JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A senior lawmaker of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing party on Tuesday visited a flashpoint religious site in Jerusalem revered by Jews and Muslims, a move that has sparked violence in the past.
Under armed police escort, Danny Danon, a deputy parliament speaker, toured the site of an ancient Jewish temple, a plaza home to the al-Aqsa mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites, and said he thought Jews should be permitted freer access there.
A group of Muslim protesters shouted “Allahu Akhbar,” or God is Greatest, as Danon, trailed by armed police and dozens of Israeli and Western tourists, strolled around the area known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif, and to Jews as the Temple Mount.
But despite the tense atmosphere there was no violence or confrontations during the lawmaker’s hour-long visit.
Danon told reporters at the nearby Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest prayer site, before the climb to the Temple Mount, that his visit was to mark the ninth of Ab, a day of fasting marking the day the Roman-era Jewish temple was razed.
Past visits by senior Israeli officials to the site at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute have sparked violence, notably in 2000 when a visit by Ariel Sharon, then an opposition leader, set off a Palestinian uprising and years of bloodshed.
Israel considers Jerusalem as its capital including Arab East Jerusalem, which it captured in a 1967 war and annexed in a move not recognized internationally. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as capital of a future state.
Disputes over the city have played a key role in hindering progress in U.S.-backed efforts to resume direct peace talks between the sides.
Palestinians are angry at Israeli plans published in the past few months to expand housing construction in East Jerusalem, and destroy dozens of Palestinian homes Israel says were built illegally.
“I don’t see any provocation here,” Danon, a Likud party lawmaker, replied when asked by reporters whether his tour of the holy site in the old walled city may ratchet up tensions.
Danon said he wanted a firsthand look at security procedures and to press the case for permitting Jews to pray at the site.
“There is full religious freedom for Jews and Muslims on the Temple Mount,” Danon said. “But it is more difficult for the Jew than the Muslim to go and pray on the Temple Mount. This is a distortion that must be corrected.”
“If Jews want to go and pray on the Temple Mount then they should be allowed to do it,” he added.
Israeli police often permit tourist visits to the holy compound but discourage Jews from worshipping there, diverting them to the nearby Western Wall to try and prevent violence.
No Jewish worship took place at the site during Danon’s tour on Tuesday, and all were under strict orders to avoid entering al-Aqsa. Afterwards, a small group of Jewish settlers said some prayers outside the compound’s gate, where they intoned a Hebrew psalm that calls for the holy temple to someday be rebuilt.
Editing by Jon Hemming