Wed, Feb 14, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Mayor orders review of walkway construction

HOLY SITE With hopes of ending angry protests by Muslims, the Jerusalem city government has halted work, trying to show no holy shrines would be damaged

AP , JERUSALEM

Palestinians hold a demonstration on the street outside the Old City walls by the Dung Gate in Jerusalem on Monday, after Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupoliansky put a halt to the reconstruction of the nearby Mugrabi Gate ramp to give people time to submit formal petitions.

PHOTO: EPA

Hoping to quell days of angry Muslim protests, Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Jewish mayor on Monday ordered a review of construction outside a holy site at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict, a spokesman said.

However, the move -- meant to prove Israel will not damage Muslim shrines -- will not affect preparatory excavations, which began last week and have infuriated people across the Muslim world.

The dispute centers on a new walkway Israel is building to the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount. The walkway is meant to replace an earthen ramp that partially collapsed in a snowstorm three years ago.

Israeli archaeologists began an exploratory dig in the area last week to ensure no historical remains are destroyed during the construction.

That work sparked fierce protests from Muslims, who accused Israel of plotting to damage the Dome of the Rock shrine and Al Aqsa Mosque in the compound. Israel denies the charge, noting the work is about 50m from the compound.

Small clashes persisted on Monday, with incidents in which Palestinians threw stones at Israeli police in the city's Arab neighborhoods.

In an effort to defuse the tensions, Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski, who has direct responsibility for the work, decided that the construction plan should be sent for a new review process that will allow for public objections, said spokesman Gidi Schmerling.

He said the mayor made the decision after meeting Muslim leaders "so that the process will be transparent, and so that it will be entirely clear that there is no attempt to harm any Muslim holy sites."

City Hall expects "thousands" of objections, he said.

Lupolianski's move came despite the Israeli Cabinet's vote on Sunday to push ahead with the work.

The mayor's decision would likely delay the actual construction, which was scheduled to begin in six months. But it would not stop the current excavations, and Muslim leaders rejected it as insufficient.

"The problem is the digging, which hasn't stopped, and unfortunately the Israeli government has decided to continue the digging," Mohammed Hussein, Jerusalem's mufti, or Muslim religious leader, said.

Israeli hard-liners also criticized Lupolianski, saying he caved in to Arab pressure.

Lawmaker Arieh Eldad called it "a disgraceful surrender to the threats from the Arabs of Israel and the Arabs and Muslims of the neighboring countries that if we behave as a nation behaves in its capital, they will ignite the Middle East."

Speaking to Israel Radio, he said the fight over the walkway is really a fight over the sovereignty of Jerusalem.

Israel captured east Jerusalem, where the disputed hilltop and other religious sites are located, in the 1967 Mideast war and considers the entire city its undivided capital. The Palestinians hope to make east Jerusalem the capital of a future independent state.

Yona Metzger, one of Israel's chief rabbis, visited the construction site on Monday, calling on the government to continue work and terming allegations that Muslim holy places could be harmed "nonsense." Metzger also called for calm.

"We don't want any problems here. This is a holy place for us as well," he said.

The compound is the holiest site in Judaism, revered as the home of the biblical Temples. Muslims revere the site as Islam's third-holiest shrine.

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