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Gilded dome asserts Islam's claim to Holy sites: King Hussein's financing of restoration work is sending a message to the Israelis and the Arabs, writes Sarah Helm in Jerusalem

HIGH above Islam's third holiest shrine an Irish workman hoisted up a sheet of gold-plated metal, ready to gild another grey square in the giant patchwork dome that dominates Jerusalem's skyline. In the laboratories down below, a crescent moon was taken away by men in white coats, to be plated with gold before being raised 40 feet to top the Dome of the Rock, on the Haram al- Sharif, 'The Noble Sanctuary'.

After two years, restoration work on Jerusalem's most famous landmark is near completion. The pounds 4.4m bill is being paid by King Hussein of Jordan, who hired a Northern Irish company, Mivan - whose last job was Euro-Disney - to do the work.

The 1,200sq metre expanse, previously covered with leaky aluminium, is to be the biggest gilded dome in the world. In a city where, above any other, symbols connote power, the significance of the project is immense.

At a crucial moment in the Middle East peace talks, King Hussein - who, as a descendant of the prophet Mohamed, claims custodianship of Jerusalem's Muslim Holy Sites - is sending a message to Israel. The gilded dome is a reassertion of Islam's claim to Jerusalem's Holy Sites.

East Jerusalem, including the Holy Sites of the Old City - sites holy to Muslims, Christians and Jews - has been under Israeli occupation since Israel seized the Arab sector of the city from Jordanian control in the 1967 war. Israel says the whole city - East and West - will remain forever Israel's 'unified capital'.

No Arab country, however, can accept Israel's occupation of East Jerusalem and the Holy Sites.

A focus of bloody struggle so often before, the Haram al-Sharif, also site of the al-Aqsa Mosque, is certain to be the main battleground for future political and religious claims to the city. The Haram, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, sits on a spot venerated by them as the original site of The Temple.

But now, the question of whether the Palestine Liberation Organisation would seek to take over the King's custodianship of the sites is on everyone's mind. Since the peace talks, the PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, has cast an acquisitive eye over the Haram, indicating he would like the keys to the Holy Sites to return from Amman to Arab Jerusalem.

Guardianship of the sites gives significant power. King Hussein oversees not only the Haram al-Sharif, but 850 mosques, and numerous religious institutions, as well as large chunks of land, in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

King Hussein never relinquished his custodial role of the Holy Sites through the Ministry of Religious Endowments (Awkaf). The Hashemites have never recovered from the humiliation of being evicted from Islam's two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, by the Saudis in 1927.

King Hussein was spurred into action after King Fahd of Saudi Arabia made a bid to pay for the restoration. The Hashemite monarch sold a house in London to raise money for the work.

Mr Arafat has hinted he would like to pray at the Haram al-Sharif when he returns to the West Bank in the spring, by which time the King's new dome will be shining in all its glory. If the PLO chairman does visit the site, he is certain to use such an occasion to stake his territorial claim.

TABA - Israeli and PLO negotiators reportedly agreed yesterday on key points blocking implementation of their autonomy accord, but then became mired in differences over the extent of Israeli withdrawal from Jericho, AP reports.

(Photograph omitted)