Palestinians, Israelis clash in Jerusalem over construction at Temple Mount

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Friday, February 9, 2007

The Al-Aqsa mosque is regarded as the third holiest Islamic site.

Violent clashes have broken out between Palestinians and Israeli police near the al-Aqsa Mosque and Temple Mount in Jerusalem, from controversy over Israeli construction near the site, which is holy to both Muslims and Jews.

The construction work reportedly is to repair a pedestrian bridge that leads to the Mugrabi Gate, the entrance to the mosque used by Palestinians, and runs over the Jewish Western Wall area of the complex. The earthen ramp bridge leads to a hilltop compound known as the Temple Mount to Jews and as the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims. The bridge collapsed in 2004 and was temporarily replaced with a wooden bridge which Israelis say is weakening and unsafe. Israel has controlled the contentious compound since the 1967 Mideast War,

The construction involves excavation work and digging at the site, which Palestinian leaders contend is part of an attempt to dig under the mosque to find evidence of the Jewish Second Temple and/or to deliberately weaken the foundation of the mosque. Muslims dispute that the Temple was located at the site. Some artifacts have been salvaged from the digging work.

View of the Temple Mount and the Western wall.

Israeli forces locked down Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem in anticipation of backlashes from the construction. The Old Jerusalem city limits were blockaded, allowing only Palestinians over 45 years old from entering and only on foot. Palestinians from the West Bank were completely barred. Opponents have declared the blockades and the construction work a deliberate act to prevent Muslims from accessing the holy site. The mass of protesters at the site have in turn blocked Jewish access to the Western Wall.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas declared the construction and blockade as "hostile measures" against Muslims. Palestinian chief justice Tayssir al-Tamimi declared a "day of anger" and called on Palestinians to defend the mosque.

Arab and Muslim countries including Jordan, Malaysia and Indonesia criticized Israel for the controversial work and urged it to halt construction. Israeli defense minister Amir Peretz also warned against starting construction. The leader of the Pakistan Muslim League urged Muslim countries to freeze diplomatic ties with Israel in protest of the work.

Around 150 Muslims were inside the mosque for morning prayers when the construction and blockade began. An Israeli Muslim journalist reported that the worshippers were unable to leave and received loud messages from Israeli loudspeakers.

The al-Aqsa mosque is the third holiest site in Islam, having once been the central point of prayer (qibla) for Muslims and allegedly the place where Muhammad ascended into heaven. Conventional Judaism believes it is also the historic site of the First and Second Temples, the holiest temple in Judaism, which is prophesised to be rebuilt ahead of the coming of the Messiah.

No deaths have been reported in the clashes, which simmered by evening.

Demonstrations also took place at mosques throughout the Muslim world, including Egypt and Jordan. Protests were expected later in the day in Nazareth.

The incident comes only a few days after rival Palestinian political factions, Hamas and Fatah, came to an agreement for a unity government aimed at restoring international support of Palestine and a return to Israeli negotiations.

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