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Dozens injured in Jerusalem protests
02:09 - Source: CNN
Jerusalem CNN  — 

Just two words. That’s all it took for former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to explain the source of the tensions over Jerusalem.

Those words were “Terra Sancta,” or Holy Land, he told CNN in a 2000 interview.

So what is Terra Sancta? The answer varies depending on whom you ask. All three Abrahamic faiths lay claim to parts of Jerusalem’s Old City. The imposing stone walls are home to the holiest sites for Judaism and Christianity and the third most important site in Islam.

But no piece of real estate is more contentious than a hill in the city’s southeast corner. The first indication of that complexity might be the fact the compound that sits atop the hill goes by two different names. For Jews, it is known as the Temple Mount; for Muslims, it is the Noble Sanctuary.

Its religious significance dates back to the very beginning, not just of Jerusalem, but of existence, at least as far as the Bible is concerned. At the very heart of the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary is the Foundation Stone, the point at which the Old Testament holds that the world was created. It is also here that the biblical patriarch Abraham came to sacrifice his son Isaac as a test of faith.

Later, two Jewish temples would be erected on this spot. Muslims believe the Foundation Stone was also the destination for Mohammad during his Night Journey; it is from this point that Mohammad ascended to heaven. Today the stone is housed in the Dome of the Rock. The adjacent mosque – Islam’s third holiest – is called al-Aqsa, which means “the farthest” in Arabic.

Each story connected to the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary has increased the site’s significance to the Abrahamic religions, while heightening its sensitivity. Any perceived change to the holy site sends tensions in the Old City and the region soaring.

And in a region where politics and religion are often linked, the site has taken on ever greater political significance. For Palestinians – both Muslim and non-Muslim – the site, in particular the Dome of the Rock, has become the symbol of national self-determination.

For Jews, whether secular or religious, control of Jerusalem’s Old City – and with it the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary – acquired ever greater cultural and historical importance. It was seen as a fundamental step in the return of the Jewish people to their roots, put down thousands of years earlier. The final political status of Jerusalem has confounded peace negotiators for decades.

An uneasy status quo

You have to go back to the Six Day War of 1967 for the last full-scale battle for “Terra Sancta”.

When the dust settled, and after Israel had seen off Egypt, Jordan and Syria, in the process occupying vast new tracts of land, it was Jerusalem’s Old City, captured from the Jordanians, that was the biggest prize of all.

In a celebration of victory during the war, Israeli soldiers raised the country’s flag over the Dome of the Rock. Within minutes, Israel’s defense minister ordered the flag removed, careful not to turn a political war into a religious struggle.

Sensitive to the potential explosiveness of the location, Israeli officials met with the Jordanian Waqf – the body that managed the site – and came to an agreement on the status quo that has existed, uneasily at times, to this day.

The agreement saw the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary remain under Israeli security control, but the Jordanian Waqf has remained the custodian, determining who is allowed to pray there. While Jews and Christians are permitted to visit, only Muslims are allowed to pray.

It has always remained a potential flashpoint. In September 2000, when then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon made a visit to the holy complex, he said it was to reassert the right of Jews to visit the site. But it was widely seen as a confrontational political act, and it helped spark an already combustible situation into a full Palestinian uprising, known as the Second Intifada. Roughly a thousand Israelis and more than three thousand Palestinians were killed until it finally subsided in 2005.

Ten years later, a round of violence that began in late 2015 saw the Damascus Gate entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem become one of the hottest flashpoints. A series of Palestinian attacks on Israeli police led to Israel shutting down the once-thriving market that was a hallmark of the historic site.

New tensions over Old City

July 2017 brought yet more tension after three Arab-Israeli men killed two Israeli police officers in the Old City. The three assailants were also shot dead.

Israel closed the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary to everyone but Israeli security officials. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office tried to alleviate fears by stating, “The status quo will be preserved.”

But increasingly it seems the status quo is in the eye of the beholder. Police installed metal detectors at various entrances to the complex following the deadly shooting.

The Waqf, along with other Islamic and political organizations, has rejected the new measures as a flagrant violation, and has accused Israel of unilaterally trying to expand its control over the holy site. Israel says the move was to prevent weapons from being stashed on the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary.

Since the new measures, protests have sprung up in the Old City and in the West Bank. Jordan and other Arab countries have called on Israel to remove the new security measures; the Waqf has told Muslims to pray in nearby streets and alleys instead of passing through the metal detectors.

In the meantime, Palestinian officials warn that, without heeding their calls for a return to the status quo, the security situation could quickly deteriorate as calls for additional protests mount.

CNN’s Andrew Carey contributed to this report from Jerusalem.