JERUSALEM, Jan. 20 -- Israel's domestic security service has recommended that Jews be allowed to resume visiting the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem's Old City despite warnings that such a step could ignite fresh violence, Israeli officials said today.
The compound, revered by Muslims who call it the Noble Sanctuary, has been closed to Jews since the outbreak of fighting between Israelis and Palestinians 16 months ago. It was a visit to the compound on Sept. 28, 2000, by Ariel Sharon, now Israel's prime minister, that ignited the Palestinian uprising the next day.
The mount, considered holy by Jews and Muslims alike, is fraught with competing religious claims and emotional resonance, and Israeli governments have tread gingerly there since it was captured in the 1967 war.
Islamic officials, Arab members of Israel's parliament and Israeli doves warned Israel against allowing non-Muslims to visit the mount during the current violence.
"Such a measure can only lead to escalation," Ekrima Said Sabri, the hard-line mufti of Jerusalem, told the official Voice of Palestine radio station. "It is totally out of the question that the doors of Haram al-Sharif [the Noble Sanctuary] could be opened to Jews."
The recommendation by Israel's security service, the Shin Bet, puts Sharon in an awkward position. He has always insisted on the inalienable right of Jews to visit the mount, as he did when he toured it as Israel's opposition leader in September 2000 -- ignoring repeated warnings that Muslims would regard his presence as a provocation. On the other hand, Sharon is aware that a return of Jews to the mount could enflame a conflict that has already cost more than 1,000 lives, three-quarters of them Palestinian.
"Why shouldn't the holiest place be open to both Jews and Arabs?" said a spokesman for Sharon, Raanan Gissin. "Those who are threatening escalation and an outburst of violence are the same people who are inciting the violence."
Yet Gissin acknowledged that the government was not eager to inflame passions by allowing Jews to wander around the mount. "There's no timetable" to reopen the compound to non-Muslims, he said.
In addition to the Shin Bet recommendation, Sharon also faces pressure by hard-line Israeli politicians to resume visits by Jews to the mount.
"There's no reason in the world that Jews will not be allowed [to visit] the most important, the most significant and the most meaningful site in the whole world to the Jewish people," said Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert.
Before the outbreak of violence, the mount, site of the biblical First and Second Jewish Temples, was among Jerusalem's most popular tourist destinations. Jews, Christians and others wandered the vast esplanade, crowned by the 1,300-year-old Dome of the Rock, with its gleaming golden top, and the black-domed al-Aqsa mosque. Even then, however, sensitivities ran high, and Jews were not allowed to pray atop the mount.
Meanwhile, thousands of Palestinians in Gaza City marched in support of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, protesting what they called his humiliation by Israel, which has refused to let him leave the West Bank city of Ramallah since a wave of terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians in early December. In addition, Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen engaged in a firefight in Ramallah after an Israeli tank became stuck on a narrow street. Israeli tanks have been besieging Arafat's headquarters since Friday.
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