Jerusalem mayor seeks to calm fears over holy site
Exploratory dig sparked protests from Muslims
JERUSALEM -- Hoping to quell days of Muslim protests, Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Jewish mayor yesterday ordered a review of construction outside a holy site at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict, a spokesman said.
However, the move -- meant to prove Israel will not damage Muslim shrines -- will not affect preparatory excavations that began last week and have infuriated people across the Muslim world.
The dispute centers on a new walkway Israel is building to the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount. The walkway is meant to replace an earthen ramp that partially collapsed in a snowstorm three years ago.
Israeli archeologists began an exploratory dig in the area last week to ensure no historical remains are destroyed during the construction.
That work sparked fierce protests from Muslims, who accused Israel of plotting to damage the golden-capped Dome of the Rock shrine and the Al Aqsa Mosque in the same compound.
Israel denied the charge, noting the work is about 60 yards from the compound.
Small clashes persisted yesterday, with incidents in which Palestinians threw stones at Israeli police in the city's Arab neighborhoods.
In an effort to defuse tensions, Jerusalem's mayor, Uri Lupolianski, who has direct responsibility for the work, decided the construction plan should be sent for a new review that will allow for public objections, spokesman Gidi Schmerling 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," the spokesman added.
City Hall expects "thousands" of objections, he said.
Lupolianski's move came despite the Israeli Cabinet's vote Sunday to push ahead with the work.
The mayor's decision would be likely to delay the actual construction, which was scheduled to begin in six months. But it would not stop the current excavations, and Muslim leaders rejected it as insufficient.
"The problem is the digging, which hasn't stopped, and unfortunately the Israeli government has decided to continue the digging," Mohammed Hussein, Jerusalem's mufti, or Muslim religious leader, told the Associated Press.
Israeli hard-liners also criticized Lupolianski, saying he caved in to Arab pressure.
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 nation 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 the sovereignty of Jerusalem.