Middle East

Israel re-opens walkway to Jerusalem holy site

Wooden footbridge to the Moughrabi Gate, leading to Jerusalem's Haram al-Sharif or Temple Mount (8 December 2011)
Image caption Jerusalem City Council had ordered that the footbridge be torn down last month

Israel has re-opened a walkway to Jerusalem's holiest site, two days after its closure on safety grounds sparked Palestinian anger.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the wooden footbridge to the Moughrabi Gate, leading to the Haram al-Sharif or Temple Mount, could once again be used.

Put up as a temporary measure in 2004, the Jerusalem City Council said it posed a fire risk and might collapse.

The Palestinian Authority and Hamas both condemned the council's decision.

Any construction work at the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) compound in East Jerusalem - the most sacred site in Judaism and Islam's third holiest shrine - can be politically explosive.

In 2007, work to dismantle the walkway and rebuild the stone ramp damaged in 2004 led to protests in the Muslim world, while in 1996 work to open a tunnel alongside the compound sparked clashes in which 80 people died.

'Declaration of religious war'

Jerusalem City Council had ordered that the footbridge used by non-Muslims to access the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, where the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock stand, be torn down last month so rebuilding work could begin.

However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed councillors to postpone it due to the sensitivity of the issue and warnings from the military in Egypt that it would cause the protests there.

Then last week, Jerusalem council chief engineer Shlomo Eshkol announced that he intended to order the "immediate closure of the structure" and to "completely prohibit its use". On Sunday night, the walkway was closed.

Council officials said the footbridge posed a severe security threat because it was highly flammable and in danger of collapse. They warned that if a fire broke out, it could spread to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.

Following the footbridge's closure, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said it represented another "attack" on efforts to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

A spokesman for Islamist militant group Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, said the decision was a "serious step" which amounted to "a declaration of religious war on the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem".

On Wednesday morning, Mr Rosenfeld said the Jerusalem authorities had reopened the footbridge.

The city council said in a statement on Tuesday that the government had called off the demolition and would be shoring up the walkway instead.