Among issues that could trigger war in the Middle East, none is more volatile than the issue of the Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, the Jerusalem shrine which is the third holiest site (after Mecca and Medina) for nearly a billion Muslims around the world.
Militant Zionists plot to destroy this shrine, which encompasses the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, collectively referred to as "the mosque" by Jerusalem Muslims. Jewish extremists have made more than 100 assaults on the mosque. And Israeli government officials, who work hand-in-glove with militant "religious" Jews, further kindle flames of passion by posting armed soldiers at the entrance to Al-Aqsa, refusing entry to Palestinian Muslims they deem to be "suspicious."
In Jerusalem, during the Islamic holy month of prayer and fasting known as Ramadan, Israeli soldiers prevented Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza from entering the mosque. Meanwhile, in the United States American Zionists held fundraising dinners, such as one held at the New York Hilton on June 1, to raise tax-free dollars for the sole purpose of taking property from Palestinians in the Old City of Jerusalem, particularly property near Al-Aqsa.
On visits to families in the Old City, I talked with dozens of Palestinians who told me they were harassed by yeshiva students who had thrown stones onto their roofs, set fire to their homes and, after poking Uzi machine guns into their faces, demanded that they vacate their homes. "We are getting little or no help from the outside world," the residents told me.
The Jewish students, many of them newly arrived Americans, live in such religious schools as the Yeshiva Ateret Cohanim, the Crown of the Priests, located just outside the Muslim grounds of Haram al-Sharif.
Friends and relatives of the yeshiva students who staged the $100-a-plate New York banquet "under the patronage of Prime Minister Shamir," had as their honored guest Israeli Minister of Industry and Trade Ariel Sharon, the mastermind of Israel's ill-starred invasion of Lebanon, which wounded and killed up to 200,000 Palestinians and Lebanese, nearly all of them civilians.
Tax-free dollars raised by the "American Friends of Ateret Cohanim" go to the organization's counterparts in the Old City. There Jerusalem-based groups force Palestinians living near the mosque from their homes by whatever means available. Since militant Zionists call these measures "reclaiming" the land, the American Friends of Ateret Cohanim named their fundraising effort "The JerusalemReclamation Project."
The program for the June 1 banquet announced the slogan: "East Jerusalem should be massively settled with Jews."
A reclamation project newsletter tells US donors they have "a unique opportunity to reaffirm the principle that the sovereignty of Jerusalem is the highest priority today on the Jewish agenda." Jews are urged to donate money to "make a strong statement of the Jewish resolve about Jerusalem, the eternal 'heart' of the Jewish nation." By giving their tax-free dollars, American Jews are told they can make an "unyielding commitment to the rapidly growing Jewish community" in the Old City.
Militant Zionists barely conceal their plan to seize the Islamic shrine. On a 1979 trip to Jerusalem, I listened as Bobby Brown, a guntoting militant Zionist from Brooklyn, declared that Harim al-Sharif was an eyesore to any Zionist: "One day we will build a temple there."
On subsequent trips, I increasingly heard the same boasts from other settlers. On a trip sponsored by the well-known Christian Zionist, Jerry Falwell, I listened as an Israeli guide spoke to our group, standing near the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque.
"There," our Israeli guide said, pointing upward to the mosque, "we will build a third temple. We have all the plans drawn for the temple. Even the building materials are ready. They are hidden in a secret place. There are several shops where Israelis work, making the artifacts we will use in the new temple. One Israeli is weaving the pure linen that will be used for garments of the priests of the temple." He paused and then added: "In a religious school called Yeshiva Ateret Cohanim, rabbis are teaching young men how to make animal sacrifice."
When one rather shocked American in our group asked if the Israelis were really going back to animal sacrifice, the guide said: "It was done in the First and Second temples. And we do not wish to change the practice."
In a Washington Post article by Edward Cody entitled, "Palestinian Uprising Fuels Jewish-Muslim Clash Over Holy Site," Cody quotes Rabbi Nahman Kahane, brother of Rabbi Meir Kahane, as saying that it was only "a matter of time" before Israel would build a temple on the site of the Muslim mosque. Once, when I visited the Jerusalem office of Nahman Kahane, I noted a drawing of a Jewish temple superimposed on Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa had been eliminated.
Since 1967, the year the Israelis seized military control of Jerusalem, militant Jewish nationalists, many of them armed Israeli rabbis, officers, soldiers and religious students, have on more than 100 occasions stormed the Muslim grounds. In August, 1967, Shlomo Goren, who later became Israel's chief rabbi, led 50 armed extremists onto the site, claiming they wanted only to pray.
"We should not forget," said Rabbi Shlomo Chaim Hacohen Aviner, "that the supreme purpose of the ingathering of the exiles and the establishment of our state is the building of the temple. The temple is the very top of the pyramid."
In the more than two decades (1967 to 1989) that Jewish militants have made sabotage attempts on the mosque, the chief Sephardic and Ashkenazic rabbis have never condemned the Jewish militants. "The chief rabbis, who receive their salaries from the state, haven't condemned the violence committed," an Israeli journalist noted. "This signals that it is not so terrible."
Over more than two decades the Jewish extremists have made all too plain their intent to destroy the mosque, Muslim authorities in Jerusalem have warned against the armed Jewish militants who, in addition to repeatedly storming the holy grounds, have excavated underneath the mosque, hoping to find evidence that a temple once stood there.
In fact, there is no such evidence. In Jerusalem, I interviewed American archaeologist Gordon Franz, who spent two years on digs while a resident at Jerusalem's Holy Land Institute. He said there was no evidence that a temple once stood on the site of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. "Some people assume that the temple was there," he explained.
History shows that for much of its long history, Jerusalem has been a predominantly Arab city. The Old City still is home for 25,000 Palestinians, most of them with forebears who have lived there since long before the Arab conquest of 14 centuries ago. Until the current era, Jews had not lived in Jerusalem in any numbers for nearly 2000 years.
A March 8, 1989, Jerusalem Post story made clear that Israeli authorities work hand-in-glove with militant religious extremists. The story related that a "volunteer" force of yeshiva students had been organized to patrol certain areas in the Old City, and quoted Religious Affairs Minister Zevulun Hammer as endorsing the plan. Hammer, in a press conference held at the Western (Wailing) Wall, said that although "the core of the force would come from Yeshivat Ateret Cohanim," the religious students would work "in cooperation with the police and include those students who had undergone army training."
Since plans to destroy the mosque go apace, the danger grows daily. Militant Jewish settler Bobby Brown said: "If destroying the mosque to build a temple creates a big war, then so be it."
A goal of the New York fundraising banquet was to produce $500,000 to settle six families with 26 children into Palestinian homes located around the Islamic shrine and "reclaim" them from their Muslim owners. Mati Dan, Israeli director of the "reclamation project," told guests at the banquet triumphantly, "We have the properties, all we need are the necessary funds to restore the apartments."