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Friday 25th July 2003

Visiting the Golden Dome

The Palestinian authorities have reacted angrily to a new Israeli practice of discretely allowing small groups of Israeli and foreign visitors up onto the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, known to Moslems as the Haram Al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary.

The quiet plateau, overlooking the old city of Jerusalem on one side and looking up to the Mount of Olives on the other, is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Captured by the Israeli army from Jordan in the 1967 war, it has been administered ever since by a Moslem trust, the Waqf.
The golden-topped Dome of the Rock, built in 691 A. D., and the Al Aqsa mosque, are the two most famous buildings on the hill, which Jews also claim as the site of the First and Second Temples, and the place where the Third Temple will be built on Judgement Day.

One reason for the ban on non-Moslems is to prevent extremist Jews from carrying out threats to try to destroy the mosques. An arson attack by a fundamentalist Christian in 1969 did extensive damage, including the destruction of an ancient wooden pulpit in the Al Aqsa mosque.

The area was open to all visitors until a visit by then opposition leader, now prime minister Ariel Sharon, during his election campaign in September 2000, provoked riots which turned into the current Palestinian intifada, or uprising. Since then, the Moslem authorities on the mount, and the Israeli police who control the stairways up, have prevented non-Moslem visitors from entering the area.

Israeli officials and public opinion appear divided whether to allow tourists to return - in defiance of Moslem opposition, and at this sensitive moment in the new peace process.

Our correspondent Nick Thorpe was one of the first journalists to join a tourist group on a visit to the Temple Mount.

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