* Israel controls access to Islam's 3rd holiest site
* Palestinian leader says that is no reason not to visit
* VIP visits by Jordan, Egypt angered some Islamic scholars
By Noah Browning
JERUSALEM, April 25 High-level Arab visits to
Jerusalem to pray privately at the third holiest site in Islam
should not be seen as acceptance of Israel's disputed grip on
the eastern half of the city, Palestinian President Mahmoud
Abbas said on Wednesday.
The argument by some respected Islamic scholars that going
to the al-Aqsa mosque is forbidden as long as access is
controlled by Israelis is wrong-headed, Abbas said
Muslim faithful visit Mecca and Medina with the permission
of Saudi Arabia. But seeking Israel's consent to get to al-Aqsa
is seen by some Muslims as acquiescence in Israeli occupation.
But this month, two Jordanian princes visited the mosque and
adjacent Dome of the Rock, and Jordanian intelligence official
Hussein al-Majali was seen at the sacred compound on Monday.
Their trips to Jerusalem must have been coordinated with
Israel. Access to al-Aqsa is guarded by Israel security forces,
who protect all of Jerusalem's holy sites.
Abbas said there was a "long controversy with several
prominent Arab and non-Arab figures, on visiting Al-Aqsa and
Jerusalem". Some were saying "this visit is forbidden", he told
an Arab youth delegation in Ramallah, his West Bank capital.
"There was an intense and important dispute between us and
some of our brothers among Islamic scholars whom we respect,"
Abbas said. "But they mixed the religious with the secular,
religion with politics, and partisanship with Islam. The result
was that they've lost touch with what's right and just."
When prominent Egyptian cleric Mufti Ali Gomaa visited
al-Aqsa last week, there were calls for his resignation from the
Islamist-dominated parliament in Cairo.
Jews revere the al Aqsa compound as site of their Biblical
Temple, destroyed by Roman troops in the 1st century. Surviving
foundations of its Western Wall are now a focus of prayer.
For Muslims, who captured Jerusalem from the Christian
Byzantines in the 7th century, the Dome of the Rock marks the
spot from which the Prophet Mohammad made his night journey to
heaven. They refer to the plaza as the Noble Sanctuary.
FRIENDS WITH THE WARDEN
Israeli forces captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967,
including the Old City and sacred sites. Israel subsequently
annexed the land and declared all of the city its "eternal and
indivisible capital" - a move not recognized internationally.
But the Jordanian monarchy retains a role in ensuring the
upkeep of the Muslim holy places and backs Palestinian demands
for East Jerusalem to be their future capital.
"Muslims cannot wait years for a political accord," said a
Jordanian official, referring to frozen negotiations aimed at
ending the long-running Middle East conflict and creating an
independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
"These visits highlight the importance of the sacred shrines
that are threatened by Israeli measures to Judaise Jerusalem,"
the official said, declining to be named because of the
sensitivity of the issue.
Jordan invited Gomaa to visit the al-Aqsa mosque and is
taking a more pro-active approach to asserting the Muslim
character of Jerusalem, Jordanian officials said, as Israeli
settlement activity in and around the city continues.
The spate of high-level appearances follows a call by Abbas
to end the long-standing tradition since 1967 of prominent Arabs
to boycott Jerusalem.
"Visiting a prisoner is an act of support and does not mean
normalisation with the warden," Abbas told Arab leaders in Qatar
ACCESS FOR ALL THREE FAITHS
Israel says that when Jordan controlled East Jerusalem, Jews
were prevented from attending their holy places. Now, it says,
followers of all the three monotheistic religions -- Judaism,
Christianity and Islam -- are free to worship in Jerusalem.
Any restrictions placed on access by Palestinians to al-Aqsa
are the result of security concerns, Israel says.
Abbas's call drew fire from some fellow Palestinians, with
the Islamic group Hamas, which rules Gaza, denouncing the idea.
"Visits to Jerusalem by Arab officials while it is under
occupation are a form of normalisation and constitute a gift to
the occupation by legitimising its presence," said Hamas
spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri.
Hamas is sworn to Israel's destruction.
Jerusalem's Muslim community says the visits have coincided
with a period of tension, as radical Jewish settlers grow
increasingly assertive at the site.
"Almost every day a group of settlers comes through the
Mughrabi gate," said Faisal Mohammed, one of the sanctuary's
guards, referring to an entrance under Israeli control through
which non-Muslim tourists can access the leafy compound.
"These aren't just ordinary trips, they're invasions."
The Palestinian Authority-appointed Grand Mufti of Jerusalem
denied the visits had any political mission. Media reports that
Jordan used them to discuss the status of the Mughrabi Bridge or
other aspects of the site's future were false, he said.
"Visits which affirm the Arab and Islamic character of
al-Aqsa, even before its liberation, are welcome. My own
proclamations affirm this," the Grand Mufti told Reuters.
"Those that are aggressive and meant to attack our shrine
are not, and Israel must forbid them."
(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Beirut, Nidal
al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Editing by
Douglas Hamilton and Mark Heinrich)