is Haram-al-Sharif, the noble sanctuary, where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven, and where one prayer at the al-Aqsa mosque is worth 500 elsewhere.

Ariel Sharon during his fateful visit to the Temple Mount last September
It was Mr Sharon's visit that ignited the Palestinian uprising
It was Mr Sharon's controversial visit to one part of the disputed compound last year, which lit the fuse of the Palestinian uprising.

It is also Judaism's holiest site, containing the ancient rock where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son and, crucially, it is where Judaism's second temple stood and was destroyed.

Overturning religious ban

The Rabbinical Council of Judea, Samaria and Gaza has been steadily moving away from the religious injunction stopping Jews from setting foot on the Temple Mount.

They have now abandoned it altogether.

They essentially represent the most orthodox Jews among settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, but are still thought to be able to call upon tens of thousands of followers.

They are asking those followers to ascend the Temple Mount on a Jewish religious holiday on 29 July, which commemorates, among other things, the destruction of the first and second temples.

The security forces will stop them, but focusing attention on this most intractable of issues will deepen the divisions in Israeli society, cause more Palestinian anger, and make any eventual peace settlement much more difficult to achieve.

See also:

27 Jun 01 | Middle East
Arabs want US to push Israel
12 Jun 01 | Middle East
Hardliners disapprove of ceasefire plan
30 Sep 00 | Middle East
Strike call after Jerusalem bloodshed
26 Jan 01 | Middle East
Ariel Sharon: Controversial hardliner
28 Sep 00 | Middle East
Holy Jerusalem: The key to peace
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