As tensions flare once again over a Jerusalem holy site claimed by Israel and Palestinians as their own, one of the most influential leaders of Israel's religious community told the president on Thursday that Jews should not make pilgrimages to the Temple Mount so as not to evoke global outrage.
"According to halacha (Jewish religious law), it is forbidden to ascend to Temple Mount," Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv is quoted by Israel Radio as telling President Shimon Peres. "I've said this in the past, and I am once again repeating this statement that Jews are forbidden to go up to the site."
Elyashiv, the nonagenarian leader of the Lithuanian sect of the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi community, hosted the president at his sukkah hut in the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem.
Since Israel captured East Jerusalem and the holy sites in the Old City during the Six-Day War in 1967, Haredi rabbinical scholars have decreed that religious law bans Jews from entering any part of the Temple Mount for fear of desecrating the Holy of Holies, whose exact location is unknown but is believed to be situated somewhere in the Temple courtyard.
Police maintained high alert in the Old City, East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem on Thursday for fear of renewed unrest in the capital. Despite concerns that the arrest of the leader of the Islamic Movement's northern branch, Sheikh Ra'ad Salah, would spark further mayhem, the city was completely quiet on Wednesday.
For the fifth day in a row, entry to the Temple Mount on Thursday will be permitted to Muslim men 50 or over and Muslim women of any age. Jews and tourists will not be allowed to enter.
The same rules will apparently apply on Friday, with thousands of Muslims seeking to pray on the Temple Mount and masses of Jews coming to the Western Wall, immediately below the Mount, for the last day of Sukkot.
"This is an event with potential for escalation," a police official said.
In response to the rabbi's warning, Peres replied, "The nation has ears and you must let your voice be heard. Your voice is heard, you are a Torah sage and you are respected by the public. We must ensure that your position is heard."
The president added that the authorities must do everything in their power to calm tensions in Jerusalem for fear that events could escalate into a religious war.
"The inciters are capable of fanning the flames," Peres told the rabbi.
This was the first time that the president met with the Haredi rabbi, who rarely sits down with political figures who do not represent the ultra-Orthodox community.
Palestinians call for strike
Palestinian leaders on Thursday called for a one-day general strike and warned of more street protests over Jerusalem, but Israel played down the risk of an uprising despite two weeks of tension in the disputed city.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction made the call for the strike on Friday in Jerusalem and the occupied West Banko, and Palestinian leaders warned of a battle ahead of Friday prayers at Al-Aqsa mosque.
The compound housing the mosque is a holy place for both Muslims and Jews, and has often been a flashpoint. Israeli security forces control access to the area and regularly prohibit young Muslim men from entering the holy site in Jerusalem's Old City.
Tensions rose two weeks ago when police and Palestinian protesters clashed near the Al-Aqsa mosque.
Palestinians said the clashes were triggered by religious Israeli Jews and settlers trying to enter the site, which they see as a provocation to Muslim feelings. Israel said Palestinian protesters tried to prevent Israeli groups from entering the compound, leading to clashes with police.
A beefed-up Israeli police presence, and a relatively small turnout of Palestinian protesters, has kept violence under control in sporadic clashes since late September.
Palestinians in senior positions have warned of the risk of a third intifada, or uprising, but Israel has tried to avoid getting involved in a war of words over Jerusalem.
"I don't think we're facing a third intifada," Vice Premier Silvan Shalom said in a statement to Reuters. "Whoever says so is trying to instill fear."
One Israeli political source said the government saw a greater threat in Palestinian anger developing into mass protests and demonstrations, rather than the suicide bomb attacks against Israelis that marked the previous uprising.
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