Tunnel sparked clashes in Israel Holy: The ancient passage lies at the base of the Temple Mount, the holiest ground to Jews and Muslims that also includes the Western Wall, Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosque.

Sun Journal

September 30, 1996

A tunnel may seem an implausible spark for mayhem.

But it was Israel's decision to open a 2,000-year-old tunnel in Jerusalem's Old City that ignited the violence that has taken at least 68 lives -- 54 Palestinians and 14 Israelis. What mattered was that the tunnel lay at the base of the Temple Mount. Because for Jews and Muslims, the Temple Mount is the holiest ground of a holy city.

When prophets spoke of Last Days or of God's final settling of accounts, the presumed setting was the Temple Mount, a natural plateau west of the Mount of Olives. Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions hold that the faithful will gather there on Judgment Day. People believed that the Temple Mount lay atop the source of all the world's rivers, that it was the entrance to the Garden of Eden, that it was physically and spiritually the center of the world.

Solomon built the First Temple there -- the place where the ancient Jews believed they could come closest to God. King Herod enlarged the plateau to create the existing earth and stone platform and built the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.

Islamic tradition holds that the prophet Mohammed was conveyed to the Temple Mount from Mecca on the back of a wondrous horse, and then from Jerusalem to heaven. Over time, this made the Temple Mount -- known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, the "Noble Sanctuary" -- the third-holiest place in Islam, after Mecca and Medina.

But people there have not always demonstrated respect for each other's faith. The Crusaders used part of al Aqsa mosque as a public urinal. For centuries, Jews were harassed when they tried to pray at the Western Wall, one of the retaining walls built by Herod for the Second Temple and the holiest place in Judaism. In 1929, a Jewish boy kicked a ball into an Arab garden near the Western Wall, and the ensuing riot killed 133 Jews and 116 Arabs.

Other, more recent tragedies helped prepare the way for last week.

In 1982, an American-born Israeli soldier with a machine gun and delusions of hastening the appearance of the Messiah killed two Palestinians in the Dome of the Rock.

In 1990, Israeli forces opened fire on a crowd of Palestinians throwing stones from the Temple Mount onto the plaza in front of the Western Wall, killing 17.

The Temple Mount geography includes the following:

Western Wall

It is the most sacred place in Judaism. Originally a retaining wall built by Herod to support the enormous platform on which the Second Temple stood, it is the only major remnant of the temple complex.

Tunnel

Running for about 400 yards along the edge of the Temple Mount, it passes through Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, Crusader and later Arab structures.

Until last week, the only entrance was at the southern end. Violence began after Israel unsealed the northern end, in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City.

Dome of the Rock

Tradition holds that Mohammed ascended to heaven from the rock now sheltered by the building's golden dome. The structure, completed in 691, is one of the masterpieces of Islamic architecture; it is also known as the Mosque of Omar.

Al Aqsa mosque

A mosque has stood at the southern end of the Temple Mount since the eighth century, though there have been many waves of destruction and rebuilding.

Al Aqsa can accommodate several thousand worshipers. Violence has sometimes begun when worshipers leave en masse after midday Friday prayers and encounter Israeli authorities.

Pub Date: 9/30/96

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