Jerusalem mayor seeks to calm Muslim fears over Old City walkway, but work to continue

Jerusalem's Jewish mayor has ordered a review of construction work near a holy site at the center of the Arab-Israeli conflict, a City Hall spokesman said Monday, an attempt to quell days of 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 meters (yards) from the compound.

Small clashes persisted in Jerusalem on Monday, with several stone-throwing incidents in the city's Arab neighborhoods. Two Israeli civilians and one policewoman were lightly hurt, police said.

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

Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox mayor, Uri Lupolianski, who has direct responsibility for the work, decided the plan should be sent for a longer review process that involves accepting public objections, hoping that this will help calm Muslim concerns, spokesman Gidi Schmerling said, reports AP.

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.

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