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Site of Ancient Jewish Temple is Epicenter of Conflict

The Dome of the Rock sits on the spot where the ancient Hebrews built the Second Temple before it was destroyed by the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago

Israel's continued settlement of East Jerusalem is a source of tension with the Palestinians. But perhaps even more contentious was the re-dedication this month of a synagogue in East Jerusalem that sparked clashes between Palestinians and Israelis. The synagogue, destroyed by Jordan in 1948, is not far from the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount. It was the site of the Second Temple built by King Herod during Roman times. Palestinian leaders claim the rebuilding of the synagogue signals the start of an attack on the al-Aqsa Mosque, in the compound, to make way for construction of the Third Temple.

To many, this spot in East Jerusalem - holy to Muslims and Jews - is the heart of the conflict.

The Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque sit on the spot where the ancient Hebrews built the Second Temple before it was destroyed by the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago. The recent reconstruction of the Hurva synagogue, nearby, has sparked new tensions.

"This synagogue is just the beginning in the process to destroy the al-Aqsa mosque and to replace it with the Third Temple. Because of this, we think the synagogue is a bad omen," said Sheikh Taysir Tamimi, a prominent Muslim leader.

Fueling that belief are remarks by hard-line Jewish groups that want to rebuild the temple, including one small faction headed by Gershon Salomon.

"They are absolutely not mistaken. Yes, we want to build the temple of God. This is our task," said Salomon.

In the seventh century, Muslim armies conquered Jerusalem. The al-Aqsa Mosque, as well as the Dome of the Rock, were built on the Temple site. Although Israel captured the hilltop in 1967, it left the Islamic structures intact.

Today, the battle continues between modern day Jews and Muslims who fear Islam's third holiest site might fall into non-Muslim hands.

Israel denies any intention to destroy the mosques and rebuild the temple. Still, that has not stopped the rumors, and the violent clashes between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli police.

Jews traditionally pray that the temple will be restored when the Messiah comes. They pray at Judaism's holiest site, the remaining foundation wall of the temple, called the Western or Wailing Wall. Some also pray inside tunnels dug along the perimeter of the compound. According to Jewish teaching, it's as close as they may approach the area for now.

Mainstream Jewish leaders reject views like Salomon's, which represent a tiny minority. The movement's rallies - police say - draw only a handful of supporters.

"The synagogue in the Old City has not any connection between this case and the dream that we have that God will send the Holy Temple from heaven. We will not build it ourselves," said Yona Metzger, a Chief Rabbi of Israel.

In an effort to avoid provocation, Israeli authorities have banned Salomon from the Temple Mount.

Palestinian security forces in the West Bank are on alert to contain the violence over the synagogue, a sign that some Palestinian officials also want to prevent the clashes from precipitating a religious war.