Officials said yesterday the number of Muslim worshipers allowed onto the Temple Mount in Jerusalem during the coming month of Ramadan may have to be limited because of a danger the biblical-era complex might collapse.
The defense establishment fears the Solomon's Stables area on the Temple Mount could collapse under the weight of hundreds of thousands of worshipers who are expected to arrive for Ramadan observances, which begin in three weeks' time.
A Jordanian expert has said that there is no danger of the area collapsing, but the Israel Antiquities Authority has said that the collapse of the building's roof and walls was almost imminent.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has instructed the defense establishment to prepare to prevent a mass disaster, and Israel has asked Jordan and the Waqf Muslim religious trust to block access to the roof of Solomon's Stables and to the eastern arches of the mosque.
However, the Waqf said there was no danger of collapse and called the fears an Israeli plot to gain control of the various mosques in the Temple Mount compound. If the Waqf does not agree to prevent access to the problematic areas, the police will consider using officers to block access.
"We won't have any choice but to reduce the number of worshipers on the Temple Mount during Ramadan," Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra said yesterday.
"I think that people will understand the issue... We have no intention of preventing Muslims from coming to pray."
Waqf director Adnan Husseini dismissed Israel's position as part of an "agenda" to wrest control over the compound in a long sovereignty dispute with Islamic authorities and Palestinians, who claim East Jerusalem for the capital of a future state.
"I think there will be no disaster here. This place has existed for 1,400 years and we have always received hundreds of thousands of people without any danger," Husseini said.
In early September, the High Court of Justice issued a temporary injunction prohibiting the Antiquities Authority, the public security minister and the prime minister from authorizing the Waqf to remove from the Temple Mount tons of soil assumed to be rich in archaeological artifacts.
The soil was excavated some four years ago during the construction of large gates to the underground mosque in the area known as Solomon's Stables. The injunction was issued at the request of the Committee to Prevent the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount.
Members of the committee include senior scholars specializing in the archaeology of the Temple Mount and its environs, as well as writers and other public figures. Yesterday, a dozen workmen from the Waqf were busy shoring up walls outside Solomon's Stables, an area under the eastern part of the compound, which was built during the reign of King Herod at the time of Jesus.
Scaffolding was visible both inside the compound and outside, on the southern and eastern walls of the Old City. Palestinian Waqf officials in Jerusalem, including an engineer who works at the ancient site, brushed off the Israeli warnings as "political."
"It is not only that we are not fearing it, but we are dealing with it," said Issam Awad, a Waqf engineer. "We have already restored the southern part of the wall and we are now in the process of restoring the eastern part."
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