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Access To Holy Places In Jerusalem Sparks Violence


We are trying to better understand the latest wave of violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Secretary of State John Kerry held talks with the Israeli prime minister yesterday. And we'll hear about that diplomacy in a moment, but first some background. One spark for the current violence has been the issue of access to holy places in Jerusalem, as NPR's Alice Fordham reports.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in foreign language).

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: In the tangle of streets at the heart of old Jerusalem, a veiled Muslim woman stands singing prayers. Israeli police usher her from the middle of the streets to a spot just a few yards away. But Arab shopkeepers and juice sellers object vociferously.

IBRAHIM: It's every day - every day like this.

FORDHAM: Ibrahim, an Arab shopkeeper, fears arrest if he gives his full name. He tells me there have been daily confrontations like this, in addition to the more serious violence across country. The trouble flared a month ago after row over who has access to the site of the famous mosque here, al-Aqsa. Citing security concerns after clashes, Israel banded Muslim men under 50 during a Jewish holiday. And the agriculture minister, Uri Ariel, led activists up to the area to call for the right to do Jewish prayer there. It outraged shopkeeper Ibrahim.

IBRAHIM: And it's not fair what's going on. It's like - you know, it's complicated.

FORDHAM: Al-Aqsa is one of the holiest places for Muslims. It's also revered by Jews as the site of their ancient temple, the most sacred place in Judaism. Israeli and Jordanian authorities and Muslim religious leaders have an unwritten agreement on who gets to pray, where and when at the holy site, under which only Muslims are allowed to pray there. That's commonly called the status quo. And many Palestinians think Israeli authorities are trying to change it.


PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: No, we're not. We haven't changed the status quo on the Temple Mount in years.

FORDHAM: That's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But Israeli analyst Ofer Zalzberg of the International Crisis Group says things have changed. More religious Jews are going up to the site, he says. And he adds, Muslim authorities have been prevented from carrying out maintenance projects.

OFER ZALZBERG: And all of these very much strengthened the sense among Palestinians that Israel intends to change the status quo and transform a site that for centuries was exclusively about Muslim worship into one in which both Jews and Muslims would pray as this happened in Hebron.

FORDHAM: Hebron, a town in the West Bank. I go there to see. The old city's dominated by a large building that's been a mosque for centuries. Sheikh Munzer Abu al Failat takes me inside, past Israeli security and metal detectors, to show me what makes the mosque special.

MUNZER ABU AL FAILAT: (Through interpreter) This is the tomb of Abraham, who wasn't a Christian. He wasn't a Jew, but he was a Muslim.

FORDHAM: Needless to say, many consider Abraham the patriarch of Jews, Christians and Muslims. On the site of the tomb stood a Jewish structure more than 2,000 years ago, then a church, then the mosque. After Israel conquered the West Bank in 1967, Jews began to come and pray in what Muslims call the Ibrahimi Mosque. But in 1994, a Jewish settler walked in during Friday prayers and opened fire, killing 29 Palestinian worshipers. After that, Israel divided the space. Now this side's controlled by Muslim authorities. And the sheikh shows me, on the other side of the barrier, is a space run by Jews.

FAILAT: On the other side, you can hear.

FORDHAM: Over there, Jewish scholars won't talk to a woman. But Eli Merich, who works here, says he hopes the whole place will be a synagogue one day, where anyone can pray. He notes that for 700 years, Jews weren't allowed near Abraham's tomb.

ELI MERICH: When the Muslims were here, they didn't let anyone other that's not a Muslim to go in, to get in the building.

FORDHAM: Back in the Jerusalem streets close to al-Aqsa, shopkeeper Fathi Jaabari tells me Palestinians see their situation weakening. The way he talks, it seems like the mosque's a last holdout.

FATHI JAABARI: The Palestinian people have nothing to fight with, except al-Aqsa.

FORDHAM: And shortly afterward, he heads to pray there. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.