- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 20, 2000

JERUSALEM A simmering dispute over the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Jerusalem for both Muslims and Jews, has become a ticking bomb at the heart of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

A casual visitor will notice little more than the crowds of summer tourists struggling to keep up with their guides.

But on one corner of the broad esplanade, where Arab women descend into a subterranean hall commonly known as Solomon's Stables, lies a construction site that has become the focus of attention for those who most fear an explosion of religious violence.

Since the Mount's capture by Israel in the Six-Day War, deliberate ambiguity has kept it from becoming the flash point for a holy war. Built by King Solomon in the 10th century B.C. and expanded by King Herod 1,000 years later, the site housed the ancient Jewish temple until its destruction by the Romans in 70 A.D.

Six centuries later, the conquering Arabs converted the Mount into the third holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina. When Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan arrived on the Mount shortly after its capture in 1967, he ordered soldiers to remove the Israeli flag they had raised.

Israel subsequently extended its sovereignty over the Mount but, at Mr. Dayan's urging, effective autonomy over the site was left with a Muslim administration known as the Waqf, or Islamic Trust.

What has kept the area relatively peaceful is an ancient rabbinical ruling barring Jews from entering the Mount the holiest site in Judaism for fear of inadvertently trespassing on ground that once was been occupied by the Temple's Holy of Holies.

While non-religious Jews visit the site, Israel's secular authorities seized on this ruling to keep the Temple Mount off a national agenda already overloaded with explosive issues. When hard-line Jewish settlers plotted to blow up the mosque on the Mount in the 1980s, Israeli security forces cracked down swiftly.

The Waqf, for its part, publicly rejected Israeli sovereignty but quietly consulted with Israeli authorities before making physical changes on the Mount. It also permitted Israeli archaeologists to be on hand when infrastructure work was done.

In 1994, the Waqf converted Solomon's Stables a name given by the Crusaders to a pillared, subterranean space they themselves used for horses to a prayer area with Israeli approval.

However, cooperation was shaken four years ago when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government opened a tunnel in the middle of Jerusalem's Muslim Quarter leading to a Jewish archaeological site.

When the Waqf recently excavated an emergency exit from "Solomon's Stables," it retaliated by sending in a bulldozer without inviting Israeli archaeologists to first sift through the earth.

"This archaeological crime," said a petition whose signatories included centrists like former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, "is intolerable to any cultured person, regardless of his or her political identity."

Some prominent Israeli archaeologists said no harm had been done because the earth excavated was probably random "fill" useless for archaeologists not layered sediments dating back to ancient Israel.

Nevertheless, many Israelis believe the Muslim authorities have deliberately vandalized archaeological evidence in an attempt to erase traces of the Mount's Jewish roots.

Augmenting this belief are statements by Waqf officials denying there ever was a Jewish temple in Jerusalem, and rejecting any vested interest by Jews on what the Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary.

Some voices of moderation are heard at the heart of the brewing tempest. "If there is reconciliation, real reconciliation," said Waqf architect Issam Awad, "we can talk then about archaeological digs."

The chief Sephardi rabbi of Israel, Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, while not renouncing Israeli sovereignty, last month advocated ongoing Muslim control of the Temple Mount. Change in the status quo, he said, "could lead to bloodshed, which all civilized societies oppose."

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