Israel's prime minister intervened to halt renovation work on a pedestrian walkway adjacent to the most sensitive holy site in Jerusalem to avoid inflaming public opinion in the Arab world, an Israeli official said Monday.
The renovation is meant to replace a rickety wooden ramp leading up to the enclosure known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as al-Aqsa. The ramp was meant to be temporary when it was constructed in 2004 to replace an earlier one that collapsed in a snowstorm, but fears of sparking Muslim anger have prevented any further work since then.
The dismantling of the temporary walkway, which Jerusalem city officials have deemed potentially unsafe, was supposed to have begun in recent days, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the work postponed, Netanyahu told a security and foreign policy committee in Israel's parliament.
He cited the recent anti-government unrest in neighboring Egypt, implying that anger there could be turned against Israel if his government were seen to be endangering a holy site that has repeatedly served as a flashpoint for violence.
"It was my assessment that given the demonstrations in Cairo, on that specific day, that specific week _ it was not the time," Netanyahu told the committee, according to an official who participated in the closed session. He spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the subject.
The official gave no date for the resumption of work. The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the Israeli body directly responsible for the ramp, would not provide details on the project, and spokesmen for Netanyahu and Jerusalem City Hall declined to comment.
In 2007, when Israel began preliminary work to replace the temporary ramp with a new one, an outcry from Muslims eventually forced Israel to shelve the plan.
The walkway, which is not part of the compound, is located in the Old City's Jewish Quarter and is used by non-Muslim visitors and tourists. Muslim worshippers use a number of other entrances from the adjacent Muslim Quarter.
Israel says it has quiet contacts on the subject with the Islamic Waqf, the body in charge of the day-to-day running of the compound under Israel's security control.
The Waqf, which does not wish to be seen as collaborating with Israel, traditionally denies any contact with Israeli authorities, and a senior Waqf official said Monday that there was "no coordination" with Israel.
The ramp renovation constituted "an attack on al-Aqsa," Abdul Azim Samhadana said. "Israel is destroying this pathway in a way that is provocative and which attacks the sentiments of Muslims," he said.
On Monday, neighboring Jordan denounced the Israeli work as "unilateral" and aimed at "Judaizing" Jerusalem, according to an official government statement.
Jordan's king, Abdullah II, raised the issue Monday during a meeting in Amman with Israeli President Shimon Peres. A statement from the palace said the king urged Israel to "refrain from any measures that could change the features of Jerusalem, or affect Islamic and Christian holy places in the Holy City."
Jordan, which held east Jerusalem until losing the area in the 1967 Mideast war, still controls the Waqf, giving it a custodial role at Muslim holy sites in the city.
Underlying the opposition to the seemingly minor work is Muslim anger over the fact of Israeli control at the compound, Islam's third holiest site and a potent national symbol for Palestinians.
The compound was the site of two biblical Jewish temples and has been at the center of the Jewish faith for three millennia. Today, Jews pray outside at the adjacent Western Wall. For the past 1,300 years, it has been home to the golden-capped Islamic shrine known as the Dome of the Rock and to the al-Aqsa mosque.
Additional reporting from Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem and Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan.
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