JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel on Monday closed a footbridge it deemed unsafe at Jerusalem’s holiest and most volatile religious site after fears that demolition of the structure, used mainly by non-Muslim tourists, could spark Arab anger.
The wooden ramp was erected by Israeli authorities as a stopgap after a snowstorm and earthquake in 2004 damaged a stone bridge leading up from Judaism’s Western Wall to the sacred compound where the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock shrine stand.
Any construction at the site can be politically explosive. During Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, his opening in 1996 of a new entrance to an access tunnel for tourists near the compound touched off Muslim protests and gun battles in which 60 Palestinians and 15 Israelis were killed.
The footbridge was to have been torn down last month but Netanyahu postponed the demolition on the advice of Israeli diplomats and security officials, government officials said.
Netanyahu was cautioned that removing the structure and building a new bridge could enrage Muslims - especially in turbulent Egypt - who might believe the work could damage al-Aqsa, said the officials, who insisted no harm would come to existing buildings.
A police spokesman said the bridge was closed after Jerusalem’s city engineer declared it unsafe. It had been used mainly by tourists. Muslim worshippers use other entrances to the holy compound. Jews pray outside at the Western Wall.
Israeli media reports said Israel would consult with the king of Jordan, the custodian of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, on the future of the bridge.
The city’s senior Muslim cleric, Sheikh Mohammad Hussein, the mufti of Jerusalem, said Islamic religious authorities opposed demolition of the existing structure and construction of a new one.
The holy compound is in the old walled city of Jerusalem, an area Israel captured along with the West Bank in a 1967 war and annexed in a step that has not won international recognition. Palestinians want the area to be part of a state they intend to create in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Jews revere the compound as the site of their Biblical Temple, destroyed by Roman troops in the 1st century. Surviving foundations of its Western Wall are now a focus of prayer.
For Muslims, who captured Jerusalem from the Christian Byzantines in the 7th century, the Dome of the Rock marks the spot from which Mohammad made his night journey to heaven.
Writing by Jeffrey Heller