For the first time since 2002, the entrance used by Jews and tourists to access the Temple Mount was closed on Monday, sparking a firestorm among Jews and Muslims alike.
The Jerusalem municipality said it had closed the Mughrabi Bridge following a recommendation of the city engineer, who said the wooden bridge was unsound and in danger of catching fire or collapsing.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came out against Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat's decision to close the bridge, which is the only entrance non-Muslims can use to access the Temple Mount. The Prime Minister's Office refused to issue an official statement on the matter. However, close associates of Netanyahu claim the mayor's decision was intended to force the government's hand to rebuild the bridge, which was built in 2004 as a temporary replacement for an older ramp that collapsed.
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International politics and anger from Muslim officials have put any plans to renovate or replace the structure on hold since then.
Last month, however, Israel announced plans to finally replace the walkway. Officials from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the body in charge of the work, say the project is a modest effort that aims only to restore the original ramp that existed before 2004. It is not known how long the bridge will remain closed.
"The municipality of Jerusalem has time and time again referred to the threat to the safety and security of residents and visitors posed by the highly flammable and unstable structure that is the temporary Mughrabi ramp," City Hall spokesman Stephan Miller said.
In late November, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once again postponed the beginning of work, citing the current political unrest in neighboring Egypt. He seemed to be implying that anger there could be turned against Israel if construction went ahead. In 2007, Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, was similarly forced to shelve plans for a new ramp.
One associate of the prime minister said the mayor's decision had been made for political motives. In a city with a large Orthodox Jewish population, Barkat would certainly gain traction if he were seen to be defending Jews' rights at their holiest sites.
Meanwhile, a former Jerusalem District police commander told Israel Army Radio on Monday that Barkat had acted irresponsibly in closing the bridge. "Considering the riots in the Middle East, this is the time to show sensitivity and responsibility," Police Maj. Gen. (ret.) Mickey Levy said on Monday. "Why play with fire? The Jerusalem municipality has no business [with the bridge]. It has enough illegal and dangerous structures it urgently needs to deal with."
"In the United States and Europe they build many structures out of wood and are not afraid of a fire," Levy said. "Why are they afraid of fire in a spot that is so important to Islam?"
Meanwhile, a senior diplomatic source said that, "Israel has sovereignty over the area. The bridge has become a safety hazard. We will replace it in a responsible way, in light of regional circumstances and with sensitivity toward all religions."
Israel has allowed Muslims to run the compound's day-to-day administration and has safeguarded the Islamic sites inside — the golden-capped Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. But much of the Muslim world sees the status quo as a humiliation and views any Israeli move with suspicion.
Abdul-Salam Abbadi, Jordan's religious affairs minister, said the Israelis were intent on the "further Judaization of Jerusalem and changing the Islamic and Christian character in the Old City, using baseless excuses." He said Jordan's king, Abdullah II, was "making high-level contacts to stop the Israeli plan."
Following adoption of the recommendations by Jerusalem municipal engineer Shlomo Eshkol, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation placed a sign next to the Mughrabi ramp's locked gate. In English, it explains that the bridge has been closed due to security concerns and that, consequently, tourists are not permitted to enter the Temple Mount.
"This is an unparalleled scandal," said Yehuda Glick, director of the Temple Institute in Jerusalem. "The Temple Mount has 12 entrances and another one could be opened in the meantime. It is inconceivable that Jews are denied entry to their most holy place and it is intolerable that the government is capitulating and not exhibiting its sovereignty in Israel's capital."
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin addressed the issue during a meeting with Germany's Ambassador to Israel, Andreas Michaelis. "The Mughrabi Bridge was built with the agreement of all sides involved in managing the Temple Mount. At present, the bridge is dangerous and there is a need to build a new one, not on the Temple Mount but leading to it. We are receiving warnings from the Egyptians due to pressure from the Muslim Brotherhood. Understanding and support in the international community will allow us to rebuild the bridge."
Michaelis responded that Germany was aware of the risks and dangers posed by the bridge but that Israel must proceed with extra caution because the issue is so explosive. He said he believed Israel's motives regarding the bridge are honest. "There is an attempt to create Arab conspiracy theories surrounding the rebuilding of the bridge," the ambassador said.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said: "We must display sensitivity on this issue, as we have until now. The area is under Israeli sovereignty and we must act accordingly. A situation where non-Muslims cannot ascend the Temple Mount is unacceptable."
Directors of the Muslim Waqf, which administers the Temple Mount, expressed outrage over the decision to close the bridge, claiming it was made without consulting them. They said the move could be interpreted by Muslims as an Israeli attempt to intervene in the daily affairs of the Temple Mount.
Jordan's government also objected to the Mughrabi Bridge closure out of fear that it might be a precursor to additional Israeli influence on the Temple Mount.
The Palestinian Authority also weighed in on the move. "The unilateral steps that Israel is taking in Jerusalem reflect Israeli aggression the purpose of which is to foil the international community's efforts to renew the peace process," said Nabil Abu Rudeina, spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
The Palestinian-appointed Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheik Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, said that Israel wanted to destroy the bridge and replace it with an iron one to allow its forces to quickly occupy the Temple Mount and clear the area so as to build a synagogue there rivaling the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Such charges have sparked violence in the past. Rumors of Israeli plans to damage Islamic shrines in the compound, Islam's third-holiest site, sparked deadly riots in the 1990s, and bloodshed there helped spark the Palestinian uprising in September 2000.
Meanwhile, the decision unleashed a firestorm on Israel's Right as well. Overnight Monday, Israeli security forces evacuated a group of right-wing activists who had crossed the border with Jordan and holed themselves up in an abandoned building, Israel Army Radio reported Tuesday.
The activists said they had crossed the Jordanian border in order to protest Amman's condemnation of the Mughrabi Bridge closure. The activists were arrested after refusing to evacuate the premises of their own accord.
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