Israel orders closure of Jerusalem's Magharba ramp

AFP , Thursday 8 Dec 2011

Israel's Western Wall Heritage Foundation is tasked with repairing ramp within Al-Aqsa mosque compound in a move that could incite Middle East anger

A wooden footbridge (below) leading up from the Western Wall to the sacred compound where al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock (L) shrine stand, is seen in Jerusalem's Old City, (Photo: Reuters).

Jerusalem's city council has ordered the closure within a week of a wooden access ramp to the sensitive Al-Aqsa mosque compound in the Old City, saying the structure is "a threat to public safety."

The closure order was outlined in a letter from city engineer Shlomo Eshkol which was handed on Wednesday evening to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the body responsible for the upkeep of the Mughrabi (Magharba) ramp.

"It is my intention to issue an order for the immediate closure of the structure and not to allow any use of it," he wrote, giving them "seven days from the date of this notice to outline any reservations" before the order takes effect.

The wooden structure has been at the centre of a complex row between the Jerusalem municipality and the Jewish and Muslim groups which respectively oversee the Western Wall plaza and the Al-Aqsa mosque compound located next to it.

The city council says the ramp poses both a fire hazard and is at risk of collapse, both of which could have catastrophic consequences as it runs above the women's prayer section in front of the Western Wall.

But Muslim leaders fear work on the ramp could have a destabilising effect and accuse Israel of failing to coordinate renovation plans with the Waqf, the Islamic organisation that has jurisdiction over Muslim parts of the site.

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 Haram al-Sharif, which houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam.

But the Waqf insisted it was the body responsible for restoration of the ramp, which it could do "within days" if Israel would agree.

"The Mughrabi gate is one of main entrances to Al-Aqsa and is the responsibility of the Islamic Waqf and we can, and are willing, to restore (the ramp) to the condition it was before or better, within days, if Israel allows it," said Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib, head of the Waqf in Jerusalem.

"We are sure that there are some extremists who are trying to stir up trouble inside the mosque and the city," he told AFP.

When the closure order goes into force, which is expected to happen on the evening of December 14, barring any last-minute appeals by the Western Wall Foundation, no-one will be allowed to use the ramp, except the security forces "in urgent circumstances which involve a real security need," the engineer said.

The city council said the dangerous condition of the ramp had been of "great concern" to them for some time.

"Every day, hundreds of visitors and tourists as well as security personnel use the ramp," a statement said.

"The unstable condition of the ramp and its danger of flammability could exact a high price upon human life. The ramp could collapse upon the Western Wall plaza, injuring the women who pray next to it and possibly causing serious damage to the Western Wall or Temple Mount."

The city council had on October 23 given the Western Wall Foundation 30 days to dismantle the ramp and immediately rebuild a permanent replacement with non-flammable materials.

The move sparked a sharp reaction from Jordan, which is the custodian of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem and warned that any such move would lead to "endless" violence in the Middle East.

"Israel has no right to replace the bridge unilaterally," Islamic Affairs Minister Abdul Salam Abbadi said in a statement, urging the international community to stop what he described as "threats and aggressions" against the mosque plaza.

But the Western Wall Foundation made no move to comply with the order, and on November 27, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu postponed the demolition, reportedly over fears it could spark a wave of anti-Israel protests across the Arab and Islamic world.

The current ramp was erected in 2004 as a temporary measure after the collapse of a previous walkway, and is used by non-Muslim visitors to the historic site as well as by Israeli security forces wanting to enter the plaza.

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