JERUSALEM (AP) — The Islamic authority that oversees Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem rejected Tuesday an Israeli court order to close a contested religious area that has ignited tension between Palestinian worshipers and Israeli police in recent weeks.
Sheikh Abdelazeem Salhab, chairman of the Waqf Council appointed under agreement with Israel by neighboring Jordan, said that the area in Jerusalem’s Old City beside the Gate of Mercy would “remain open for Muslims to pray,” despite Israel’s ultimatum to close the site by next Monday.
Salhab’s refusal could set up a showdown with Israeli authorities on the sensitive esplanade where moves by either side can quickly inflame regional tensions.
Salhab demanded that Israel permit the Waqf to renovate the site and revoke orders banning dozens of Waqf officials, guards and worshipers from the compound.
Jordan’s Royal Committee for Jerusalem Affairs, which oversees the Waqf, condemned the Israeli move, calling it an “escalation of the attack on Bab al-Rahma,” Jordan’s Petra news agency reported, using the Arabic name for the Gate of Mercy.
Committee head Abdullah Kanaan accused Israel of using “aggression against Jerusalem and sanctities for electoral purposes.”
Israel is due to hold national elections on April 9.
The Gate of Mercy, or Golden Gate, was sealed by Israeli authorities in 2003 because the group managing the area had ties to Hamas, and it has been kept closed to stop illegal construction work there by the Islamic Waqf, which acts as custodian of the site on behalf of Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
Israeli officials believe the work carried out by the Waqf, which refused to allow any Israeli observers, led to the destruction of antiquities from periods of Jewish presence in the area.
Last month the Waqf reopened the site and Palestinian worshipers have begun to use it as a mosque, despite Israeli attempts to keep the area sealed.
The Waqf has repeatedly challenged the closure, convening and staging prayer-protests in the area that often erupted into clashes with police.
The Temple Mount site, the Jews’ holiest, is referred to as the Noble Sanctuary by Muslims, who consider it the third-holiest place in Islam. The site is governed by a sensitive status quo agreement between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians.
In 2017, an Israeli decision to install metal detectors at entrances to the compound led to weeks of clashes.
Salhab was briefly detained by Israeli police on February 24 over the Waqf’s opening of the site, prompting Jordan’s minister of Islamic affairs, Abdul Nasser Abul Basal, to brand the Israeli action as a “dangerous and an unacceptable escalation.”
Following continued clashes between Palestinian worshipers and Israeli police, Israel on Sunday banned Salhab and two other Islamic officials appointed by Jordan from entering the Temple Mount.