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(photo credit: Channel 10 [file])
After stopping work for the weekend, a handful of construction workers resumed work on the ramp leading to the Mughrabi Gate of the Temple Mount early Sunday morning.
The workers, utilizing small bulldozers and hand-held digging tools, were the silent center of what is quickly becoming an international controversy, as Muslim leaders called on Israel to stop the project, while Israeli politicians emphasized that Israel has a right to build on the site, which lies outside of the Temple Mount complex.
Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter visited the Western Wall plaza early Sunday morning, escorted by Jerusalem Police Chief Cmdr. Ilan Franco who showed him the police presence at the site hours before a cabinet meeting to discuss the building project.
Standing below the wall surrounding the Temple Mount complex, Dichter said that the ramp to the Mughrabi Gate, which was damaged four years ago during snowstorms and temporarily rebuilt to grant access to security forces, could not be left in its current condition.
Dichter said - in a pointed statement - that some Israeli Arabs, including MKs, were not familiar with the fact that the ramp was located outside of the Temple Mount complex. He added that there was no damage to the Temple Mount as a result of the work done at the site.
Speaking of the riots in which protesters threw stones from the courtyard of the Temple Mount on to Jewish worshipers in the Western Wall Plaza over two stories below, Dichter said that this kind of stone throwing was a "red line" that could not be crossed "whether due to the Mughrabi ramp or for any other reason."
He blamed such provocations on "a small group of people who are wrong about the facts and are trying to pull all of us to a new conflict."
One of those leaders, Sheikh Ra'ed Salah, head of the Islamic Movement's radical Northern Front, became the focus of a police investigation Sunday when Police Inspector-General Moshe Karadi instructed Intelligence and Investigations Director Cmdr. Yohanan Danino to look into whether the outspoken cleric's speeches constituted incitement or sedition.
Police said that Salah would probably be questioned under warning in the coming days, and that they had already begun to collect tapes and newspapers quoting him.
Salah said Sunday that he intended to organize a massive protest in the streets of Jerusalem this coming Friday, as part of his continued opposition to the construction project. He has repeatedly called on Islamic Movement members to come to Jerusalem and bodily defend Al-Aksa Mosque, which he says is in danger of destruction.
During a rally in Nazareth Friday, Salah warned of fierce retaliation if the Temple Mount was harmed during the construction project, saying "you are playing with fire, and whoever plays with fire will ultimately get burned."
Salah was banned from coming within 60 meters of the gates to the Old City on Wednesday after he was filmed scuffling with police over the excavations and spitting at police officers while calling them "murderers."
Since then, Salah and his closest followers have set up camp just outside of the gates to the city.
Police said that Islamic Movement members were behind the only violent confrontation registered between police and protesters on Sunday. That incident occurred in the morning, when a group of demonstrators appeared at the Dung Gate to hold an illegal protest. When asked to leave, they refused, and were removed, police said, "with force." Two protesters were detained after police said that they attacked police officers, and an additional three were detained as police pushed the group back away from the gates of the Old City and toward the Rockefeller Museum.
Hours later, following afternoon prayers at the Temple Mount, around 150 Muslim men and women left the Lion's Gate chanting "Allah is Great" as they marched to their buses which were parked by the Rockefeller Museum. The group was escorted by police, who said that that group did not display any violence toward the security officials.
Police Operations Department commander Asst.-Cmdr. Yoram Ohayon said Sunday that he believed that the police operations to prevent further violent confrontations between police and demonstrators had largely been successful.
Ohayon said that since the beginning of the second intifada, police had learned several important lessons with regard to crowd control and - more importantly - riot prevention. He pointed to the increased police presence in the Old City, which he said had a deterrent effect.
Police, he said, were using systems that were meant to minimize impact on daily life of Old City residents, while isolating specific troublemakers. One such system, which Ohayon termed a "breathing checkpoint," was visible Sunday throughout the narrow streets of the Old City. There, police officers stood at key intersections and kept an eye on passers-by, pulling out "people behaving strangely" for further examination.
In the volatile North, the heartland of Salah's support, Ohayon said that the police strategy was slightly different. There, Ohayon said, police were relying on open channels with leaders of the Arab community. "Our goal is to maintain order and do it without force, but rather through dialogue," he explained.
Both in Jerusalem and the Galilee, he said, "there are little attempts to create disturbances here and there, but we usually manage to disperse them through talking." Ohayon said that in any case, Salah would not be able to lead a parade on Friday through the Temple Mount. "The Temple Mount is for religious worship," he said, "and not for political ideology."
Although government officials, including Dichter and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, emphasized that the work under way was outside of the Temple Mount compound, and thus beyond the control of the Wakf, the Muslim trust that controls the site, voices around the Arab world continued to call for intervention to stop the project. Following calls Saturday by the Israeli Arab Higher Committee for UN intervention, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa directed Arab ambassadors at the UN to consider calling for a Security Council meeting to discuss the situation.