The Jerusalem Development Authority recently removed scaffolding in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, disrupting the sensitive status quo in the area around the Western Wall. The authority, controlled by the Jerusalem municipality and by several ministries, removed scaffolding from under an arch supporting Palestinian homes in the Little Western Wall plaza (also known as the Little Kotel plaza ).
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The move was carried out to make more room in the plaza for Jewish prayer and other events.
The courtyard faces a small of section of the western support wall of the Temple Mount. The largest open section of that same wall is known as the Western Wall.
Although the Israeli government never declared the Little Kotel plaza as a holy site, it is considered the second closest spot (after the Western Wall Tunnel ) to the "Holy of Holies," which was the most sacred place for Jews in the temple.
The right-wing organization Ateret Cohanim, headed by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, has been demanding for years that the scaffolding be removed to make room for prayer and other events, despite residents' objections. The Waqf (the Muslim religious trust ) has specifically warned against the removal of the scaffolds and opening the site to prayer gatherings, threatening a strong response.
According to the Ateret Cohanim website, students of the Ateret Yerushalayim yeshiva pray in the courtyard every Friday, and no disturbances at the site have been recorded in recent years. The website also states that the Little Kotel is visited by Jews throughout the year, including both private individuals and tours organized by various groups.
Amir Cheshin, who was the Arab affairs adviser to the longest-serving Jerusalem mayor, told Haaretz that Teddy Kollek had rejected Ateret Cohanim's request to remove the scaffolding due to the sensitivity of the site, despite his awareness that the scaffolds did not actually support the arch. Cheshin said he had visited families living on top of the arch and they told him that no one had consulted or informed them of the modification.
Three months ago, following a visit to the site, former Education Committee Chairman Zevulun Orlev had the committee discuss the Little Kotel issue. A representative from the Tourism Ministry told the committee that the courtyard could not be expanded because it served 17 Arab families living on the site.
The representative also warned against making any changes to the status quo, saying the site's proximity to the Temple Mount and a number of mosques made it particularly sensitive.
Orlev concluded the committee meeting by saying the prime minister should transfer responsibility of the site to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which would then lead an interministerial committee in the care of the Little Kotel area.
Danny Zeidman, founder of the non-profit organization Ir Amim, told Haaretz that "allowing [Jewish] extremists into the heart of the Muslim Quarter carries the danger of turning a resolvable political conflict into a violent religious one."
The Western Wall Heritage Foundation said this was a repairs and preservation project carried out jointly with the Antiquities Authority. The Jerusalem municipality said the removal of the scaffolding and the reinforcement of the site were overseen by an engineer.