The shouting echoed across the Temple Mount, a roar of anger in a holy place. On a brilliant fall morning, a group of devout Jewish men strolled slowly along the site's ancient stone walls, escorted by armed Israeli police, toward the base of the gleaming Dome of the Rock, where Jews believe Solomon and Herod built the First and Second Temples. To Muslims, the Temple Mount is known as Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), home to al-Aqsa Mosque and the place where Muhammad is said to have been carried to heaven by the angel Gabriel. The Muslim holy sites on the Temple Mount are managed by the Wakf, an Islamic trust, and for the last three years Jews had not been allowed here.
The commotion began as members of the Jewish group stopped near the Dome and began nodding and muttering verse. A dozen Muslim men rushed up and accused the visitors of trying to pray on the Mount, which is forbidden to non-Muslims by both the Islamic authorities who manage the site and by the Israeli Supreme Court, which has upheld the ban out of concern for public safety. The Muslims demanded that the Jews leave the area. When the Jews stood firm, several more Muslims began screaming epithets and shoving the visitors toward the gates of the Mount. As the standoff threatened to turn violent, police officers sprinted to the scene, led by Colonel Nisso Shacham, 45, commander of the Israeli Police in Jerusalem's Old City.
Shacham wedged himself between the two groups, urging calm on both sides in Hebrew and Arabic, while brandishing a half-lit cigar in one hand and fielding calls on two cell phones with the other. After a few tense minutes, Shacham ordered the Muslims back and ushered the Jews out of the Temple Mount. It was a small victory for peace in a place where cool heads rarely prevail. "I have to prevent both sides from altering the status quo," Shacham says. "But any minute things can explode."
Three years since Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount provoked a clash between Palestinians and Israeli police that left four dead and touched off the second intifadeh, the ancient 14-hectare plaza of olive trees and cypresses is a tinderbox again. In August, after months of secret talks with Israeli government officials, lawyers for the Wakf agreed in writing to open the site to non-Muslim visitors for the first time since the intifadeh began. After the agreement was denounced by Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, the Wakf rescinded its decision, but Israeli police started escorting groups of Jews there anyway. Some Palestinians believe the renewed visits of Jews to the Haram are part of a larger plot by Israelis to seize control of the Temple Mount. "We have to be very careful," says Khalid, 46, one of 50 men employed by the Wakf to monitor the activities of visitors. "There are Jews who are planning to destroy the mosque."
Shacham's job is to keep such emotions in check. A former narcotics officer, the barrel-chested Shacham takes a zero-tolerance approach to misbehavior by both Jews and Muslims. Since the reopening of the Temple Mount two months ago, Shacham says, police have arrested 20 Jewish visitors for attempting to pray there. To prevent Palestinian militants from using the Mount as a battleground, Shacham prohibits Muslims under the age of 40 from attending Friday prayers if he receives intelligence of a possible riot. In the last two years, he has ordered his forces to storm the plaza on seven occasions to bust up brewing Palestinian disturbances. During that time, there have been no casualties at the Temple Mount on either side. "I can't reduce the motivation of people to be violent," he says. "But I can reduce their capability."
To do that, Shacham employs quiet persuasion as much as brute force. Before Friday prayers, he sets out on a charm offensive through the winding streets of the Old City's Muslim Quarter. He kisses Arab shopkeepers, mingles with Palestinian teenagers, even sips coffee with one local sheikh who was barred from entering the Mount after the man participated in a riot there. "In a place like this," he says, "you have to be an officer and a gentleman."
Shortly before 1 p.m., Shacham joins a hundred riot policemen part of a 2,000-strong force deployed around the plaza outside the Morocco Gate, on the western edge of the Temple Mount. As 15,000 worshippers file out of the Haram, Shacham prepares to act at the slightest hint of disorder. But the plaza remains calm, and the troops head home. Shacham is the last to come down from the Mount. "No one was wounded and no one was killed," he says. "It was good for everybody."