OIC Role Reportedly Proposed as Battle for Jerusalem Heats Up

By Patrick Goodenough | May 22, 2009 | 2:15 AM EDT

The Dome of the Rock on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount (Photo: Jerusalem Municipality)

(CNSNews.com) – As Israelis marked “Jerusalem Day” Thursday, local media reported that the Palestinian Authority was considering favorably a proposal for control of the Temple Mount – the most bitterly contested piece of land in the Mideast conflict – to be handed to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) as part of a future peace deal.

The Ha’aretz daily cited Palestinian sources as saying the P.A. would accept a proposal that would divide sovereignty of Jerusalem’s Old City between Israel and the government of a future Palestinian state, with the OIC managing the Temple Mount.

Several Arab and Israeli media reports in recent days have suggested various elements of a purported Mideast peace plan soon to be announced by President Obama – possibly in a June 4 speech in Cairo – based on a 2002 Saudi-drafted Arab peace initiative but with some amendments.

In recent speeches and interviews, Jordan’s King Abdullah has fed speculation about a move to bring the OIC states into the equation, with talk about a “57-state solution.” The Saudi-based OIC has 57 members.

OIC foreign ministers meet in Damascus on Saturday with a full agenda, including “developments in the Holy City of al-Quds [Jerusalem],” according to an OIC statement. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh last week urged the OIC to “rescue Jerusalem and its Islamic holy sites.”

The Temple Mount, location of the first and second temples, is the holiest site in Judaism. Known in Arabic as Haram al-Sharif (“noble sanctuary”), it is also the location of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque, revered by Muslims as the third holiest site in Islam.

Between 1948 and 1967, Jerusalem was a divided city, with eastern Jerusalem, the Old City and its Temple Mount under Jordanian control. Since Israel captured the area from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War, the Mount has been under overall Israeli sovereignty, although Israeli governments since then have permitted an Islamic authority to continue to manage the site.

Jewish access to the plateau is restricted for security and political reasons, and some rabbinical authorities also forbid Jews to go up for fear of defiling the place. Jews pray at the remnant of a retaining wall on the platform’s western flank.

The site has become a flashpoint in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Islamic leaders frequently allege that Israeli archeological excavations in the area will undermine and ultimately destroy the mosques; some see a conspiracy to do so, pointing to an incident in 1969 when a (non-Jewish) Australian, later declared insane, tried to set fire to al-Aqsa. The OIC was established a month later, as a direct Islamic response to the arson attempt.

Fireworks mark Israel's Jerusalem Day over the walls of the Old City on Thursday, May 21, 2009. (AP Photo)

'Much deeper than a territorial issue'

The P.A. wants Jerusalem, or at least the eastern part of the city, to be the capital of a future Palestinian state, a position supported by the OIC and much of the international community.

But Israeli governments, left and right, maintain that the city will remain Israel’s “eternal, undivided” capital. Marking Jerusalem Day on Thursday, both Likud Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, described as a “hardliner,” and President Shimon Peres, a Kadima “dove,” reiterated that stance.

“Israel will never have another capital other than Jerusalem, and Jerusalem will never be the capital of another people,” Peres told a state ceremony.

“Jerusalem has always been – and always will be – ours,” Netanyahu said at the same event. “It will never again be divided or cut in half.  Jerusalem will remain only under Israel’s sovereignty.  In united Jerusalem, the freedom of worship and freedom of access for all three religions to the holy sites will be guaranteed."

In comments not included in his prepared remarks, Netanyahu also reportedly chided Obama.

“The new U.S. administration informs us with intolerable ease that we have to give up Jerusalem,” Ha’aretz quoted him as saying.

“With all due respect, the U.S. president sees the American interest and does not know that Jerusalem is not a territorial issue, but a much deeper one – the hope of two thousand years … the land of Zion and Jerusalem.” The latter two phrases come from Israel’s national anthem, Hatikva, which was penned in the 19th century.

During a visit to Israel last July, then Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Obama spoke on the issue. “I continue to say that Jerusalem will be the capital of Israel," he said. "I have said it before and will say it again ... but I’ve also said that it is a final status issue that has to be dealt with by the parties involved.”

Jews pray at the Western Wall, below the Temple Mount plateau. (Photo: Jerusalem Municipality)

Claims and counter-claims

Islam’s original claim to Jerusalem was based on the tale that Mohammed rode on his winged steed, al-Buraq, from “the sacred mosque” in Arabia to “the farthest mosque” en route to heaven. The episode known as the “night journey” is referenced in sura 17 of the Koran.

Although a matter of dispute among scholars, Muslims generally contend that the “farthest mosque” refers to Jerusalem. There is no direct mention in the Koran of Jerusalem or al-Quds, and there is no historical record of Mohammed having visited Jerusalem during his lifetime. (Jerusalem is referenced by name more than 650 times in the Old Testament, and another 150 or so times in the New Testament.)

After Muslims conquered Jerusalem in the 7th century the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa (“farthest”) mosque were built on the Temple Mount.

The Jewish claim is based on the location of the temple built by Solomon almost 3,000 years ago, on Mount Moriah, as recounted in the Bible (2 Chronicles 3). The first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. The second temple, built on the same site by King Cyrus and improved later by Herod, was razed by the Romans in 70 AD.

Palestinians protest against Israel's Jerusalem Day celebrations at Damascus Gate outside the Old City on Thursday, May 21, 2009. (AP Photo)

Palestinian and Islamic figures have long challenged Jewish historical and religious claims to the Temple Mount.

Ikrama Sabri, a cleric appointed by Yasser Arafat as Grand Mufti of Jerusalem in 1994, frequently railed against Jewish claims. The Jews did not even have a claim to the Western Wall – which Muslims call the al-Buraq Wall, saying Mohammed tethered his steed there – let alone to the Temple Mount itself, he said.

Arafat in 1996 said the Western Wall constituted “a Muslim shrine.”

The Islam Online Web site earlier this month launched an awareness campaign “with the aim of dispelling myths about the occupied holy city and highlighting its importance not only to Palestinians but to the Muslim world.”

“The aim is to stress the sacredness of al-Quds and its Islamic character,” editor-in-chief, Kamal Badr, said in a statement.

The site quotes fatwas (religious edicts) from Islamic scholars on the subject.

“Al-Buraq Wall is part of al-Aqsa Mosque and it is an Islamic endowment,” it quotes Nasr Farid Wasil, former mufti of Egypt, as saying. “Hence, it is not permissible in shari’a for any non-Islamic quarter to claim or possess it. The wall would remain part and parcel of Islamic heritage and endowment forever.”

Islam Online also quotes prominent scholar Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who supervises the popular Web site, as saying there is no evidence of “the assumed temple of Solomon” at the Temple Mount location.

An Israeli organization, Palestinian Media Watch, on Thursday accused the P.A. of unleashing an “unprecedented barrage of lies” in a bid to deny Judaism’s connection to Jerusalem.

“Jerusalem is presented as a Muslim city, with no regard for historical reality,” it said in a report timed for release with Jerusalem Day. “Mention is made of the importance of Jerusalem for Christians, but Judaism has no place in the city.”

Palestinian Media Watch said the P.A. also regularly accused Israel of trying to destroy the al-Aqsa mosque, calling it an “incendiary libel.”

“This indoctrination, repeated regularly by the P.A. leadership, is creating a passionate religious-based hatred among Palestinians that will blow up eventually into even more Palestinian violence,” said the organization’s director, Itamar Marcus.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow