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Last Updated: Saturday, 10 February 2007, 11:53 GMT
Deep tension over Jerusalem holy site
By Matthew Price
BBC News, Jerusalem

Our correspondent reports from East Jerusalem on the growing tension between Palestinians and Israelis over controversial renovation work at the Temple Mount site.

Preparation work for the building of a new bridge in East Jerusalem
The ramp will be replaced with a new bridge under Israeli plans

On a cold and grey Tuesday morning, I watched as a yellow digger started up its engine, pumped out a plume of black smoke, and got to work.

Two metres away another digger, this one red, started up its engine. It began to clatter up a steep ramp, it lowered its shovel, and started to chip away at the paving stones.

In eight months, if everything goes according to schedule, which it probably won't this being the Middle East, the ramp will have been replaced with a new bridge - more sturdy, and longer lasting.

Now, if this had been an old city centre in Britain, it wouldn't have caught anyone's attention. But because this was taking place a few metres from the third holiest site in Islam, and because the diggers were working to an Israeli plan, a lot of people have noticed.

The Jordanian King for example said the action was "not acceptable under any pretext". The Palestinians said the work could spark a "volcano of anger".

From around the Muslim world came condemnation. An Israeli colleague of mine - standing next to me watching the diggers do their work - simply didn't get what all the fuss was all about. "It's just a ramp," he said.

Beating, vibrant heart

But it is not just a ramp. Yesterday I stood inside the Old City as Palestinian youths and Israeli police squared up to one another.

Israeli forces fire tear gas at Palestinian protesters in Jerusalem
The site is the beating heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
The lanes are narrow, like a maze, and you feel pretty vulnerable at such times, trying to keep an eye out to the left, the right, in front and behind all at once.

Some Palestinians wrapped scarves around their faces, lit fires, and threw stones towards the Israeli police lines.

The sound of the police percussion grenades echoed off the ancient walls as they tried to disperse the crowd.

The walkway in question leads up to a small gate in the western wall of what is known to Muslims as "al-Haram al Sharif". It translates as "The Noble Sanctuary".

The huge golden dome of the mosque in the centre of the vast plaza is a magnificent example of Islamic architecture.

When I'm driving past the Old City I always try to get a glimpse, and I always catch my breath - partly because it is an awe inspiring sight, and partly because of what it symbolises.

It is the beating vibrant heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israeli mental map

Jews do not call the site "al-Haram al Sharif". They call it "Har ha Beit" or The Temple Mount. For them this is the site of the first Jewish temple built by King Solomon 3,000 years ago.

That was destroyed. The Second Temple was built 70 years later. It too was destroyed. Many wait for the day when the Third Temple will rise on the site.

The reason my Israeli colleague had the reaction he did is because for Israeli Jews the Old City is a natural integral part of their country, so why shouldn't they carry out repair work?

In the Israeli mental map of this most contested of landscapes, there is no argument. The Old City simply is Israel - part of the undivided eternal capital of the Jews.

But when I rather foolishly brought up the issue in the office a Palestinian colleague almost screamed out: "It's all about control."

As far as Palestinians are concerned, and to be fair most of the world, the Old City - which lies in East Jerusalem - is occupied territory.

So where Israelis see an improvement project, Palestinians see it as yet another way of cementing Jewish rule over the city.

Life and death

A few days ago I went for a walk around the Old City ramparts. There were Israeli police everywhere, here because of the tension surrounding the whole building project.

Aerial view of Jerusalem's holiest site
Palestinians are not able to freely walk around the area
I always feel a bit awkward at these moments. Here am I, a 34-year-old male, wandering through police lines at will, while Palestinian men my age are told where they can and can't go.

I walked around the walls, looking out over a patchwork of rooftops, the television aerials and the drying underwear obscuring my view of that golden dome.

The church bells began to ring out. Then the muezzins started up, calling Muslims to prayer. When I first came here I heard these sounds and felt hopeful.

Surely these were the sounds of co-existence? Now I just hear the sound of centuries of competing claims to this city.

I climbed off the walls, down high steep stone steps, and wandered round to the delightfully named Dung Gate, to look again at the building work.

There is anger here, and around the Muslim world. But it is not about two diggers - one yellow and one red.

It is, as one Israeli commentator said, about who has sovereignty over this city - Israel or the Palestinians. And for both, it is a matter of life and death.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 10 February, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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