The al-Haram al-Sharif - or the Noble Sanctuary - the compound housing Al-Aqsa Mosque, also contains the Dome of the Rock Mosque and is referred to by Jews as the Temple Mount.

Israeli politicians in recent weeks have warned that extremist Jews wish to destroy the Noble Sanctuary with the aim of rebuilding a temple - also known as the Second Temple - which was destroyed by the Romans in CE70 (AD70).

The building of the Third Temple would signal the coming of the Messiah.

Jewish organisations have sought to undermine Palestinian control of the Noble Sanctuary since 1967, shortly after Israel captured control of East Jerusalem from Jordan.

In 1967, a Jewish group tried to lead prayers within the Sanctuary despite a Rabbinate prohibition.

Two years later, the entire south wing of the mosque was burned, including a pulpit commissioned by the Muslim leader Salah al-Din al-Ayubi some 700 years earlier.

Israeli authorities claimed the perpetrator - Australian Dennis Michael Rohan, a tourist belonging to an evangelical group who hid out in an illegal Israeli settlement - had been mentally imbalanced.

By his own admission, he claimed that he was trying to hasten the return of the Messiah by destroying the mosque and rebuilding the temple in its place.

Controversial claims

Rohan's actions may have alluded to research conducted by Israeli archaeologist Benjamin Mazar, who claimed that the Second Temple stood on the very grounds of al-Aqsa Mosque and the Noble Sanctuary.

Tunnels have undermined the
structure of the mosque

Mazar's theories fuelled more calls for tearing down al-Aqsa Mosque and the Noble Sanctuary and rebuilding the Jewish temple.

Mazar himself supervised the excavating of tunnels under al-Aqsa Mosque, which would last until 1988. The use of mechanical excavators caused damage to the mosque, giving rise to cracks and loss of structural integrity.

Although Israeli authorities denied Palestinian claims of damage, a 1996 Jerusalem Post report by Abraham Rabinovitch said: "There was no penetration of the Mount itself or danger to holy places, but midway in the tunnel's progress large cracks appeared in one of the residential buildings in the Muslim Quarter, 12 metres above the excavation. The dig was halted until steel buttresses secured the building."

In 1970, an Israeli activist group, called the Temple Mount Faithful, tried to ram through the mosque aiming to destroy it and resurrect the temple.

In 1982, a former Israeli soldier shot and killed two worshippers at the Dome of the Rock. Two months later, an Israeli trying to blow up the mosque was arrested.

He was later released.

Tunnels reopened

In 1992, Israeli archaeologist Leen Ritmeyer expanded Mazar's theories of the location of the Second Temple by claiming that it stood directly below the Dome of the Rock mosque in the Noble Sanctuary.

He furthered his claims in his 1996 book, The Ark of the Covenant: Where it Stood in Solomon's Temple, by stating that the Ark - housing the Ten Commandments - was located in a chamber under the Dome of the Rock mosque.

His claims sparked a renewed interest in tunnelling under the Noble Sanctuary. Violent clashes broke out in Jerusalem between Muslim protesters and the Israeli occupation army. Seventy-three Palestinians were killed.

Hardliners in position

In 1996 the Temple Mount Faithful conducted a Gallup poll seeking a referendum on rebuilding the temple over al-Aqsa Mosque. More than 58% of polled Israelis supported such action.

"More than ever, the Temple Mount and the vision of the rebuilt Temple have become the focus of Israel," the group's website says.

Jews believe biblical prophecy
dictates rebuilding of the temple

The goal of the Temple Mount Faithful "is the building of the Third Temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in our lifetime in accordance with the Word of God and all the Hebrew prophets and the liberation of the Temple Mount from Arab (Islamic) occupation so that it may be consecrated to the Name of God".

In 1997, a red heifer – cow – was born in Jerusalem and hailed by Jews as a sign of the "messianic age" prompting the building of the Third Temple. The red heifer is to be used in an ancient Jewish purification ritual which cleanses Jews who are to begin constructing the temple.

However, within the following year, the heifer was found to be unclean – a white spot was found on its body – thereby dashing hopes for messianic times.

Blueprints drawn

In October 2001, the Temple Mount Faithful marched to the Dome of the Rock and anointed two 4.5-tonne marble blocks as the cornerstones of the Third Temple.

In May 2003, Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed urged US President Bush to support the building of the Third Temple.

"The toppling of his [Saddam's] regime opens a window of hope for a new era in the Middle East and the entire world. This, then, is the hour to right the terrible wrong that has been done to the Jewish nation over the past 2000 years," he said.

The Temple Institute in Jerusalem, a Jewish organisation dedicated to the reconstruction of the temple, has carried out blueprint studies of the structure, which is to be built once the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque are removed.

The institute dedicated a patch of Jerusalem property to begin assembling cornerstones for the building of a "mini-temple" offsite and transferring to the Noble Sanctuary once the area has been cleared of al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock mosques.

Members of the institute have also been assigned with training young rabbis in ritual sacrifices, which are supposed to be conducted within the temple grounds.

The Temple Institute says it has recreated the types of vases, pottery and utensils used in Biblical times, which are to be placed inside the Third Temple.