Politics foil replacing hazardous bridge to Jerusalem site

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The wooden bridge, right, connecting the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, to the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. Experts say the rickety bridge that allows access to the Holy Land's most sensitive religious site is at imminent risk of collapse. But the shrine's delicate position at the epicenter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict prevents it from being repaired -- raising fears of another disaster just months after 45 people were killed in a stampede at an ultra-Orthodox Jewish shrine where organizers had also ignored years of safety warnings. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

JERUSALEM – A rickety bridge allowing access to Jerusalem's most sensitive holy site is at risk of collapse, according to experts. But the flashpoint shrine's delicate position at ground-zero of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has prevented its repair for more than a decade.

The tenuous state of the Mughrabi Bridge has raised fears of another disaster months after a stampede at a religious festival in northern Israel left 45 people dead.

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Days after the stampede last May, a municipal engineer hired by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation inspected the Mughrabi Bridge. Citing its poor condition, he urged its immediate replacement and authorized its use only until September.

With a Supreme Court lawsuit pushing for the structure to be repaired, the government could soon be forced into taking action on a problem that it has long evaded due to its broad diplomatic sensitivities with Jordan, the Palestinians and the broader Muslim world.

The bridge is the sole access point for non-Muslims to reach the contested hilltop compound revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.

Foot traffic has grown considerably since its construction in 2004 after an earthen ramp leading to one of the compound’s gates collapsed following an earthquake and heavy snowfall.

Engineers have warned for more than a decade that it is increasingly unsafe. But religious sensitivities and diplomatic deadlock have translated into years of inaction.

The Temple Mount is the holiest place in Judaism, the site where two ancient Temples stood. Today, the compound is home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and iconic gold-topped Dome of the Rock, and is the third-holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.

The competing claims to the site have sparked repeated bouts of violence over the years and helped fuel an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip in May.

Days before the Gaza war erupted, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the government-backed organization that manages the Jewish prayer plaza at the base of the mount, had an engineer inspect the bridge.

In a letter obtained by The Associated Press, engineer Ofer Cohen said the hastily constructed bridge’s wooden beams were “in a state of extreme dryness” and severely cracked. He approved use of the bridge until no later than September and urged authorities “to act immediately to replace the bridge in order to make safe its use.”

His inspection came less than a week after the deadly stampede earlier this year at Mount Meron, where 100,000 worshippers had gathered for an annual pilgrimage despite coronavirus restrictions and longstanding warnings the complex could not handle large crowds.

A government commission is now investigating the April 30 incident, the deadliest civilian accident in Israeli history.

The Mughrabi Bridge hangs over the women’s prayer section of the Western Wall plaza, the holiest place where Jews can pray.

In June, a group of women who pray at the wall petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to demand answers from the various authorities, saying the bridge's continued existence was “a violation of the provisions of the law and also creates a real risk to the public.” The court is expected to hold a hearing on the matter this week.

The petitioners’ attorneys have also called on the commission probing the Mount Meron disaster to investigate the “dangerous and dilapidated temporary bridge situated illegally above the women’s section.”

The original permit issued by City Hall approved the temporary bridge for the use of police until the ramp could be repaired. It never was.

A 2006 Prime Minister's Office memo said “it's understood that the temporary wooden bridge cannot continue to serve the community for a long time” and called upon the Western Wall Heritage Foundation to finalize plans for a permanent replacement.

But diplomatic pressure by neighboring Jordan, which serves as custodian of the Islamic trust managing the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, has made it difficult to act.

Day-to-day affairs at the site are governed by a set of understandings referred to as the “status quo," and any perceived change to these precarious rules has the potential to ignite outrage across the Muslim world.

The Palestinians and Muslims worldwide fear that any shifts — even one meant to protect public safety — could lead to an Israeli takeover or partition of the site.

“For Jordan, it’s connected to the status quo of the Temple Mount. If you breach the status quo, it’s a pandora’s box,” said Yitzhak Reiter, chair of the Israel studies department at Ashkelon Academic College, and an expert on disputed holy sites.

Israel and Jordan reportedly reached an agreement to replace the bridge in 2011, but that deal fell through. At the time, Israel accused Jordan of reneging.

Relations between the two neighbors further soured in the past decade and “since then, nothing has been done because the Jordanians still oppose it,” Reiter said. Israel's new government has moved to repair ties with Jordan, an important Arab ally, but it is unclear whether they will be able to make progress on the bridge.

In the meantime, Jewish visits to the compound have grown from around 5,800 per year in 2010 to more than 37,000 in 2019, according to police figures cited by Hebrew newspaper Makor Rishon. Israeli police declined requests to confirm those figures.

On Sunday alone, over 1,500 Jews visited to mark the Jewish holy day of Tisha B'Av. The higher-than-usual number, along with some of the visitors violating a ban on Jewish prayer, added to Muslim concerns that Israel is trying to disrupt the status quo.

The bridge's replacement has become a cause célèbre for opposition lawmakers.

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party and his religious nationalist allies, recently ousted from power after 12 years, seek to confound Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's delicate coalition of disparate political parties.

Earlier this month, former Transportation Minister Miri Regev called for an “immediate discussion about the danger caused by a collapse of the bridge,” saying “hundreds of thousands of people are at risk” during the upcoming Jewish High Holidays.

Officials from all sides involved have been tight-lipped about the issue.

Cohen, the engineer, declined to comment, directing inquiries to the Prime Minister’s Office, which manages Israel’s affairs at the Jerusalem holy site. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's office declined to comment. Neither the Jordanian government nor the Waqf would comment.

Reiter, the academic, said he believed the current push by Israeli religious nationalists to fix the bridge was “an attempt to capitalize on the political situation in complete disregard of Jordan."

He didn't believe this bid would work because “Israel's interest in protecting good relations with Jordan as a strategic partner are more important and weighty."

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