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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The Jerusalem municipality will submit new plans for the Mughrabi Gate walkway leading to a disputed holy compound in Jerusalem, but the construction work was scheduled to continue at the site, a City Hall spokesman announced Monday morning.
The plans for the new walkway up to the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount were already approved by City Hall, but Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski will now demand a longer and more transparent planning process that will allow residents to see the plans and submit protests, spokesman Gidi Schmerling said.
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Tensions in the city have been high since last week, when Israel began work outside the compound. The new walkway is meant to replace an ancient earthen ramp that partially collapsed in a snowstorm three years ago. Israel says the work, about 50 meters (60 yards) from the compound, will not hurt Muslim holy sites, but the project has drawn fierce protests from Palestinians and Arab countries.
The new City Hall decision will have no effect on the work currently under way at the site, where archaeologists are carrying out an exploratory dig to ensure that no important remains are damaged when the walkway is built. But Schmerling said it could delay construction, which was set to begin in about six months' time. The new walkway was originally expected to be completed within a year.
Schmerling said the decision will "likely" delay construction, because more hearings will be held and residents will be allowed to submit objections. City Hall expects "thousands" of objections, he said.
Lupolianski made the decision after meeting with Muslim leaders, Schmerling said, "so that the process will be transparent, and so that it will be entirely clear that there is no attempt to harm any Muslim holy sites."
On Sunday, the Cabinet voted overwhelmingly to push ahead with the work. There were no objections to the decision, the government said in a statement, though three ministers abstained.
Israeli Police has restricted access to the compound's Islamic sites over the past week in an attempt to limit protests. Only Muslim men with Israeli ID cards over 45 years old and women were allowed to pray Sunday at al Aksa Mosque, built on the site of the biblical Jewish temples.
Jerusalem Police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said the same limits would be in effect on Monday, and 2,000 police would be on duty in the holy city, about double the usual contingent.
On Friday, about 200 riot police firing stun grenades and tear gas battled rock-throwing protesters among the 3,000 Muslim worshippers, while on Saturday, Palestinian teenagers stoned Israeli security forces, burned an Israeli flag and pelted a Canadian tour bus with rocks. On Sunday only a few minor incidents were reported.
The Old City hilltop compound has been a catalyst for earlier rounds of Israel-Palestinian fighting. It houses the third holiest site for Muslims, who believe it is where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.
As the location of the biblical temples, the compound is Judaism's holiest site, and Jews gather to pray near one of its outer retaining walls, known as the Western Wall.
Despite condemnations from many Muslim countries, accusations that Israel is trying to harm the compound's Islamic sites and calls for Muslims to forcibly resist the renovation work, there have been only limited clashes and nobody has been seriously wounded.
On Sunday, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa instructed Arab ambassadors at the UN to discuss the possibility of calling for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the construction.
At Sunday's Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert accused "people with ulterior motives in the international Arab world" of using the Israeli work as a pretext "to fan the flames of hostility and hatred."