Dome of Rock in al-Aqsa mosque compound behind east Jerusalem neighbourhood
Jerusalem - Arab Today
The flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque compound in east Jerusalem, at the heart of the latest tensions in the Holy City, is a highly sensitive site sacred to both Muslims and Jews.
The plaza is a 14-hectare (35-acre) rectangular esplanade at the southeast corner of the Old City which was seized by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed in a move never internationally recognised.
Israel considers all of Jerusalem as its undivided capital, but the Palestinians want the eastern sector as capital of their future state.
Known to Muslims as Al-Haram al-Sharif (the Nobel Sanctuary), the compound houses the famous golden Dome of the Rock shrine, and Al-Aqsa mosque.
Believed to be where the Prophet Mohammed made his night journey to heaven, it is the third-holiest site in Islam after the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet's Mosque in Medina, both in Saudi Arabia.
The compound in its current form was built in the seventh century by Islam's second caliph, Omar, on the site of the Second Jewish Temple that was destroyed by the Romans around 70 AD.
The esplanade is also revered as the holiest site in Judaism because it housed both the First and Second Temple. In Hebrew, it is referred to as Har HaBayit -- the Temple Mount.
Jews are allowed to enter the compound itself, but are forbidden from praying there for fear of triggering tensions with Muslim worshippers.
Most, however, do not go up to the plaza as a result of a strict ban imposed by Israel's chief rabbinate which says that visiting the area is forbidden under Jewish law due to issues of ritual impurity.
Today, the holiest site at which Jews can pray is the Western Wall - the last remnant of supporting wall of the Second Temple complex.
- No singing, no dancing -
But ultra-nationalist Jews, some of whom want to begin building the Third Temple, regularly visit the esplanade where they can be seen discretely praying in a move which frequently creates tensions with the Muslim worshippers.
In an indication of some of the sensitivities at the site, a sign at the ramp leading up to the Mughrabi Gate, the only entrance for non-Muslims, bans singing, dancing and praying and also probits visitors from taking animals up to the plaza -- a reference to the ancient Jewish tradition of animal sacrifice.
Muslim organisations, particularly the Islamic Movement in Israel, claim such groups want to destroy the Al-Aqsa compound to make way for the Third Temple and accuse the authorities of complicity.
Such charges are not new -- in 1929, a series of deadly riots broke out during the British mandate, with Muslims rallying to defend the "Noble Sanctuary".
In 1996, a decision by premier Benjamin Netanyahu, then in his first term in office, to open a new entrance to the so-called Western Wall tunnels, which run to the west of the plaza, sparked a wave of deadly clashes which left more than 80 people dead in three days.
And a controversial visit to the plaza in September 2000 by then rightwing opposition leader Ariel Sharon was one of the main triggers for the second Palestinian intifada (2000-2005).
The Al-Aqsa compound is administered by Jordan's Islamic Waqf body, the custodian of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, in coordination with the Palestinians.