JERUSALEM,(AP) -Construction work resumed Sunday on a ramp leading to a disputed holy site in Jerusalem, despite objections from the Muslim world and two days of violent Palestinian protest.
Under heavy Israeli police guard, workmen returned to the site in the walled Old City after a break Saturday for the Jewish Sabbath.
Tensions in the city have been high since last week, when 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 earthen ramp that partially collapsed in a snowstorm three years ago.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld reported no new incidents Sunday morning and said the work was scheduled to proceed throughout the day. He said police on duty in and around east Jerusalem would stay at an increased strength of around 2,000 officers and restrictions barring men under the age of 45 from praying at the sanctuary’s Muslim holy sites would remain in force.
Speaking ahead of a weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert slammed “people with ulterior motives in the international Arab world” for using the Israeli work as a pretext “to fan the flames of hostility and hatred.”
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, and under our full sovereignty.”
On Friday, about 200 riot police firing stun grenades and tear gas battled rock-throwing protesters among the 3,000 Muslim worshippers there, while on Saturday Palestinian teenagers stoned Israeli security forces, burned an Israeli flag and pelted a Canadian tour bus with rocks.
Despite accusations from Arab leaders that Israel is trying to harm the compound’s Islamic sites and calls for Muslims to forcibly resist the renovation work, there have been only limited clashes and nobody has been seriously injured.
The Old City hilltop compound has been a catalyst for earlier rounds of Israel-Palestinian fighting. It houses the third holiest site for Muslims, who believe it is where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.
The compound is Judaism’s holiest site, venerated as the location of two biblical temples, and Jews gather to pray near one of its outer retaining walls, known as the Western Wall.
On Saturday, the Arab League secretary-general, Amr Moussa, accused Israel of attempting to “change the features” of Jerusalem with the excavation, and Turkey’s Foreign Ministry urged Israel to avoid “acts that may create new tensions.” Most Islamic countries have issued condemnations of the work.
Touring the site Sunday morning, Israel’s public security minister, Avi Dichter, said he believed “that reason will return, and in the coming period we’ll see things settle down on this matter.”