Jerusalem reopens popular Old City gate

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel reopened a 16th-century gate to Jerusalem's Old City on Wednesday, completing a two-month renovation and cleaning project that drew criticism from Palestinian officials.

Jaffa Gate, one of four main entrances to the Old City, was built by Jerusalem's Ottoman rulers and inaugurated in 1538. It is the most common entrance for tourists entering the walled Old City — home to key holy sites in Christianity, Islam and Judaism, as well as a popular outdoor marketplace.

The restoration was part of a $4 million project launched by the Israel Antiquities Authority in 2007 to spruce up all two and a half miles (four kilometers) of the Old City's walls.

The authority replaced broken stones, reattached an elaborate inscription above the gate and cleaned the facade with lye. Because Jaffa Gate provides one of the few entrances for vehicles, the stones had a decades-old coating of car exhaust residue, said Yoram Saad, who headed the renovation.

The portal stands at a right angle to the western exterior wall of the Old City, made of the same large, 16th-century sand-colored hewn stone blocks. The entrance is about 20 feet (6 meters) high, and the wall rises another 20 feet (6 meters) above it.

The renovation project has proven challenging because of the difficulty in restoring ancient stones and the project's political and religious overtones.

"It's very sensitive of course and very complex from a logistical point of view," Saad said. The organization is saving the Damascus Gate, which leads from the Muslim Quarter to a bustling Arab neighborhood, for last.

The Old City is in east Jerusalem, the section of the city claimed by the Palestinians as their future capital. It is also home to the most sensitive holy site in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a hilltop compound revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.

Even the smallest changes to the appearance of the Old City can raise tensions or even spark violence, as evidenced by recent Arab protests that erupted after Israel renovated an ancient synagogue in the Jewish Quarter.

Wednesday's ceremony proceeded without incident, though recent improvements around Jaffa Gate, including an upscale pedestrian mall, have fueled Palestinian concerns that city officials are trying to shift commerce away from the bustling Damascus Gate.

"It is an attempt to hit hard at commercial life in the Old City, especially the Muslim Quarter," said Hatem Abdel Qader, an adviser on Jerusalem affairs to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Jerusalem's mayor, Nir Barkat, said city authorities have a duty to repair and restore the walls of the Old City, calling them a "national asset" and a place for pilgrims.

"The most important thing is that it's the right thing to do. That's the only angle people should view it from," Barkat said.

Jaffa Gate was not used heavily until the end of the 19th century when part of the wall nearby was torn down to allow Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II to enter the Old City in his carriage.

It was the scene of intense fighting in 1948 and remained closed while Jerusalem was a divided city until 1967, when Israel captured the city's eastern sector and annexed it. The antiquities authority left the pockmarked stones from firefights in place.