BEFORE the gates of the Dome of the Rock, a resplendent golden Muslim shrine built on the ruins of what Jews believe was their biblical temple, the besuited deputy speaker of Israel’s parliament, Moshe Feiglin, this week swayed from side to side in solemn prayer. On the steps below, his acolytes explained that, in doing so, Israel was reclaiming the last and most important acre of Jerusalem. They dreamed that Jews would soon resume animal sacrifices. “Remove all Muslims,” pronounced the firebrand parliamentarian.
It would be easy to dismiss Mr Feiglin and his backers as delusional were they not inexorably changing the status quo on the world’s most contentious corner of real estate. Trouble over holy sites has sparked more than one revolt in Palestine’s history.
Israel conquered the Temple Mount with the rest of East Jerusalem in 1967. It left the raised esplanade, with the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa (the third holiest Muslim site), in the hands of its former masters, the Jordanian-appointed trustees, or Waqf. The site was open to all visitors, but only Muslims could pray there. The government and rabbinical authorities confined Jewish prayers to the base of the external retaining wall, known as the Wailing or Western Wall (see picture).
Since last summer’s Gaza war, Palestinians in Jerusalem have become restive. The police have repeatedly cleared the compound of Muslims, giving sole access to non-Muslims for several hours; even when open, Muslims under 50 have often been barred. The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, dismisses Palestinian warnings of a looming religious war, and vows to maintain the status quo “exactly as it has been for many decades”. Mr Feiglin, for one, intends to prove him wrong.