Clashes Persist Despite Halt to Construction at Jerusalem Holy Site

Clashes persisted in Jerusalem Monday over construction work near a holy site, despite an order by the city's Jewish mayor for a full review of the project.

Officials said two Israel citizens and one policewoman were lightly hurt in several stone-throwing incidents in the city's Arab neighborhoods.

A Jerusalem City Hall spokesperson said mayor Uri Lupolianski's order to halt the renovation project was an attempt to quell the ongoing Muslim protests and condemnations from throughout the Arab world.

The decision is expected to delay completion of the project, a new walkway leading to the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount. But it will have no effect on preparatory work currently going on, and did little to assuage Muslim concerns that the work will harm Islamic holy sites.

The preparatory work is being carried out by Israeli archaeologists, who began carrying out an exploratory dig last week to ensure that no important remains are damaged when the walkway is built.

The new walkway is meant to replace an ancient earthen ramp that partially collapsed in a snowstorm three years ago. The project has drawn fierce protests from Palestinians and Arab countries, who accuse Israel of plotting to damage Muslim holy sites. Israel denies the charge, noting the work is about 50 yards from the compound.

Though the walkway already had official approval, some Israeli politicians have criticized the government's decision to go ahead with the project.

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Lupolianski, who has direct responsibility for the work, decided the plan should be sent for a longer review process that involves accepting public objections, spokesman Gidi Schmerling said.

He said the mayor made the decision after meeting Muslim leaders "so that the process will be transparent, and so that it will be entirely clear that there is no attempt to harm any Muslim holy sites."

City Hall expects "thousands" of objections, and the decision will "likely" delay construction because more hearings will need to be held, he said. Actual construction was originally scheduled to begin in six months, with the project slated for completion within a year.

Muslim leaders rejected Lupolianski's move as insufficient because it didn't stop the archaeological work.

"The problem is the digging, which hasn't stopped, and unfortunately the Israeli government has decided to continue the digging," Mohammed Hussein, Jerusalem's mufti, or Muslim religious leader, told The Associated Press on Monday.

The decision was also immediately criticized by Israeli hard-liners, who said any delay would amount to giving in to Arab pressure.

Lawmaker Arieh Eldad called it "a disgraceful surrender to the threats from the Arabs of Israel and the Arabs and Muslims of the neighboring countries that if we behave as a people behaves in its capital they will ignite the Middle East."

Speaking to Israel Radio, he said the fight over the walkway is really a fight over sovereignty in Jerusalem.

Israel captured east Jerusalem, where the disputed compound and other religious sites are located, in the 1967 Mideast war and considers the entire city its undivided capital. The Palestinians hope to make east Jerusalem the capital of a future independent state.

The disputed hilltop site is home to the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, the third-holiest site in Islam. The compound, built atop the ruins of the biblical Jewish Temples, is also the holiest site in Judaism, and Jews gather to pray near one of its outer retaining walls, known as the Western Wall.

The Israeli construction project sparked several days of Palestinian protests in Jerusalem and the West Bank, though there have been no serious injuries. Many Arab and Muslim countries also have condemned the work.

Rejecting the criticism, the Israeli Cabinet on Sunday voted overwhelmingly to push ahead with the work. There were no objections to the decision, the government said in a statement, though three ministers abstained.

Yona Metzger, one of Israel's chief rabbis, visited the construction site Monday, calling on the government to continue work and terming allegations that Muslim holy places could be harmed "nonsense." But Metzger also called for calm.

"We don't want any problems here, this is a holy place for us as well," he said.

Israeli police have restricted access to the compound's Islamic sites over the past week to limit protests. Only Muslim men over 45 years old with Israeli ID cards and women were allowed to pray Sunday at the Al Aqsa Mosque.

Also Monday, police charged Muslim leader Raed Salah with attacking police officers during a demonstration last week against the construction, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. Salah, a leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel, has been the leading critic of the repair work.

After Salah scuffled with police outside the shrine last Wednesday, authorities briefly detained him for questioning and issued a 10-day restraining order barring him from Jerusalem's Old City. Police wanted the courts to extend the restraining order a further 60 days, Rosenfeld said.

The most serious clashes came Friday, when about 200 riot police firing stun grenades and tear gas battled rock-throwing protesters among 3,000 Muslim worshippers at the compound.

The site has been a catalyst for earlier rounds of Israel-Palestinian fighting.

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