The spark that lit the fuse

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Crazy, militant and messianic are some of the words often used to describe this man in his trademark straw hat, whose antics have inflamed anger throughout the Muslim world.

Gershon Salomon’s plan to lay a cornerstone for a third Jewish temple at the Old City compound revered by Muslims and Jews, was the spark that lit an already short fuse in Jerusalem last week.

As leader of the Jewish radical group, the Temple Mount Faithful, Salomon is on a “Godly mission” to build the temple and pave the way for Israel’s redemption.

But before embarking on this project, he wants to dismantle the shrines on Islam’s third holiest site – a move that could lead to regional war.

“The site can never be consecrated to the name of God without removing these foreign pagan shrines,” Salomon said.

The site under dispute is the Haram Al Sharif or Noble Sanctuary – a 35-acre walled platform in the southeastern corner of Jerusalem’s Old City.

Historically, the site is sacred to Jews as the site of the first and second temples (the temples of Solomon and Herod the Great).

Muslims claim it as their third-holiest site after Mecca and Medina, because it is believed to be the place where Prophet Mohammad ascended to heaven. Today, the compound contains the jewel of Jerusalem architecture, the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque.

According to Salomon, the Muslims who came in the seventh century only built their shrines there as a symbol of conquest.

“God promised Abraham and his seed that the land and the borders of Israel are eternal and cannot be divided and given to other people,” he said. “Muslims know this.” The history of the mount is a tangled one. When Israel captured the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967, the site was annexed along with the rest of east Jerusalem. Israel declared it would remain a Muslim site, but Jews could visit – the de-facto policy being that Jews would not turn it into a place of worship.

Those Jews that ventured into Haram Al Sharif were allowed to enter like any other tourists but they were forbidden to utter a word of prayer.

While some Jewish scholars teach that only the Messiah can rebuild the third temple, Salomon’s group represents the smaller element that believes Jews themselves must build their holy place in order to prepare for the coming of the Messiah.

As the first step towards building the temple, Salomon has repeatedly tried to install the consecrated foundation stone on the Haram Al Sharif – and on each occasion, chaos ensues.

The resolute group tried again last week, on the ninth day of the month of Av in the Hebrew calendar, when religious Jews commemorate the destruction of the first temple in 586 BC and the second temple in 70 AD, and as the demonstrators approached the vicinity of the Haram Al Sharif with their symbolic “cornerstone for the third temple,” the stage was set for confrontation.”

Muslim worshippers praying on the compound could not ignore Salomon’s antics. They lobbed stones and plastic bottles onto the heads of Jews praying at the Wailing Wall below before Israeli police stormed the Sanctuary wielding stun grenades and tear gas.

The controversial 4.5-tonne cornerstone was returned to its resting place in Arab east Jerusalem where it sits unmarked, in the centre of a traffic roundabout near the American consulate.

Salomon says he formed the Temple Mount Faithful shortly after Israeli troops stormed the Haram Al Sharif in 1967.

“The Temple Mount was in our hands,” he recalled. “We wept for joy.

Finally, the circle was closed between my generation and the generation of the destruction of the temple.” But Salomon’s euphoria was stifled when the then-Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Dayan decided not to interfere with Muslim administration of the site.

“Dayan committed a terrible crime that day. He gave away the keys of the holiest site in the world to our enemies,” he said.

Since the formation of Temple Mount Faithful, Salomon has dedicated himself to “liberating” the Haram Al Sharif from “Arab occupation” and building a third Jewish temple there.

To raise people’s awareness about his movement and its objectives, Salomon spends much of his time giving speaking tours. Back in his Jerusalem office, letters of praise and encouragement from supporters hang on the wall behind his desk.

“I want to be part of rebuilding God’s temple,” wrote the owner of a construction company in the United States. “I am a master plumber and master electrician. Please make sure to forward this to the appropriate group in charge.” The Alafi family, well-known in Israel as workers of stone, according to Salomon, will donate all the stones and the work for the rebuilding of the temple. Others are preparing temple vessels and garments.

All that stands in his way now is the Muslim shrines. Salomon says he does not want to destroy the Muslim buildings, but instead, dismantle them brick by brick, and have the Israeli government rebuild them in Mecca.

“We have wonderful engineers, you know,” Salomon once told reporters.

Not everyone in Israel shares his vision, and many fear that the ensuing chaos could lead to a regional war. The last confrontational visit to the site by then-right wing leader Ariel Sharon last September sparked the Intifada which still continues ten months later.

For Palestinians, there will be no negotiations over the Haram Al Sharif says Adnan Husseini, general director for the Islamic Waqf which administers the Muslim site.

While recognising that Salomon’s actions have only been “symbolic” to date – having been denied access to the complex by police – Husseini says this is only a first step.

“It’s symbolic. But under this symbolic stone there’s a bomb. You have to see beneath the surface at the underlying intention.

“Muslims will not accept this plan even if it’s a dream,” he said.

But Salomon insists the Palestinians have little choice in the matter.

“We are saying to our enemies, better to take their clothes and weapons and go to the land from whence they came, the land God gave them, and allow us fulfil our Godly mission here.

“If it is needed, we shall fight, but they must know that the God of Israel will fight together with us.”

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