Work suspended after violence at disputed Jerusalem holy site

By staff writers
14 Feb 2007

The mayor of Jerusalem has suspended renovations near a compound housing the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, while the municipality is to submit new plans for a walkway leading to the holy site - writes Annette Young from Jerusalem for Ecumenical News International (ENI).

Mayor Uri Lupolianski announced the suspension of work to the damaged ramp, which has sparked Muslim anger over what they call a "criminal attack". Lupolianski has called for a longer and more transparent planning process that will allow residents to see plans for the walkway and submit protests.

However, the decision will have no effect on archaeological work currently under way at the site, a spokesperson for the mayor told ENI. In Israel, it is mandatory for an archaeological dig to be carried out on any building or construction site near or on a location that could contain historic artefacts.

But Arab leaders and Muslim clerics claim the excavations could damage the foundations of Islam's third holiest site, which is also a symbol of Palestinian national pride. Jews also revere the compound that overlooks Judaism's Western Wall as it was home to the First and Second Temple.

More than 30 protesters and Israeli police officers were injured on 9 February 2007 during clashes over the excavations. About 200 Israeli police wielding batons, used stun grenades and tear gas to disperse a group of protesters who threw stones at them at the plaza outside Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Sporadic clashes also broke out over the weekend including a group of Palestinian youths throwing stones at a bus of Canadian tourists on the Mount of Olives on 10 February. No one was injured or arrested during the incident. But Israeli officials say a strong police presence will remain in the Old City and East Jerusalem while tensions remain high.

The heads of Jerusalem churches met Muslim clerics and leaders on 10 February after clashes the day before on the Temple Mount after prayer, an official of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land told ENI.

The discussion centred around how to keep holy sites protected, respected and accessible to all who wish to pray there. The website of the church (http://www.holyland-lutherans.org/) quoted Muslim leaders as saying they had been in discussion for three years about this reconstruction of the Mugrabi gate area.

The church's site said that for Palestinians, Muslim and Christian, "this is one more example of a unilateral action that disrespects them and their rights, and is unnecessarily provocative at a time fraught with tension over Palestinian infighting and possible new beginnings of the new unity government".

On 11 February, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said it was his government's responsibility to conduct an archaeological dig that will precede the rebuilding of a pedestrian ramp leading to the Mughrabi Gate.

"There is no religious issue here," he noted and said it was "Arab extremists" who were inciting violence. The existing ramp, Olmert said, "is a dangerous structure that must be renovated," and the work was being done "in an area that is totally and completely under Israeli responsibility and day-to-day administration".

Protests erupted after Israel began work outside the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount. The new walkway is meant to replace an ancient ramp that partially collapsed following a snowstorm and earthquake three years ago.

Since 2004, the ramp, mainly used by tourists to access the compound, was replaced by a temporary timber structure while discussions were held on what permanent structure would take its place.

The excavations would also be broadcast live on the internet, the cabinet was told. It is expected the excavations could last as long as eight months.

[With grateful acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches]

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