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Jerusalem's grand mufti: Israel wrong to block Al-Aqsa Mosque

In rare interview, Al-Aqsa Mosque's Sheikh Hussein speaks out against Israel's actions.

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But the focus over the past week has centered on the Islamic Movement of the North, a Muslim fundamentalist group which operates inside Israeli borders, centered in the town of Umm el-Fahm.

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Israeli officials view its leader, Sheikh Raed Salah, to be a firebrand who is stirring up religious passions by warning Muslims that Israel is endangering the al-Aqsa Mosque by doing archeological excavations in the area. On Wednesday, Mr. Salah was arrested on charges of incitement, then released after being barred from entering Jerusalem for 30 days.

The mufti defends Salah, and points to his being banned as an example of a policy that is serving to build resentment, not diffuse it.

"I don't think Sheikh Salah is the problem. He's done nothing against the law, and he has the right to visit al-Aqsa like any Muslim," Hussein says. "It's Israel's measures that have created the problem."

Too harsh a message

Not everyone agrees. Even some leaders in Sheikh Raed's own movement say his message is coming across too harshly, and could be communicated more peacefully.

"The battle cries by Sheikh Salah represent us in essence, but can be said differently, in a calmer tone," one of the movement's founders, Sheikh Hashem Abed al-Rahman, said in a statement.

Ata Ighbarieh, a member of the High Committee, an organization of Israeli-Arabs or Palestinians inside Israel, called for a more measured approach.

"Clerics like Raed Salah should work on calming down the Muslim masses in order to avoid loss of life," he says in a telephone interview. "As clerics, we should be responsible to maintain peace and stability for our people. The best way to do that is through dialogue, not harsh words."

"I believe that the Muslim reaction should be less intense, to give an opportunity to the Israeli government to oppress their own extremists," Mr. Ighbarieh says in reference to fringe Jewish groups that have for years been petitioning to pray on the same site as the mosques. The plateau is known as the Noble Sanctuary in Arabic and the Temple Mount in Hebrew, a reference to the site of the Second Temple destroyed in A.D. 70.

Israel's President Shimon Peres, visiting with rabbis on Thursday in the last days of the weeklong Sukkot festival, also known as Feast of the Tabernacles, said he was worried about a religious war in Jerusalem and concerned that "inciters can set the whole thing on fire."

Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, considered one of the most senior Ashkenazi rabbis, said Jews are forbidden by religious law from walking on the Temple Mount at all. One, the site is so holy that no single Jew can be sure he is "allowed" to tread there, for it contains a place that in the days of the temple was reserved for high priests only. And two, in the modern context, it's is not worth the political outrage in could set off. Ariel Sharon's visit there in 2000 sparked riots that escalated into the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising.

"I have declared this in the past, and I repeat once again my statement," the rabbi says. "Beyond the halachic [legal] aspect, it is also a kind of provocation of the world's nations that could lead to bloodshed, and this would be one sin leading to another."

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