Hazel Ward, AFP
Last updated: 8 December, 2011

Jerusalem orders Al-Aqsa ramp closure

Jerusalem’s city council has ordered the closure within a week of a wooden access ramp to the sensitive Al-Aqsa mosque compound in the Old City, saying the structure is “a threat to public safety.”

The order was outlined in a letter from city engineer Shlomo Eshkol given on Wednesday evening to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation responsible for the upkeep of the Mughrabi ramp.

“It is my intention to issue an order for the immediate closure of the structure and not to allow any use of it,” he wrote, giving them “seven days from the date of this notice to outline any reservations.”

The structure has been at the centre of a complex row between the city council and the Jewish and Muslim groups which respectively oversee the Western Wall plaza and the Al-Aqsa mosque compound next to it.

The city says the ramp poses a fire hazard and could collapse onto the women’s prayer section by the Western Wall.

But Muslim leaders fear the demolition could have a destabilising effect on the mosque compound and accuses Israel of failing to coordinate the renovation with the Waqf, which oversees Islamic heritage sites.

Palestinian officials condemned the Israeli announcement.

“This shows their determination to Judaise Jerusalem and to take over the city’s Muslim holy places,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP.

The Hamas movement called in a statement for “our Palestinian people and Arab and Islamic masses to show their solidarity with the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy places.”

Israel “bears full responsibility for the consequences of this criminal act which constitutes a flagrant violation of the sanctity of Al-Aqsa Mosque and a provocation to the feelings of millions of Muslims,” it added.

The ramp leads from the plaza by the Western Wall, the most sacred site at which Jews can pray, up to the adjoining compound, known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, which houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam.

Speaking to AFP, Jerusalem Waqf head Azzam al-Khatib said the organisation was ready to undertake the work itself if Israel would agree.

“We can, and are willing to restore (the ramp) to the condition it was before or better, within days, if Israel allows it,” he said.

When the closure order goes into force next Wednesday evening, barring any last-minute appeals by the Foundation, only the security forces will be allowed to use it “in urgent circumstances,” the letter said.

In a statement to AFP, the Western Wall Foundation said its head, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, was “studying the order and taking legal advice regarding how to act.

“Obviously any decision will take into account safety considerations for those going up the bridge and those praying at the Wall,” it said.

There are 15 gates leading into the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, 10 of which are in use. The Mughrabi Gate is the only access for non-Muslims to enter the site, meaning its closure will prevent tourists from visiting until a replacement structure is built.

The council said the state of the ramp, which is used daily by hundreds of visitors and security personnel, had been of “great concern” for some time.

In October it gave the Western Wall Foundation 30 days to dismantle the ramp and rebuild a permanent replacement, sparking anger in Jordan, which is the custodian of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.

In November, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu postponed demolition, over fears it could spark a wave of anti-Israel protests across the Arab and Islamic world.

“The situation in the region is sensitive, therefore I decided that the time is not right to go ahead with it,” he told a parliamentary committee, denying reports it was due to pressure from Egypt and Jordan.

Jordan’s powerful Islamists were quick to respond on Thursday.

“Israel is disregarding all Arab and international warnings,” said Hamzeh Mansur, head of the opposition Islamic Action Front party, accusing Israel of pursing a “policy of Judaising the Holy Land.”

The plaza which houses the mosque complex is venerated by Jews as the Temple Mount, the site where King Herod’s temple once stood before it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. It is the holiest site in Judaism, but Jews are forbidden to worship there.