Isabel Kershner
The New York Times
November 25, 2010 - 1:00am

The prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, on Thursday strongly denounced a Palestinian Authority paper that denies any Jewish connection to the Western Wall, the iconic holy site and place of Jewish worship in the Old City of Jerusalem, describing the report as “reprehensible and scandalous.”

The episode appeared to signal a worsening atmosphere after a two-month hiatus in peace talks.

Mr. Netanyahu’s statement referred to a long article that appeared in Arabic on Monday on the Information Ministry Web site of the Western-backed Palestinian government, led by President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in the West Bank. Its publication was previously reported by The Jerusalem Post.

Jerusalem and its holy sites are one of the most intractable and emotional issues of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Israel conquered the eastern part of Jerusalem, including the Old City, from Jordan in the 1967 war, and annexed it in a move that was never internationally recognized. About 200,000 Jews live in areas of East Jerusalem that have been developed since 1967, among about a quarter-million Palestinians. The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

The Western Wall is a remnant of the retaining wall of a plateau revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, the site where their ancient temples once stood. The plateau is also the third holiest site in Islam. Known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, the compound now includes Al Aksa Mosque and the golden Dome of the Rock.

In Muslim tradition, the wall is the place where the Prophet Muhammad tethered his winged steed, Buraq, during his miraculous overnight journey from Mecca to Jerusalem in the seventh century.

The Palestinian paper denying any Jewish historical connection with the site was written by Al-Mutawakel Taha, an Information Ministry official. In it, he stated that “the Al Buraq Wall is the western wall of Al Aksa, which the Zionist occupation falsely claims ownership of and calls the Wailing Wall or Kotel.”

Palestinian officials have often denied claims of Jewish heritage in Jerusalem, arguing that there is no evidence that the plateau was the site of ancient temples.

In the principles for a peace accord laid out by President Bill Clinton in late 2000 after the failure to reach a final Israeli-Palestinian agreement at Camp David, the suggestion was for Palestinian sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif and Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall, with mutual consent needed for any excavation in the area.

Mr. Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, proposed in his talks with Mr. Abbas in 2008 that the holy sites in and around the Old City be administered by an international trusteeship made up of Israel, the Palestinians, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United States. Mr. Olmert, who left office in early 2009, says that he got no response.

Mr. Netanyahu has insisted on continued Jewish building in the Jewish areas of East Jerusalem, like all Israeli governments since 1967, but he has not spelled out his intentions regarding the future status of the city since taking office.

The unofficial competition for control of Jerusalem takes place stone by stone and house by house. On Tuesday, Jewish activists moved into a building they had acquired in Jebel Mukaber, a predominantly Arab neighborhood overlooking the Old City and its holy shrines, and on Wednesday another group of Jewish activists moved into an apartment on the Mount of Olives, in a Palestinian neighborhood, A-Tur.

Mr. Taha’s paper appeared on his ministry’s Web site a day after the Israeli government approved a $23 million five-year project to renovate and develop the Western Wall Plaza and its environs.

Mr. Netanyahu, in a statement issued by his office, said the Western Wall “has been the Jewish people’s most sacred place for almost 2,000 years, since the destruction of the Second Temple.” He added that the Palestinian Authority’s denial of a Jewish link “calls into serious question its intentions of reaching a peace agreement, the foundations of which are coexistence and mutual recognition.”

Mr. Netanyahu called on the authority’s leaders to disavow the document. There was no immediate comment from Palestinian officials.

But in another indication of the strained atmosphere, the Palestinian government issued a statement titled “Israeli crimes of destruction,” listing Israeli actions in Jerusalem and Israel’s demolition in recent days of numerous Palestinian structures that were built without permits in Israeli-controlled areas of the West Bank.


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