Israel reopens contested ramp, easing spat

AP News
Posted: Dec 14, 2011 12:30 PM
Israel reopens contested ramp, easing spat

Israel on Wednesday reopened a temporary walkway leading to Jerusalem's most sensitive holy site, just two days after closing it, defusing a diplomatic spat that had turned the rickety wooden ramp into a political and religious flashpoint.

The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the organization in charge of the ramp and the adjacent Jewish holy site at the Western Wall, said that workers would spray the wooden bridge with fire retardant materials next week to allow it to remain open. Construction of a new ramp, which had angered Muslims, will be postponed indefinitely.

The decision was made by Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, the statement said.

Jerusalem's city engineer ordered the bridge closed on Monday, saying it was a fire hazard and in danger of collapse. On Wednesday, it was back in use, a fire truck parked nearby.

The walkway, which leads up to the sacred enclosure known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, was built as a temporary measure in 2004, taking up part of an area used by women worshipping at the Western Wall. An older ramp had been damaged in a snowstorm that winter.

Repairs have been repeatedly deferred because Arab countries dispute Israel's authority to carry out any work at the site, which Israel captured in 1967.

Israel has been hesitant to risk sparking Muslim anger by going ahead. A 1996 decision by Netanyahu to open a tunnel in the Old City sparked Palestinian riots that left dozens dead.

The latest plan has drawn fierce criticism from Muslim clerics in Jerusalem, as well as the Jordanian government, which accused Israel of an "attack" on Muslim holy sites. Netanyahu had ordered the postponement of construction last month, citing unrest in neighboring Egypt.

Stephen Moore

Israel has been negotiating with Jordan, which plays a custodial role over the city's Muslim holy sites, to reach consensus on the new ramp.

There was no immediate comment from Jordan on Wednesday.

The Jordanians, however, are worried about current unrest in the Arab world and do not want to be seen as cooperating with Israel, said Mideast expert Yitzhak Reiter, a professor at the Jerusalem Center for Israel Studies with ties in the Jordanian government.

Netanyahu's decision Wednesday indicates that Israel, which has a peace agreement with Jordan, is sensitive to Amman's dilemma, he said.

"The winds of the Arab Spring are worrying Jordan and pushing Israel and Jordan closer together," he said. "They seem to have decided to delay it until circumstances change."