by Virginia Quirke
(IPS) JERUSALEM --
militant and messianic are some of the words critics use to describe the man in the trademark straw hat, whose antics have fanned anger throughout the Muslim world.
Gershon Salomon's plan to lay a cornerstone for a third Jewish temple at the Old City compound revered by Jews and Muslims was the spark that lit an already short fuse in Jerusalem on July 29.
As leader of the Jewish radical group the Temple Mount Faithful, Salomon believes he is on a divine mission to build the temple and pave the way for Israel's redemption.
But before embarking on this project, he wants to dismantle the shrines on Islam's third holiest site. "The site can never be consecrated to the name of God without removing these foreign pagan shrines," Salomon said.
The site under dispute is commonly known in English as the Temple Mount (Haram al Sharif, in Arabic), a 35-acre walled platform in the southeastern corner of Jerusalem's Old City.
Historically, the mount is sacred to Jews as the site of the first and second temples (the temples of Solomon and Herod the Great).
Muslims claim it as their third-holiest site after Mecca and Medina, because it is believed to be the place where Mohammad ascended into heaven.
Today, the vast esplanade contains the jewel of Jerusalem architecture, the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque but according to Salomon, the Muslims who came in the seventh century only built their shrines there as a symbol of conquest.
"God promised to Abraham and his seed that the land and the borders of Israel are eternal and cannot be divided and given to other people," he said. "Muslims know this."
But the history of the mount is a tangled one.
Israel captured the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967, the site was annexed along with the rest of east Jerusalem. The Israelis declared that the mount would remain a Muslim site, but Jews could visit -- the de-facto policy being that Jews would not turn it into a place of worship.
Those Jews that ventured onto the mount were allowed to enter as tourists, but were forbidden to utter a word of prayer. If they were seen to move their lips, they were immediately evicted.
While some Jewish scholars teach that only the Messiah can rebuild the temple, Salomon's group represents a smaller element that believes Jews themselves must build the holy place in order to prepare for the coming of the Messiah.
And as the first step in the task of building the third temple, Salomon has tried to install the consecrated foundation stone on the compound several times -- and on each occasion, chaos ensues.
The resolute group tried again last month, on the ninth day of the month of Av in the Hebrew calendar, when religious Jews commemorate the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BC and the Second Temple in 70 AD. And once the demonstrators approached the vicinity of the mount with their symbolic "cornerstone for the third temple," the stage was set for confrontation.
Muslim worshippers praying on the compound could not ignore Salomon. They lobbed stones and plastic bottles onto the heads of Jews praying at the Wailing Wall below, before Israeli police stormed the sanctuary wielding stun grenades and tear gas. Dozens of people were injured in the clashes.
As for the controversial 4.5-ton cornerstone, it was returned to its resting place in Arab east Jerusalem, where it sits unmarked in the center of a traffic circle near an American consulate.
Salomon says he formed the Temple Mount Faithful shortly after Israeli troops stormed the mount in 1967, amid a wave of national euphoria.
"The Temple Mount was in our hands," he recalled. "Finally, the circle was closed between my generation and the generation of the destruction of the temple."
But Salomon's euphoria was stifled when the then Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Dayan decided not to interfere with Muslim administration of the site.
"Dayan committed a terrible crime that day. He gave away the keys of the holiest site in the world to our enemies," he said.
Since then, Salomon has dedicated himself to "liberating" the mount from "Arab occupation" and building a third Jewish temple.
And to raise people's awareness to his movement and its objectives, Salomon spends much of his time giving speaking tours.
Back in his Jerusalem office, letters of praise and encouragement from supporters hang on the wall behind his desk.
"I want to be part of rebuilding God's temple," wrote the owner of a construction company in the United States. "I am a master plumber and master electrician. Please make sure to forward this to the appropriate group in charge."
The Alafi family, well known in Israel as workers of stone, according to Salomon, will donate all the stones and the work for the building of the temple. Others are preparing temple vessels and garments.
All that stands in his way now it seems are the Muslim shrines, which Salomon says he does not want to destroy, but rather, dismantle brick by brick, and have the Israeli government rebuild in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
"We have wonderful engineers, you know," Salomon declared.
Not everyone in Israel shares his vision, and many fear that the ensuing chaos is too dangerous to even contemplate. The last confrontational visit by then-right wing leader Ariel Sharon in September sparked the Palestinian uprising that still continues 10 months later.
For Palestinians, there will be no negotiations over the site, says Adnan Husseini, spokesperson for the Waqf, which administers the Muslim site. While recognizing that Salomon's actions have only been "symbolic" to date -- having been denied access to the Temple mount by police -- Husseini points out this is only a first step.
"It's symbolic. But under this symbolic stone there's a bomb. You have to see beneath the surface at the underlying intention. Muslims will not accept this plan even if it's a dream," he says.
But the leader of the Temple Mount Faithful cautions that Palestinians have little choice in the matter.
"We are saying to our sworn enemies, better to take their clothes and weapons and go to the land from whence they came, the land God gave them and allow us fulfil our Godly mission here," added Salomon. "If it is needed, we shall fight, but they must know that the God of Israel will fight together with us."
August 13, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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