Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered Israeli authorities to dismantle a wooden footbridge between Jerusalem's Western Wall plaza and the Temple Mount, in response to Jordanian pressure.
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Work began Wednesday to remove the footbridge, less than two weeks after construction began.
The order came after the royal palace expressed anger over the lack of coordination with Jordan.
A senior Israeli official said the walkway was the initiative of local officials who lacked authority and did not notify or request the permission of Israel's government. When the Prime Minister's Office became aware of the footbridge, an inquiry was held into the matter with the Jerusalem Municipality and officials at the Western Wall plaza management. The matter was brought to the attention of the prime minister when the Jordanian government and royal palace.
The Jordanians conveyed their message via several channels including the Foreign Ministry, fearing that the project could even have an effect on the stability of the Hashemite kingdom, the official said.
According to the Israeli, the Jordanians said some officials in Amman were using the incident to claim that Israel was making unauthorized changes at the Temple Mount.
“In light of the Jordanian government’s messages and the fact that the temporary bridge is of doubtful importance, and because it was built without coordination with the prime minister ... a decision was made to dismantle it right away,” the official said.
“The entire area of the Western Wall is under the prime minister’s responsibility precisely because of such sensitivities. We wanted to avoid a situation in which Israel is accused of igniting the Middle East — now of all times.”
The controversy actually began in the winter of 2004, when an earthen ramp leading to the Temple Mount’s mosques via the Mugrabi Gate collapsed. The ramp had been damaged by wet weather and a moderate earthquake.
The Mugrabi Gate is the only place through which non-Muslims may enter the Temple Mount; it’s also the point where Israeli security forces enter if there are disturbances on the mount.
After the earthen ramp collapsed, Israeli authorities put up a temporary wooden bridge with metal supports. Plans called for it to be replaced by a permanent stone bridge, but critics claimed that Israel was violating the status quo on the Temple Mount, which is sacred to both Jews and Muslims and is administered by a Muslim trust, the Waqf.
Muslim groups, including the Islamic Movement and Hamas, said the Israelis sought to take control of the mount and damage the mosques. Jordan and other countries warned of a diplomatic crisis over the issue, while the Jerusalem engineer and the police said the temporary wooden bridge was unsafe and should be dismantled.
Ultimately, the Israeli government shelved the idea to build a permanent stone bridge. Instead, the wooden bridge was reinforced. Also, an archaeological dig was carried out under the bridge.
But two weeks ago it emerged that the second wooden bridge was being built below the existing one, designed to replace the older structure until the diplomatic and security situation permitted the construction of a permanent bridge.
The work was carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority, but the ramp had not yet reached the Mugrabi Gate when the order came from the Prime Minister’s Office to take it down.
“This isn’t the first time an archaeological dig has turned into construction that’s playing with fire in the Old City,” said archaeologist Yoni Mizrahri of Emek Shaveh, a group that focuses on archaeology’s role in the Arab-Israeli conflict. “It’s amazing to see how Israel is playing with fire, trying things and then reconsidering.”