Israel clears out disputed site in Muslim quarter

Israel has widened access to a revered Jewish site in the heart of the Jerusalem Old City’s Muslim quarter, a move that threatens to inflame tensions at one of the world’s most contested religious sites.

Municipal officials recently ordered the removal of scaffolding -- which propped up an arch underneath Palestinian homes -- to enlarge the courtyard in front of a small section of the ancient wall, a remnant of the Second Temple destroyed in 70 AD, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported.

The clearance will allow more Jewish worshipers to pray at the site, which lies less than a hundred metres north of the Wailing Wall, one of Judaism’s most sacred and frequented sites.

On the other side of the wall is the site once dominated by the two Jewish temples of antiquity, and Jews know it as Temple Mount. It is now the location of the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam.

The municipality’s decision drew immediate condemnation from the Palestinians, who view such moves as an attempt by Israel to establish a dominant Jewish claim over the Old City, part of East Jerusalem, which was captured and annexed by Israel after the Six-Day War in 1967.

“Under international law, the occupying powers are not supposed to make changes, especially in places with specific cultural importance,” said Ghassan Khatib, spokesman for the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority. “Such changes are a provocation and will contribute to already growing tension in occupied East Jerusalem.”

But the move appeared to signal a victory for Ateret Cohanim, a Jewish settler group which has long campaigned for the removal of the scaffolding and which leads prayer groups at the site every Friday.

Their pleas have previously carried little weight. Teddy Kollek, Jerusalem’s mayor from 1965 to 1993, rejected religious groups’ appeals to remove the scaffolding because of the sensitivity of the site even though he acknowledged it was not needed to support the houses, Haaretz cited a former advisor to Mr Kollek as saying.

His fears were not unfounded. In 1996, the Old City erupted in deadly clashes when Israel opened a tunnel leading to the complex of the Al Aqsa mosque. And it was then opposition leader Ariel Sharon’s visit to the site in 2000 to assert Israeli sovereignty there that triggered the Second Intifada, the mass Palestinian uprising.

It is for that reason that many are wary of any acts that could be viewed as provocations.

“I see the Old City as a delicate ecosystem,” said Danny Seidemann, a lawyer and expert on East Jerusalem. “It is this kind of problematic move [to change access] that makes Jerusalem erupt.”

Some Palestinians still believe that the Jews intend to raze the mosques to make way for a Third Temple, which according to Jewish tradition will be built with the coming of the Messiah. Jewish groups have at times played on those insecurities, most recently with an advertising campaign that superimposed the Third Temple over the Al Aqsa mosque.

The Waqf, the Muslim council, had threatened a robust response if any changes were made to the so-called little Western Wall, next to which 17 Palestinian families live. The families, who have objected in the past to the removal of the scaffolding, said they were not consulted ahead of the alterations.

The municipality could not be reached for comment.