JERUSALEM — Israel has closed a controversial wooden access ramp to Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque compound over public safety fears, police said Monday, sparking a war of words with Jordan and the Palestinians.
The closure, which took place late on Sunday, was swiftly denounced by the Palestinians and Jordan's powerful Islamist opposition as an act of "aggression" against the Al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam.
But Israel hit back, with an official pointing out the closure would only affect non-Muslim visitors, and accusing Jordan of reneging on an 11th-hour deal that would have allowed the construction of a safer temporary bridge.
"Based on an order from the city council, they have closed the ramp," police spokeswoman Luba Samri told AFP, referring to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation responsible for the upkeep of the Mughrabi ramp.
Jerusalem city council spokesman Stephan Miller said the bridge had been closed as it posed a fire hazard and could collapse onto the women's prayer section by the Western Wall.
But Muslim leaders say the demolition could have a destabilising effect on the mosque compound and accuse Israel of failing to coordinate the renovation with the Waqf, which oversees Islamic heritage sites.
The closure prompted a swift response from Palestinian presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina who warned it was another Israeli "attack" on efforts to revive the moribund peace talks which could shake up the region.
"These practices create a negative atmosphere in the entire region that could plunge the area into turmoil and tension," he warned, while in Gaza, a spokesman for the ruling Hamas movement slammed it as an attack on sacred Muslim sites in Jerusalem.
"This is a serious step that shows the Zionist scheme of aggression again the Al-Aqsa mosque," Fawzi Barhum told AFP. "This is a violent act that amounts to a declaration of religious war on the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem."
And Jordan's powerful Islamists denounced the decision as "flagrant aggression," with Hammam Said, head of the Muslim Brotherhood describing it as "a very dangerous move."
Azzam al-Khatib, head of the Jerusalem Waqf, insisted the ramp was under the Waqf's authority
"It should be our responsibility to conduct the restoration works there," he told AFP, saying there were ancient Islamic remains located underneath the ramp.
Jordan's Awqaf and Islamic Affairs Minister Abdul Salam Abbadi said Monday that Israel in fact plans to demolish the ramp and replace it with another structure, threatening the Arab holy sites.
"All illegal acts on the site of the (Mughrabi) gate threaten the sentiments of millions of Muslims around the world and constitute a flagrant aggression on the rights of Arabs and Muslims in the Holy City," the minister said.
Jordan administered east Jerusalem, where the Old City and its holy sites are located, until Israel seized the sector in the 1967 Middle East war.
But Israel responded angrily, with an official accusing Jordan of repeatedly refusing to ink a deal over renovating the structure, despite three-way talks with the UN cultural organisation UNESCO and plans which took Muslim sensitivities into account.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said Amman had in June agreed to let Israel build a temporary ramp until they reached agreement on a permanent one, but had shortly afterwards launched an anti-Israel campaign at UNESCO.
Again in November, Jordan had agreed to let Israel put up a temporary structure, but when Israeli cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser arrived in Amman to finalise the deal, the Jordanians refused to sign up.
"The claim that closing the bridge is an attack on Islam is manipulative and hypocritical," he said.
"They are harming us by not letting us build a bridge, they don't really want one -- it doesn't serve Muslims, and for them it's better closed.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor insisted Israel had acted "in full coordination and transparency with Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and UNESCO" over the issue.
But the Jordanian minister said Monday that Amman had in May presented a proposal to UNESCO "to settle the question of the Al-Mughrabi Gate ... preserving the sacred character of the site and its security", but that the plan failed to materialise.
Abbadi called on UNESCO to intervene following Israel's latest move.
There are 15 gates leading into the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, 10 of which are in use.
The Mughrabi Gate is the only access for non-Muslims to enter the site, meaning its closure will prevent both Jews and tourists from visiting until a replacement structure is built.
The ramp leads from the plaza by the Western Wall, the most sacred site at which Jews can pray, up to the adjoining compound, known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, which houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
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