In a dramatic about-face, controversial plans to construct a major new bridge to the Mughrabi Gate adjacent to Jerusalem's Western Wall directly through an archeological garden abutting the Temple Mount have been nixed amid concern about possible damage to artifacts, officials said Monday. The decision to abort the massive bridge, the construction of which had been deeply contested by leading Israeli archeologists, effectively means that a salvage excavation under way in the area, which has drawn the wrath of Islamic officials and led to low-level Arab violence in the region earlier this year, will be coming to a close shortly, the officials said. The planned major bridge was meant to replace a temporary bridge that was constructed on the section of the Western Wall allocated for women's prayer. The temporary bridge was built more than a year ago, after the original stone ramp leading up to the Mughrabi Gate was removed, having been deemed unsafe by city engineers.
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Other alternatives, including a modest bridge along the original route, are now being considered.
The Mughrabi Gate, which is the only designated entryway for non-Muslims to the Temple Mount, is also used by Israeli police to enter the Jerusalem holy site for routine patrols and to quell outbreaks of violence.
But the planned route of the new bridge - through one of the most significant archeological parks in the world - provoked an outcry among archeologists, who said that its construction would inevitably damage antiquities and obstruct the natural view at the site.
"The archeological garden is one of the foremost national accomplishments and should not be touched under any circumstances," said Prof. Amos Kloner, a former Jerusalem district archeologist at the Israel Antiquities Authority, who campaigned against the bridge construction through the archeological park.
The bridge, which was to have been three times the size of the original one, was backed by the state-run Israel Antiquities Authority and the haredi Chief Rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinovitch, who was happy to distance the entryway to Judaism's holiest site from the Western Wall plaza.
The Antiquities Authority declined comment Monday.
It later emerged that the authorities did not have the required legal municipal permits to build the new bridge, the officials said, and the whole project - which was frozen two months ago - has been returned to a municipal committee to look for alternative solutions.
An obvious solution to the dispute - which was clear from the start but was previously rejected by the Antiquities Authority - would be to build a new bridge on the same route as the old one.
Some officials had rejected this proposal as they wanted to separate the flow of visitors to the Temple Mount from those to the Western Wall, officials said.
The archeological tempest over the planned bridge was subsequently overshadowed by violent protests by Islamic officials over the salvage excavation near the Temple Mount that the planned construction prompted.
The dig, which began in February, touched off Arab violence in Jerusalem following assertions by Islamic leaders that the work, which is taking place dozens of meters outside the Temple Mount, could damage the mosque inside the ancient compound. Israeli law requires such an archeological excavation in advance of any construction in the Holy Land.
A UNESCO report on the dig concluded that the excavation is not damaging the holy site but called on Israel to stop the dig nonetheless to allow for international observation of the work.
The original stone ramp, which was built after the Six Day War in 1967 and served as the point of entry for non-Muslim visitors entering the Temple Mount, was badly damaged during an earthquake four years ago and by inclement wintry weather.