Maayan Lubell
Reuters (Analysis)
November 28, 2011 - 1:00am

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has delayed demolition of a footbridge at Jerusalem's holiest and most volatile religious site, fearing the work could spark Muslim anger, government officials said on Monday.

The wooden ramp, now deemed unsafe by engineers, was erected by Israeli authorities as a stopgap after a snowstorm and earthquake in 2004 damaged the stone bridge leading up from Judaism's Western Wall to the sacred compound where the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock shrine stand.

During Netanyahu's first term as prime minister, his opening in 1996 of a new entrance to an archaeological tunnel for tourists near the compound touched off Muslim protests and gun battles in which 60 Palestinians and 15 Israelis were killed.

The footbridge was to have been torn down on Saturday but Netanyahu postponed the demolition on the advice of Israeli diplomats and security officials, the government officials said.

Netanyahu was cautioned that removing the structure and building a new bridge could enrage Muslims -- especially in turbulent Egypt -- who might wrongly believe the work could damage al-Aqsa, the officials said.

"There were reports in the Egyptian media that if Israel were to undertake unilateral steps, that the hate at Tahrir Square would be turned against (Israel)," one of the officials said, referring to Cairo's main public protest site.

"This is a sensitive time and due to the elections in Egypt it was decided to postpone the work for now."

The officials gave no new date for the demolition and construction, a project expected to take up to 72 hours.

Israel says no harm would come to the mosque and that it was imperative to ensure the safety of visitors to the compound by razing the wooden ramp and constructing a more sturdy bridge.

Sheikh Mohammad Hussein, the mufti of Jerusalem, said Muslim religious authorities opposed the project and that the Palestinian leadership, as well as Jordan and Egypt, had made their concerns known to Israel.

The holy compound is in the old walled city of Jerusalem, an area Israel captured along with the West Bank in a 1967 war and annexed in a step that has not won international recognition. Palestinians want the area to be part of a state they intend to create in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"I think that this is a very sensitive issue and therefore maybe the Israeli government thought about the consequences of this demolition, which harms al-Aqsa mosque directly and affects the path (to it)," Hussein told Reuters.

Hussein, the most senior Muslim religious official in Jerusalem, said the demolition could have led to "widespread tensions" in the city and elsewhere.

The holy compound has been the site of violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians in the past.

A Palestinian uprising erupted in 2000 after then-Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited the complex revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.


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