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issues Tuesday, 18 February, 2003, 15:13 GMT
Holy Jerusalem: The key to peace
Dome of the Rock and the Western or Wailing Wall
The Dome of the Rock above the Wailing Wall
By BBC News Online's Tarik Kafala

The old city of Jerusalem contains sites holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians. At the heart of the bitter Palestinian-Israeli dispute is the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif.

What is the historical and religious significance of these sites, and what are the options on Jerusalem being considered by negotiators?

Religious Heritage:

  • Temple Mount: The Temple Mount, in the old city in East Jerusalem, is the believed by Jews to be site of the First and Second Temples in ancient times.

    Just below the Mount is the Western or Wailing Wall. This is part of the retaining wall of the Temple Mount dating back to a time when a Jewish temple stood on the Mount.

    For religious Jews, the Mount is where redemption will take place when the Messiah arrives. Giving up the Temple Mount would be, for religious Jews, like giving up on redemption.

  • Haram al-Sharif: The same area is known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary. The plot contains the Dome of the Rock, and the al-Aqsa Mosque - Islam's third holiest site.

    The Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif
    The Koran says that the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven from this spot.

    Popular Islamic tradition speaks of the Prophet being taken from Makkah to Jerusalem on a winged horse and then being lifted to heaven where he was shown by God when and how to pray, one of five pillars of Islam.

  • Christian sites: There are also Christian holy sites in Jerusalem including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (believed to be the site of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ), the Church of John the Baptist and the Via Dolorosa.

    Greek, Russian, Armenia, Ethiopian, Syrian and Romanian Orthodox churches, and Catholic and Protestant churches are represented in the city.

National symbols:

For secular Jews, the Temple Mount is a profound national symbol. The capture of the Western or Wailing Wall in 1967 was, even for the non-devout, a great national achievement.

Equally, the Haram al-Sharif is of deep religious and political significance to Palestinians and to Muslims around the world.

For Palestinians, having their future capital in East Jerusalem is a fundamental element of any future state.

The options for Jerusalem:

  • Full Israeli sovereignty: That Jerusalem is the "eternal and undivided" capital of Israel is an Israeli political mantra that has been repeated by Israeli leaders of every hue.

    Many Palestinians - and Muslims in the wider world - would not endorse a peace agreement that left Israel in full control of Jerusalem and its holy sites.

  • Shared sovereignty: Under this model, Israelis and Palestinians would share sovereignty of the holy sites.

    Palestinians also want sovereignty or some other form of jurisdiction over East Jerusalem, the Arab part of the city, which under international law has been illegally occupied by Israel since 1967.

  • Twin capitals: In late September, Prime Minister Ehud Barak put forward a plan for twin capitals next to each other - al-Quds, the Arabic name for the city, would belong to the Palestinians while Jerusalem would be Israel's internationally-recognised capital.

    This solution would not solve the issue of holy sites, because al-Quds under this plan would not include the Temple Mount.

    "No Jewish prime minister will sign (an) agreement that transfers the sovereignty of the Temple Mount to the Palestinians or to an Islamic body," Mr Barak said.

  • International or 'God's' sovereignty: Because of the holiness of Jerusalem to the three monotheistic religions, it has been suggested that the city should be given special international status and administration.

    Jerusalem's religious quarters
    The Vatican, and in particular Pope John Paul II, has often called for Jerusalem to be given special status.

    Reports in that the Israeli Government was considering international sovereignty over the Temple Mount site have been denied by officials.

    The concept of 'God's' or 'divine' sovereignty has been raised. Under this model, neither Palestinians nor Israelis have sovereignty over the holy sites, which are seen as too important to fall under any one state's political sovereignty.

    The sites would therefore be administered by Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders.

    Under the 1948 United Nations resolution on the partition of Palestine, Jerusalem was designated as a special international city to be administered by the UN.

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See also:

11 Sep 00 | Middle East
10 Sep 00 | Middle East
02 Jul 00 | Middle East
04 Sep 00 | Middle East
20 Jul 00 | Middle East
20 Jul 00 | Mideast Peace Process
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