Jerusalem: To two faiths, a holy patch of land; to the world, a powder keg





JERUSALEM -- It is one of the most watched pieces of real estate in the world, 35 acres where an under-the-breath prayer or a whiff of a rumor can rouse warnings of war.

In both Judaism and Islam, the area known respectively as the Temple Mount and the Noble Sanctuary is considered a formative location. Jews believe it to be the site of Solomon's Temple and key biblical events. Muslims regard it as the spot where Muhammad was brought by the angel Gabriel before embarking on a trip to heaven to visit the other prophets.

It also remains a flash point, and a series of disturbances there this fall showed just how difficult it will be for Israelis and Palestinians to reach agreement on an area over which they negotiate not just as political entities but also as representatives of two faiths with an often-troubled relationship.

The recent round of clashes may have ebbed, but on any given day the depth of the standoff is apparent: Last week, Jordan's ambassador to the United States warned of the implications if, as Muslims often worry, Jewish extremists were to bomb one of the Muslim sites. Israeli Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, meanwhile, reminded an audience in Jerusalem that his government would never share control of a city that is the object of daily Jewish prayer and the hoped-for site of a third temple. Under Muslim administration since the Crusades, the compound -- a largely open-air plaza that includes the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock -- is under Jordanian authority, an arrangement that Israel agreed to maintain after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the creation of the Palestinian Authority in the 1990s.

The oversight from Amman, whose ruling Hashemite family is also the formal custodian of the preeminent mosques in Mecca and Medina, reflects how any agreement over Jerusalem will have to go beyond the bounds of what the Palestinians on their own can negotiate.

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