Israel reopens controversial access ramp to Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa compound


Israel reopened a controversial wooden access ramp to Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque compound on Wednesday, two days after its closure on safety grounds sparked Muslim anger.

“It was opened this morning,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told AFP. “It’s been opened as normal for visitors, both Christian and Jewish.”

He said a fire engine had been stationed nearby and other unspecified safety precautions implemented, after an inspection by a city engineer.

On Monday, Israel closed the Mughrabi access ramp over public safety concerns.

The Jerusalem municipality, which had ordered the ramp’s closure, had said “the government’s decision to fortify the bridge and fix its safety shortcomings, in accordance with the city's engineer’s orders, ensures the municipality’s preliminary demands to ensure the safety of those using the bridge.”

The municipality also expressed “regret” over the government’s ongoing failure to deal with the “ugly and dilapidated hazard in the heart of the Western Wall and entrance to the Temple Mount.”

The Israeli decision to renovate rather than demolish the Mughrabi walkway was understood to be a move to prevent a crisis with Jordan, which is custodian of the Waqf and is responsible for Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.

Amman has frequently spoken out against removal of the ramp, which is one of the 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 both Jews and tourists from visiting until a replacement structure is built.

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 al-Haram al-Sharif, which houses the al-Aqsa mosque.

The wooden ramp in Jerusalem was erected by Israeli authorities as a stopgap after a snowstorm and earthquake in 2004 damaged a stone bridge leading up from Judaism’s Western Wall to the sacred compound where the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock shrine stand.

Any construction at the site can be politically explosive. During Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, his opening in 1996 of a new entrance to an access tunnel for tourists near the compound touched off Muslim protests and gun battles in which 60 Palestinians and 15 Israelis were killed.

The footbridge was to have been torn down last month but Netanyahu postponed the demolition on the advice of Israeli diplomats and security officials, government officials said, according to Reuters.

Netanyahu was cautioned that removing the structure and building a new bridge could enrage Muslims, especially in turbulent Egypt, who might believe the work could damage al-Aqsa, said the officials, who insisted no harm would come to existing buildings.

Israeli media reports said Israel would consult with the king of Jordan, the custodian of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, on the future of the bridge.

The city’s senior Muslim cleric, Sheikh Mohammad Hussein, the mufti of Jerusalem, said Islamic religious authorities opposed demolition of the existing structure and construction of a new one.

The holy compound is in the old walled city of Jerusalem, an area Israel captured along with the West Bank in a 1967 war and annexed in a step that has not won international recognition. Palestinians want the area to be part of a state they intend to create in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Jews revere the compound as the site of their Biblical Temple, destroyed by Roman troops in the 1st century. Surviving foundations of its Western Wall are now a focus of prayer.

For Muslims, who captured Jerusalem from the Christian Byzantines in the 7th century, the Dome of the Rock marks the spot from which the Prophet Mohammed made his night journey to heaven.