By Luke Baker
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli and Palestinian police kept a tight watch over the al-Aqsa mosque compound on Sunday amid high tension between Muslims and Jewish visitors to the holy site and calls from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to defend it by "all means".
Clashes have flared repeatedly in the past few weeks as increasing numbers of Jews have visited the sacred area during the Jewish holidays, angering Palestinians who see this as part of an Israeli agenda to alter a long-preserved status quo.
The ornate marble and stone compound, known as Noble Sanctuary to Muslims and Temple Mount to Jews, is the third-holiest site in Islam and the holiest in Judaism. It contains the 8th century al-Aqsa mosque and the golden Dome of the Rock, where the Prophet Mohammad is said to have ascended to heaven.
While the site is ultimately administered by Jordanian religious authorities, Israeli and Palestinian police secure it. Non-Muslims are allowed to visit under close monitoring but are not allowed to pray, a prohibition at the heart of the tensions.
Shortly after dawn on Sunday, a group of 10 Orthodox Jews gathered among dozens of foreign tourists to visit the site situated on a plateau above the Western Wall, where the second Jewish temple stood before it was destroyed in 70 AD.
Under the wary gaze of police, the group was escorted around the compound, sometimes appearing to mumble prayers under their breath as they walked. Any overt praying or efforts to lower themselves to the ground were quickly stopped by police.
As they passed in front of al-Aqsa mosque, where clashes erupted between Israeli security forces and Palestinian protesters last week, a crowd of Muslim women, their heads and faces covered, chanted "Allahu Akbar" ("God is Greater") and the Palestinian police urged the Orthodox Jews to keep moving along.
"This is a provocation," said Samy Hashlamon, a Palestinian man sitting nearby under the shade of some cypress trees.
"They are trying to confuse us and make us nervous, but this whole area belongs to Muslims."
On a flight of steps leading up to the octagonal Dome of the Rock, which sits in the middle of the 37-acre (15-hectare) tree-lined compound, someone had spray-painted an equals sign between the Jewish Star of David and a Nazi swastika.
It was removed by police within minutes, but not before the Jewish visitors had seen and photographed it.
CHANGING THE STATUS QUO
In recent months, Moshe Feiglin, a far-right member of the Israeli parliament from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, has led a drive to encourage Jews to visit and pray at the Temple Mount, despite it being forbidden by the Torah.
His aim is to overturn agreements dating back to the 1967 Middle East War, when Israel seized control of the Old City of Jerusalem, including Temple Mount, before handing responsibility for administering the site to the Islamic authorities.
Because the area is so sacred to both Jews and Muslims, it is frequently the source of friction between the communities.
In 1990, Israeli forces blocked Muslim worshippers from accessing the compound, leading to clashes that ultimately left 20 Palestinians dead and more than 100 wounded.
A visit to al-Aqsa in 2000 by then-Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon was seen as a serious provocation by Palestinians and a spark that helped ignite a five-year uprising or Intifada.
Last week, as tensions boiled again, Israeli forces restricted access to the area to Muslim men over the age of 50.
Among the Jewish visitors on Sunday was Meyer Beck, 59, who prayed fervently before going up to the plateau, where he walked barefoot in a show of humility under the watchful eyes of police. Asked if he had prayed at the site, he smiled and said he "did what I can", including reciting prayers in his head.
"It's about showing who has ownership of the Temple Mount," he said, adding that he had visited nearly 40 times.
Asked what the ultimate goal was, he replied: "It's about making the point to the world that this is ours. If we show that we care about this then it becomes an issue, and then the government will have to listen and take a stand."
That is exactly what Palestinians fear, especially any creeping changes to the status quo, something Netanyahu promised last week would not happen. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is not convinced and urged his people not to give ground.
"The (Jewish) settlers must be barred from entering the compound by any means," he declared on Friday. "This is our Aqsa ... and they have no right to enter it and desecrate it."
(Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Mark Heinrich)