At A Tense Jerusalem Holy Site, Palestinians Stand Watch : Parallels With tensions rising over a sacred hilltop in Jerusalem, Muslims "defenders" say they are protecting the holy site against Jewish activists. But critics say this is just contributing to the friction.

At A Tense Jerusalem Holy Site, Palestinians Stand Watch

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Now to some of the people who put themselves in the middle of the battle for the Jerusalem hilltop known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount. They are Palestinians who call themselves defenders of that contested religious turf. As NPR's Emily Harris reports, their first response to Jews who visit the sacred site is to shout out calls to God.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: The grand golden dome of the rock dominates the broad plaza Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary and Jews call the Temple Mount. The smaller gray dome of the more holy Al-Aqsa Mosque sits modestly at one end. Muslim boys sometimes play soccer under the olive trees. In other shady spots, groups of Muslim men and women read the Koran or talk. Israeli police in riot gear are on duty during visiting hours for non-Muslims. One day this week all was quiet until a man wearing a Jewish skull cap arrives. As soon as they saw him, many of the Muslim men and women called out Allahu Akbar, Arabic for God is great.


HARRIS: Some of these people call themselves mourabitoun, defenders of the mosque. Zaina Ahmer has been coming here daily for more than a decade.

ZAINA AHMER: (Through translator) Our purpose is to educate, not to create chaos but what we are provoked, we call attention to wrong-doing. The Jewish people who claim to come here as tourists really want to take over. When we call out Allahu Akbar, we are rejecting their presence here.

HARRIS: Things can quickly escalate. Muslims say they have been hit by Israeli forces, hurt by sound bombs, arrested and banned from entering. A video one woman defender posted on YouTube shows police chasing and surrounding her after she got right up close to a Jewish visitor calling out Allahu Akbar.

MICKEY ROSENFELD: They're there in order to disrupt.

HARRIS: Mickey Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the Israeli police.

ROSENFELD: As far as I know, we're talking about groups that get organized, walk around the Temple Mount and try and disrupt the visits by the shouting or screaming and there've even been cases where women have thrown stones at individuals and VIPs that have been walking on the Temple Mount.

HARRIS: The mourabitoun gained attention during the recent weeks of heightened unrest in Jerusalem, much of which has been over this contested holy site. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said they should be outlawed. Palestinian authority president Mahmoud Abbas proclaimed we are all mourabitoun. He accused Netanyahu of fanning the flames of a religious war. This week Elham Ibrahim waited two hours with a group of women before police would let them in.

ELHAM IBRAHIM: I come as much as I could, you know? I send my son off to school and then I come here, you know? It's like I say, it's like, when I don't come here I miss - like, something is really missing.

HARRIS: She takes religious classes at the mosque and adds to the Muslim presence during tourist hours, but she doesn't yell at visiting Jews, she says.

IBRAHIM: Because they have video cameras and they're taking cameras - they're taking videos of whoever's saying Allahu Akbar. You know, for myself - I have a family with kids, you know? I wouldn't want to be taken. I wouldn't want to be arrested.

HARRIS: Jews debate whether they should visit the site. Many believe it is too sacred to set foot on. Others say it's too sensitive politically. Israel bans Jewish prayer at the site, a policy that more than a third of Jewish Israelis want lifted according to a recent poll.

Muslim Akram Shurafa says Jews who want to pray there are intruders. He does not believe their motivations are solely spiritual.

AKRAM SHURAFA: (Through translator) We don't consider this aggression religious. We see it as aggression from extreme Jews who want to claim a sanctuary and take it for their own. This is explosive.

HARRIS: Both Israel and Jordan, the official custodian of the site, have promised to take concrete measures to calm tensions. Israel is also considering measures like adding electronic security to the gates that Muslims enter. That is unlikely to please at least some of those who consider themselves the mosque's defenders.

Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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