By Noah Browning
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - 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 normalization with the warden," Abbas told Arab leaders in Qatar in February.
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 normalization and constitute a gift to the occupation by legitimizing 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)
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