JERUSALEM – The Israeli Cabinet on Sunday ordered construction work to proceed on a ramp leading to a disputed holy site in Jerusalem, despite objections from the Muslim world and two days of violent Palestinian protests.
Ahead of the vote, workmen returned under heavy guard to the site in the walled Old City after a break Saturday for the Jewish Sabbath.
Tensions in the city have been high since last week, when Israel began work outside the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount. The new walkway is meant to replace an ancient earthen ramp that partially collapsed in a snowstorm three years ago. Israel says the work, about 60 yards from the compound, will not hurt Muslim holy sites.
With its vote Sunday, the Cabinet decided overwhelmingly to continue with the project. There were no objections to the decision, the government said in a statement, though three ministers abstained. According to a participant in the meeting, the three were from the dovish Labor Party and included the Cabinet's only Muslim minister.
Speaking ahead of the vote, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert accused "people with ulterior motives in the international Arab world" of using the Israeli work as a pretext "to fan the flames of hostility and hatred."
The existing ramp, Olmert said, "is a dangerous structure that must be renovated," and the work is being done "in an area that is totally and completely under Israeli responsibility and day-to-day administration, and under our full sovereignty."
However, Arab efforts to stop the construction continued.
Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa on Sunday instructed Arab ambassadors at the UN to discuss the possibility of calling for an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council to discuss the construction.
Israeli Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld reported no fresh incidents Sunday morning and said the work was scheduled to proceed throughout the day.
He said police in and around east Jerusalem would stay at an increased strength of around 2,000 officers — about double the normal level — and restrictions barring men under the age of 45 from praying at the sanctuary's Muslim holy sites would remain in force.
On Friday, about 200 riot police firing stun grenades and tear gas battled rock-throwing protesters among the 3,000 Muslim worshippers there, while on Saturday Palestinian teenagers stoned Israeli security forces, burned an Israeli flag and pelted a Canadian tour bus with rocks.
Despite accusations from Arab leaders that Israel is trying to harm the compound's Islamic sites and calls for Muslims to forcibly resist the renovation work, there have been only limited clashes and nobody has been seriously injured.
The Old City hilltop compound has been a catalyst for earlier rounds of Israel-Palestinian fighting. It houses the third holiest site for Muslims, who believe it is where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.
The compound is Judaism's holiest site, venerated as the location of two biblical temples, and Jews gather to pray near one of its outer retaining walls, known as the Western Wall.
On Saturday, the Arab League's Moussa accused Israel of attempting to "change the features" of Jerusalem with the excavation, and Turkey's Foreign Ministry urged Israel to avoid "acts that may create new tensions." Most Islamic countries have issued condemnations of the work.
Touring the site Sunday morning, Israel's public security minister, Avi Dichter, said he believed "that reason will return, and in the coming period we'll see things settle down on this matter."
The walkway's construction is expected to take one year.