REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- Jerusalem officials have ordered a ramp leading from the Western Wall plaza up to Temple Mount and Al Aqsa mosque closed immediately, a controversial move in an area of competing religious and political claims.
The Mughrabi Ramp, which is used mostly by tourists and Israeli security personnel, is a temporary structure built after the previous bridge partially collapsed during the stormy winter of 2004.
According to a statement from Jerusalem's city engineer, Shlomo Eshkol, the ramp must be closed immediately for safety concerns. In a letter to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, Eshkol declared the wooden structure flammable, unstable and a threat to the public on and around it.
Any work in this area of the Western Wall and the Al Aqsa mosque -- deeply significant and sacred sites to Jews and Muslims respectively -- is complicated by religious and political differences. Efforts to build a new, permanent ramp have been repeatedly delayed.
Israel wants to build a new bridge in the same location, which might provide better security access when necessary and create a bit more space on the crowded Western Wall plaza. Muslims mostly want to restore the original structure, which they regard as an integral part of the holy site, and are wary of Israel's motives.
"We are sure there are some extremists who are trying to stir up trouble inside the mosque and the city," Sheik Azzam el Hatib, who heads the Jerusalem Waqf, or Islamic religious trust, told Agence France-Presse news service.
Besides religious sensitivities in one of the touchiest places in the world, regional politics are also at play.
Jordan plays a key role in administering the holy site. Despite coming close to an agreement with Israel on the issue at one point, Jordan and other Arab countries asked UNESCO this summer to censure Israel for its construction plans. Relations between Israel and Jordan have chilled in recent months, as the Jordanian king has become increasingly vocal on the stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Now Israeli media reports indicate the ramp also has becoming a political issue in Egypt, where parliamentary elections are ongoing.
Work to dismantle the temporary bridge was to have started several times in recent months but kept being delayed due to political concerns or fears of violence. Two weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office had asked the municipality to postpone work again.
The foundation that administers the site has seven days to submit objections to the latest order. Once closed, only a small number of Israeli security forces may use the bridge in urgent cases.
-- Batsheva Sobelman
Photo: A tourist stands on wooden bridge leading to the Al Aqsa Mosque compound Thursday in Jerusalem's Old City. Jerusalem city engineer Shlomo Eshkol has issued an immediate order for the closure of the temporary Mugrabi Ramp, saying it is a threat to public safety and highly flammable. Credit: Abir Sultan / European Pressphoto Agency