Jews, Muslims both lay claim to sacred site

JERUSALEM (AP) — Muslim clerics delayed opening a new prayer hall in the Al Aqsa Mosque compound Thursday, sidestepping — for now — confrontation over the most sensitive spot in the Israeli-Arab conflict.
The decision may provide only a temporary reprieve.
Jewish extremists who want control of the compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, have asked the Supreme Court to block the opening of the mosque altogether. A Muslim religious leader says there would be “massacres” should Israel decide to interfere in plans for the prayer hall.
The site’s potential for sparking violence was demonstrated last month when Israel opened a tourist tunnel there, setting off three days of rioting and Palestinian-Israeli gun battles that claimed 79 lives.
The new mosque — an underground vault known as “Solomon’s Stables” — is part of the Al Aqsa compound, which is the third-holiest site of Islam and called the Noble Sanctuary in Arabic. It is built on the site of the Jewish Temple, destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70. The last remnant of the Temple, the Western Wall, is Judaism’s holiest shrine.
Hassan Tahboub, minister of religious affairs in Yasser Arafat’s self-rule government, warned of new violence if Israel tried to stop the project.
“If they want to interfere in the mosque, there will be massacres. If they don’t interfere, it will be quiet,” Tahboub said in an interview Thursday.
Islamic authorities insist Israel has no say in running the holy site. But they said Thursday that the new prayer hall, to be called the Marwani Mosque, would not open this weekend as first announced, and renovations may take more than a week longer.
Yehuda Etzion, who heads the radical Jewish group “Hai Vekayam,” or “Living and Present,” petitioned the Supreme Court last month seeking a halt to the construction work.
Etzion believes the site should belong just to the Jews and opposes any Muslim presence on the Mount. “The Wakf (Islamic Authority) … has no right to be there,” he said.
In the past, both sides have been careful to avoid changes around the holy sites.
But Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert recently suggested there had been tacit agreement between the Muslim clergy and the Israeli government under which Israel would open the tunnel in exchange for permitting the transformation of Solomon’s Stables into a prayer area.
Olmert said last month he would not try to stop the mosque work, that the Muslim clerics were not overstepping their authority.
But reports of the new mosque outraged some religious Jews.
“Anyone who builds something there (on Temple Mount) postpones the rebuilding of the Temple and damages a holy place,” said Israeli lawmaker Shaul Yahalom.
Yahalom, whose National Religious Party is a coalition partner in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-line government, said Israel should close the mosque even if it means violence.
On Thursday, Jerusalem city inspectors and archaeologists visited the underground vault near Al Aqsa to prepare a report for the Supreme Court to use in ruling on Etzion’s claims that the renovations caused “irreversible damage” to Jewish sites near the compound.
In recent weeks, Arab workers, many of them volunteers, have been laying floor tiles and installing lighting at the new mosque. The Islamic Authority has tried not to draw attention to the work; when visitors started videotaping it Thursday they were stopped by Muslim guards.