Israel dismantles controversial Temple Mount ramp

Netanyahu had labeled new construction ‘illegal’ in move praised by Jordan

Workers dismantle a wooden ramp (foreground) that was intended to connect to the al-Aqsa mosque complex in Jerusalem on September 10, 2014.  (photo credit: Thomas Coex/AFP)
Workers dismantle a wooden ramp (foreground) that was intended to connect to the al-Aqsa mosque complex in Jerusalem on September 10, 2014. (photo credit: Thomas Coex/AFP)

Israel on Wednesday dismantled a newly erected wooden access ramp to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and al-Aqsa Mosque compound that would have increased access for non-Muslims but angered Jordan.

The half-built structure was erected by Israel in the midst of the Israel-Hamas conflict in early August, triggering outrage from Jordan, which oversees Muslim heritage sites in Jerusalem.

It ran alongside a bigger wooden structure — the Mughrabi ramp — that leads from the Western Wall plaza up to the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City.

The Mughrabi ramp is the only access to the plaza for non-Muslims.

Anything that is viewed as changing the status quo in or around the al-Aqsa compound, which houses the third-holiest site in Islam, is highly sensitive and often triggers strong responses from Jordan.

The Temple Mount plaza is considered the holiest place in Judaism as it is the site where the first and second Jewish Temples once stood.

Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered that the new structure be removed, saying its construction was “illegal” and had never received the proper authorization, a government source said.

That move was hailed by Jordan and by Wednesday afternoon most of the new ramp had been taken down.

The ramp’s construction is a politically charged issue because each side claims authority over it. Israel argues that because the ramp is located outside the al-Aqsa compound, it should oversee the construction. However, Jordan insists that it should manage or at least be consulted over any new construction plans since the ramp leads to the mosque compound.

No coordination

Jordan’s Waqf is the religious body that oversees the compound and other Islamic sites in Jerusalem. Archaeologist Yonatan Mizrahi, who runs Emek Shaveh, an Israeli NGO opposed to the “politicization” of archaeology, said the structure was believed to be the beginning of a permanent ramp built “without coordination with the Waqf or with Jordan.”

“We think it was the start of a new, permanent ramp,” he told AFP.

The existing Mughrabi ramp, which is also wooden on a metal framework, was built in 2004 after its predecessor collapsed.

Negotiations between Israel, Jordan, Washington and other players over a permanent replacement began in 2007.

Although the sides came close to reaching a deal, the talks ultimately collapsed and the plans were never signed off, Mizrahi explained.

The ramp whose construction began in early August was located at the exact site where the permanent structure was to have stood, he said.

Amman’s authority over the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem is anchored in the 1994 Israeli-Jordan peace treaty.

In 2011, the UN cultural agency (UNESCO) decided that all parties should be involved in the ramp’s design process and that neither side should take any unilateral actions that could affect the character of the site.

“Any unilateral move is perceived as a violation of the agreements between the two countries,” an Emek Shaveh paper said.

“As long as the Muslim Waqf feels that its position on Haram al-Sharif (the compound) is undermined, it would be difficult to present the construction of the ramp as an action that is not part of a specific political goal.”

Known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, the sprawling Temple Mount plaza at the southeastern edge of the Old City houses Muslim holy sites the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque.

To one side of the plaza stands the Western Wall, a remnant of the retaining wall that supported the Second Temple complex and the holiest site at which Jews can legally pray.

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