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Jewish Activists Highlight Growing Movement In Visit To Disputed Holy Site

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Hundreds of Jewish activists strode up a Jerusalem hill this weekend to pray, and that act sent ripples across the region. They were on a disputed site holy to both Jews and Muslims and possibly the most sensitive spot in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. NPR's Nick Schifrin reports that the group backing the trips, once on the fringes, is growing larger and more influential.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in Hebrew).

NICK SCHIFRIN, BYLINE: In a Jerusalem neighborhood on this past hot Saturday night, a woman delivers a prayer of despair as hundreds of people listen. This is the holiday of Tisha B'av when Jews mourn the destruction of the ancient first and second temples.

YEHUDA GLICK: (Speaking Hebrew).

SCHIFRIN: But Rabbi Yehuda Glick doesn't mourn. He delivers a call to action. He wants to build a third temple.

GLICK: We are trying to return to the holy place in Jewish tradition.

SCHIFRIN: Jews call it the Temple Mount. Muslims call it the Noble Sanctuary. Tradition holds it's where the Jewish temple stood and where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. For the last 1,300 years, it's been home to the al-Aqsa Mosque. In 1967 when Israel occupied the area, Israeli officials reserve the compound for Muslim prayer. Glick is campaigning to allow Jewish prayer.

GLICK: There's no reason in the world that a person should be arrested just because he's moving his lips.

SCHIFRIN: In 2014, Glick survived an assassination attempt by a Palestinian gunman. He has personally made a third temple movement more accepted. He says in 1991, 150 Jews entered the compound. Last year it was 20,000.

GLICK: To go from 20,000 to a hundred thousand, from a hundred thousand to a million, from 2 million to 10 million...

SCHIFRIN: The movement now includes senior Israeli officials such as Deputy Defense Minister Ben Dahan, who spoke at Saturday night's rally.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEN DAHAN: (Speaking Hebrew).

SCHIFRIN: "We the fighters of the state of Israel," he says, "will be blessed to see the building in Jerusalem the temple promptly in our time." A few temple supporters have called not only to build a third temple but also to destroy the al-Aqsa Mosque. One of them is Levy Kroll.

LEVY KROLL: The temple should be there.

SCHIFRIN: Instead of al-Aqsa.

KROLL: Instead of, yes, not next to.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Allahu akbar. Allahu akbar. Allahu akbar.

SCHIFRIN: The next morning, Israeli police say they escorted more than 400 Jewish activists onto the site. The activists say that's a record. And all around them, Palestinians chant God is great, including 60-year-old Ahmed Ali.

AHMED ALI: This is the only thing that we can do. The plan for building the temple here is real, OK? It's not just talks. When politicians come here, then it's more serious.

SCHIFRIN: Israel's official policy is to respect the status quo, and even a sign at the site entrance posted by the country's chief rabbi tells Jews not to enter. But a recent poll showed more than a third of Israelis now say they want Jews to be able to pray on the compound even if it would bring bloodshed. U.S. officials who declined to speak publicly tell NPR they are deeply worried about the Jewish visits increasing tension.

Israeli attorney Danny Seidmann is a frequent critic of the Jewish visits and of what he sees as an increasingly right-wing Israeli society.

DANNY SEIDMANN: What we are witnessing is the ascendancy of a biblically driven settler movement that does have messianic aspirations on the Temple Mount.

SCHIFRIN: Jordan called the activist visits vicious, and Jordanian King Abdullah denounced them. Previous incidents on the site have been followed by Palestinian uprisings and long cycles of violence. This weekend, Israeli police protecting the Jewish activists got in a shoving match with Palestinians, as you can hear in this video filmed by a Palestinian and posted online.

(CROSSTALK)

SCHIFRIN: The worry today is that next time it won't just be shoving. Nick Schifrin, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.