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Why a Jerusalem Holy Site Is Again a Flashpoint of Violence

JERUSALEM — Violence broke out in and around Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque Thursday, with Israeli police using tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades to dispel stone-throwing demonstrators who had entered the compound.

Israeli officials promised to respond "harshly" to the unrest. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered more police to Jerusalem and the entrances to the mosque were shuttered.

The clampdown came just hours after Israel removed new security measures and Palestinian leaders called the faithful to return to Al-Aqsa to pray in a bid to dampen the violence of the last 10 days.

Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque Reopens to Prayers as Violence Subsides 0:40

A huge backlash erupted after Israel placed metal detectors at the entrances to the mosque's precincts in the wake of Palestinian gunmen shooting dead two Israeli police officers in Jerusalem's Old City on July 14. Clashes, stabbings and a diplomatic standoff between Arab and Israeli leaders followed, with three other Israelis and four Palestinians dying in the violence.

With unrest continuing to boil over, NBC News spoke to experts and local residents about the significance of the holy site known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount.

What is the Temple Mount?

The 37-acre esplanade in Jerusalem’s Old City is home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, and the Islamic Dome of the Rock shrine. For Jews, its status as their religion's holiest site is tied to its history as the site of First and Second Temples.

Conflicts over the area have triggered confrontations for centuries.

Nowadays, Israel provides security for the compound, while neighboring Jordan manages the ceremonial and religious aspects of the complex.

Why is the site significant to Jews?

The Temple Mount is where devout Jews believe Abraham offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God. The rock where the offering is said to have taken place — and above which the Dome of the Rock shrine now stands — is known as "the foundation stone," and is believed to be where the world was created.

It is also where for the First and Second Temples of Judaism once stood. The First Temple is thought to have been built in the 10th century B.C. According to tradition, it was the permanent home of the Ark of the Covenant — the chest that held the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments.

Image: The Dome of the Rock
The Dome of the Rock on the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, is seen in Jerusalem's Old City on Thursday. AMIR COHEN / Reuters

“All of this makes this site the most holy for Jews worldwide,” said Yitzhak Reiter, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Many Jews will not set foot on the Temple Mount for fear of walking on areas where the temples stood. Under current Israeli rules governing the area, Jews are allowed to visit the Temple Mount but cannot pray there. Instead they pray at the Western Wall, an ancient remnant of the Second Temple below the mount area.

Around the world, Jews pray in the direction of the Temple Mount.

“It is the center of the Jewish heart,” said Ari Shames, an Israeli Jew who spoke to NBC News about how he feels about the site.

Shames said that it would be a “dream” to one day be able to pray on top of the Temple Mount.

He said: "We hope and pray that the free world would look and see the Temple Mount as a place of peace and prayer and as a place that is open to everyone."

Why is the site significant to Muslims?

Al-Aqsa is mentioned in the Quran and is believed to have been the place toward which Muslims directed prayers their before it was replaced by Mecca, according to Yousef Al-Natshah, director of tourism and antiquities at the site.

It also features in one of Islam’s most important miracles — the Isra and Miraj, or the miraculous night journey of the Prophet Muhammad.

Israel removes metal detectors at holy Jerusalem site 0:37

According to the Quran, Muhammad traveled from Mecca to Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem in one night before ascending to heaven.

The mosque, which is architecturally important and revered as a treasure of Islamic design, is also a defining symbol for Palestinians and the residents of Jerusalem.

“Al-Aqsa is our icon, our slogan. It is our blood,” said Ahmad Shaheen, who lives in Jerusalem’s Old City.

“I was born 100 meters [328 feet] away from Al-Aqsa, so my identity and my existence is related to the mosque,” the 42-year-old said. “It’s our holy place.”

Related: Israel Embassy Shooting in Jordan Deepens Temple Mount Security Crisis

Shaheen added that Al-Aqsa was more than just a religious site — it also represented Palestinian freedom in the face of Israel's occupation.

“Ever since I was a kid I learned that Israel wants to control Al-Aqsa mosque. So I'm not going there just to pray, it's also a challenge to the occupation,” he said.

Image: Palestinians celebrate Israel's removal of new security apparatus
Palestinians celebrate after prayers which were held outside the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, just outside Jerusalem's Old City, Thursday. AMIR COHEN / Reuters

“When I'm saying I'm Palestinian that means I'm from Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem,” he said.

What feeds the conflict?

According to Reiter, the professor at Hebrew University, the tensions stem from the divergent aspirations for Muslims and Jews.

“Palestinian Muslims in Jerusalem see themselves as defenders of the holy site of Al-Aqsa mosque and Jews [since their return to Israel] see themselves as those who returned to Zion — meaning return to Jerusalem — and the center of Zion is the Temple Mount,” he said.

So the recent tensions in Jerusalem should be understood as a struggle for jurisdiction over the holy site.

“That’s why metal detectors were such a factor here,” he said.

An indication of the intense sensitivities around the site came in September 2000, when then-leader of the Israeli opposition Ariel Sharon visited the compound. The visit came after years of negotiations that failed to create a Palestinian state, and Sharon's presence helped spark the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising.

Image: Palestinian Muslims hold prayers in a parking lot
Palestinian Muslims hold mid-day prayers in a parking lot next to the al-Aqsa mosque compound on Thursday. JIM HOLLANDER / EPA

So while the struggle over who controls the site continues, so do the tensions.

“It is obvious that controlling or disputing the sovereignty of Al-Aqsa mosque is to justify that the Israelis are rooted in the area, that they are not newcomers but that they are — from their point of view — returning,” said Al-Natshah, the director of tourism and antiquities for the site.

He added that many Palestinian experts saw recent Israeli security measures at Al-Aqsa mosque as “small steps” towards the eventual “reconstruction of the First Temple.”

“This is not something which happened over one or two nights. It is, as the Palestinians understand it, a prolonged plan,” he said.

Israeli officials deny there are any plans to rebuild ancient temples.

Lawahez Jabari reported from Jerusalem, Paul Goldman from Tel Aviv and Saphora Smith from London.