Jerusalem Mayor Seeks To Calm Muslim Fears

Monday, February 12th 2007, 6:18 am
By: News On 6

JERUSALEM (AP) _ In a step to quell Muslim protests, Jerusalem's mayor will allow residents to examine plans for construction of a walkway near a disputed site and submit objections, a City Hall spokesman said Monday.

That could delay the project but it will have no effect on preparatory work currently going on outside the site, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount.

Israeli archaeologists last week began carrying out an exploratory dig to ensure that no important remains are damaged when the walkway is built.

The new walkway would replace an ancient earthen ramp that partially collapsed in a snowstorm three years ago. The project has drawn fierce protests from Palestinians and Arab countries, who accuse Israel of plotting to damage Muslim holy sites. Israel denies the charge, noting the work is about 50 yards from the complex.

Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski decided to accept public objections to help calm Muslim concerns, spokesman Gidi Schmerling said.

He said the mayor made the decision after meeting Muslim leaders ``so that the process will be transparent, and so that it will be entirely clear that there is no attempt to harm any Muslim holy sites.''

City Hall expects ``thousands'' of objections, and the decision will ``likely'' delay construction because more hearings will need to be held, he said. Actual construction was originally scheduled to begin in six months, with the project slated for completion within a year.

Although the current archaeological work won't be affected, Lupolianski's decision was immediately criticized by hard-liners.

Lawmaker Arieh Eldad called it ``a disgraceful surrender to the threats from the Arabs of Israel and the Arabs and Muslims of the neighboring countries that if we behave as a people behaves in its capital they will ignite the Middle East.''

Speaking to Israel Radio, he said the fight over the walkway is really a fight over sovereignty in Jerusalem.

Israel captured east Jerusalem, where the disputed complex and other religious sites are located, in the 1967 Mideast war and considers the entire city its undivided capital. The Palestinians hope to make east Jerusalem the capital of a future independent state.

The disputed hilltop site is home to the Al Aqsa mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam. The complex, built atop the ruins of the biblical Jewish Temples, is also the holiest site in Judaism, and Jews gather to pray near one of its outer retaining walls, known as the Western Wall.

The Israeli construction project touched off several days of Palestinian protests in Jerusalem and the West Bank, though there have been no serious injuries. Many Arab and Muslim countries also have condemned the work.

Rejecting the criticism, the Israeli Cabinet on Sunday voted overwhelmingly to push ahead with the work. There were no objections to the decision, the government said in a statement, though three ministers abstained.

Israeli police have restricted access to the complex's Islamic sites over the past week to limit protests. Only Muslim men over 45 years old with Israeli ID cards and women were allowed to pray Sunday at the Al Aqsa Mosque.

Two Israelis were lightly injured Monday morning when stones were thrown at their car, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

The most serious clashes came on Friday, when about 200 riot police firing stun grenades and tear gas battled rock-throwing protesters among 3,000 Muslim worshippers at the complex.