- The Washington Times - Monday, February 12, 2007

JERUSALEM — In a surprise retreat, Israel yesterday froze a contentious plan to renovate a bridge leading to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount compound to respond to Palestinian charges that the work will endanger the Al Aqsa Mosque.

Just hours after the Israeli Cabinet gave approval for the work to continue, Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski decided to halt construction to hold a public hearing “due to the sensitivity of the plan,” according to a municipal statement. A spokesman for the Islamic Waqf in Jerusalem said the decision could be a positive move and urged officials to attend the hearing.

The construction and an accompanying archeological dig — which will continue as scheduled — has stirred a wave of Arab demonstrations in and around the Old City, the worst rioting in years on the Temple Mount, and rippled throughout the Muslim world.

A prominent Muslim leader in Jerusalem predicted that the construction project could unite Palestinians after months of internecine battles in a renewed uprising against Israel.

The Al Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites, “united all factions, and unites worshippers and non-worshippers,” said Sheik Akrameh a-Sabri, the head of Jerusalem’s Islamic council and a former mufti of Jerusalem.

The question of sovereignty in the Old City is one of the most intractable issues in the way of a permanent peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians. In the past, even the slightest appearance of an Israeli attempt to widen its control in the Old City has been enough to spark widespread violence.

It was then-Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon’s tour of the Temple Mount complex in September 2000 that was cited as the trigger of the second Palestinian uprising. In 1996, Israel’s decision to open up a second entryway to a tunnel along the base of the Temple Mount’s retaining wall sparked shooting between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian policemen.

Yousef Natsheh, the head archeologist of the Islamic Waqf, said the decision could help calm tensions, but speculated that it could also be an Israeli “tactic” meant to buy time. Despite the Waqf’s opposition to the archaeological dig, he said, officials would attend the meeting — but only as “private citizens” to avoid giving the impression of cooperation with Israel.

Israel says it is only replacing a bridge to the Mugrabi Gate after it became unstable because of a landslide two years ago. Muslim authorities, meanwhile, charge that Israel is deliberately initiating work that is liable to undermine the foundations of the Al Aqsa Mosque.

The work has been criticized by Jordan’s King Abdullah II as well as the Arab League for tightening Israel’s grip over the Old City. Leaders of Israel’s Arab community have appealed to the United Nations to intervene.

Until yesterday, Israeli officials have remained defiant, insisting they won’t allow threats of violence deter the continuation of the work. The flip-flop drew ridicule from members of Israel’s right-wing opposition, who urged the government to press on with the work.

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