Western Wall - Emil Salman - 2009
Jews praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, December 25, 2009 Photo by Emil Salman
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The United States on Tuesday condemned claims by a senior Palestinian official that the Western Wall of Jerusalem's Temple Mount holds no significance for Jews.

Al-Mutawakil Taha, the Palestinian Authority' deputy minister of information, had said Wednesday that the wall, regarded as Judaism's holiest site, was part of an Islamic waqf, or religious endowment, and that only "Islamic tolerance" allowed Jews to pray there.

His claims drew immediate anger in Israel, which on Tuesday was echoed by the U.S.

"We strongly condemn these comments and fully reject them as factually incorrect, insensitive and highly provocative," a U.S. State Department spokesman said.

"We have repeatedly raised with the Palestinian Authority leadership the need to consistently combat all forms of de-legitimization of Israel including denying historic Jewish connections to the land."

The chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), also decried Taha's claim, calling it "provocative and inciteful".

"I strongly condemn the [claim] that the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem has no religious significance to Jews," Berman said.

"President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad know the spiritual importance of the Western Wall to the global Jewish community," he said, calling on Abbas to denounce Taha’s report and clarify that the remarks were not the official position of the Palestinian Authority.

The Western Wall – known also as the Wailing Wall – forms one side of an earth mound on which the Jewish temple stood before its destruction by the Romans in 70CE. The mound, known to Muslims as the Haram as-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary, houses the al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam.

Currently, Muslim waqf authorities supervise the mosque compound atop the mount, while Israeli authorities administer the Wall precinct below, with Israeli security forces overseeing the entire area.

"To deny the Jewish connection to the Western Wall is to be deliberately provocative and inciteful, no less so than were one to deny the Palestinian connection to the Haram al-Sharif," Berman said.

The American Jewish Committee praised the Obama administration's response to the claim and condemned the Palestinian Authority's "denigrating the Jewish connection to the land."

"This episode is yet another tragic reminder that the core of the conflict is what it's always been -- namely, the refusal to recognize the Jewish people's rightful presence in the region," AJC Executive Director David Harris said in a statement on Tuesday.