JERUSALEM — Israel closed a pedestrian walkway next to Jerusalem's most sensitive holy site on Monday before work to replace it, despite vehement Muslim objections to any construction at the site.
The dispute illustrated how the holy city's clashing religious claims and sensitivities can turn even the most mundane aspects of urban life into potential conflict.
The controversy surrounds the Mughrabi Bridge, a walkway that leads up to one of the world's most combustible holy sites – the enclosure known to Jews and Christians as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.
The city's chief engineer ordered the walkway closed because of fears of fire or collapse. The bridge was built in 2004 as a temporary replacement for an adjacent older ramp that collapsed in a snowstorm.
Muslim anger and international politics have put any plans to renovate or replace the structure on hold since then. Muslim leaders charge the planned work is part of a plot to destroy their holy sites – a claim that Israel rejects.
Last month, 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.
But the dispute is not really about the walkway or the renovation. It is rather about who has the right to carry out work in and around the sacred compound and, more broadly, about the fact of Israeli control there since the Arab defeat in the 1967 Mideast war.
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.
Neighboring Jordan, which plays a custodial role at the compound, has declared that it will send a delegation of experts to Jerusalem to inspect the ramp.
Abdul-Salam Abbadi, the 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."
In late November, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu postponed the beginning of work, citing the current political unrest in another of Israel's neighbors, 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.
Officials from the Islamic Waqf, the Jordanian-controlled body that runs the compound under Israel's security control, would not comment Monday, but senior official Abdul Azim Samhadana told the AP last month that the Israeli renovation was "an attack on Al-Aqsa."
The Palestinians, who claim east Jerusalem as their capital, also condemned the Israeli move.
"The Israeli decision ... is illegal, unacceptable and provocative," said Palestinian government spokesman Ghassan Khatib. "Israel has no right in running these sites in the occupied part of east Jerusalem."
The rival Hamas militant group, which runs the Gaza Strip, accused Israel of making a "provocation to the feelings of all Islamic and Arab people."
Such charges have sparked violence in the past. Rumors of Israeli plans to damage the 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.
The walkway is the only access point from the Old City's Jewish Quarter and is used by Jews and tourists, while Muslims use other entrances from the adjacent Muslim Quarter.
With the walkway closed, Jews and other non-Muslims cannot access the compound, which Jews revere as the site of two biblical temples.
The closure drew an angry response from some Israeli politicians. "The Temple Mount must be opened to Jews immediately. Its closure represents a red line that must not be crossed," said Danny Danon, a lawmaker from Netanyahu's Likud Party.
The spat comes at a time of prolonged deadlock in peace negotiations. Talks have been frozen for the past three years, in large part because of continued Israeli settlement construction.
On Monday, the mayor of an Israeli settlement in the West Bank said the Defense Ministry had approved 40 new permanent houses to replace a nearby trailer camp, drawing Palestinian condemnation.
Mayor Oded Revivi said final approval came last week. Hagit Ofran, who monitors settlements for the dovish Peace Now organization, said the trailers at the site were put up without authorization and that their replacement by permanent homes amounted to retroactive approval of an illegal settlement outpost.
Ministry officials said the construction was authorized months ago, and that all building would take place within the boundaries of Efrat, a large settlement outside of Jerusalem with some 7,000 residents.
Saeb Erekat, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said the move "deserves the strongest condemnation."
Also Monday, a senior Israeli army official said another confrontation with Gaza's Hamas rulers is inevitable, citing a rush by the militant group to train fighters and stock more and better weapons.
The officer, Col. Yonatan Branski, spoke to reporters on the Israel-Gaza border after a renewed flare-up of violence this week between Israel and Hamas militants.
"I think we can't avoid another confrontation. There are a lot of weapons inside Gaza, there are groups who are trying to hurt civilians, they do it all the time," said Branski, deputy commander of the military division in charge of the Gaza border.
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Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid reported from the Israel-Gaza border, Daniella Cheslow from Jerusalem, and Jamal Halaby from Amman, Jordan.