JERUSALEM (AFP) – The Jerusalem mayor has decided to delay building work near the city’s most contentious holy site after days of violent clashes and Muslim outcry, but archaeological excavations will continue.
Mayor Uri Lupolianski made his decision late Sunday in order to allow public discussion of Israel’s plans to replace a damaged wooden bridge leading to the Al-Aqsa mosque compound with a stone ramp.
The site, venerated by Muslims as the third holiest in Islam and by Jews as the location of their ancient temple which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, is a notorious flashpoint where violence has flared periodically.
Lupolianski took the decision following consultations with representatives from east Jerusalem, Israel’s Attorney General Menachem Mazuz and the planning authorities, municipality spokesman Gideon Schmerling said.
“This is due to the sensitivity of the plan, and following meetings and discussions with representatives from eastern Jerusalem who requested to look over the plans and voice their opinions,” he said in a statement.
Construction work will not resume until all reservations have been looked into, which Schmerling admitted to AFP “could take several years”.
Nevertheless he said on site archaeological excavations will continue — a move slammed as insufficient by the Palestinian religious leadership.
“We cannot authorise a ramp to be built without looking for archaeological artefacts,” said Israel Antiquities Authority spokesman Osnat Gouez.
“We have been doing archaeological excavations on this site for 40 years and these latest excavations are very limited and 100 metres (yards) from the Temple Mount (the mosque compound),” she told AFP.
“Those who are protesting against these works know very well that they have no reason to do so. They are only doing so for politics,” she added.
More than 2,000 Israeli police have been deployed around the compound and east Jerusalem after two days of violent clashes in which dozens were wounded in the city and parts of the occupied West Bank.
The work has angered Muslims across the world, has been slammed by the Arab League as a “criminal attack” while the Waqf, or the Muslim religious trust, has warned that the project endangers the foundations of the compound.
Israel has insisted that the works pose no risk to the holy sites and are merely aimed at strengthening the access ramp for the benefit and safety of visitors after earthquake and snowstorm damage in 2004.
Despite the street protests and dissent from within his own government, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert insisted on Sunday that the new bridge is vital.
“There is an essential need to build a new bridge. Anyone who goes there sees this for himself,” he told his cabinet.
But Jerusalem mufti Sheikh Mohammed Hussein said the decision to suspend the public works while continue excavations was insufficient.
“Only an announcement from the Israeli government ordering a halt to all work once and for all, and authorising the Waqf to embark on the necessary repair work will satisfy us,” he told AFP.
“This is an aggression against the Al-Aqsa mosque and the world has called for this aggression to stop,” he added.
The troubles precede a summit next Monday between US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and Olmert as the West redoubles its efforts to revive the stagnant Middle East peace process.
The fate of Jerusalem and its holy sites is one of the most contentious issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has a history of triggering unrest across the Holy Land far beyond the confines of the Old City walls.
It was at the compound that the second Palestinian uprising erupted in September 2000 after a visit by then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon.
In 1996, more than 80 people were killed in three days of Palestinian riots after then Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu opened a new entrance to an archaeological tunnel near the holy sites.