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Police prepare to open Mount to Jews next week

By Gideon Alon, Arnon Regular, Jonathan Lis and Nadav Shragai

Public Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi's statement yesterday that the Temple Mount would open "to Jews tourists and non-Muslim pilgrims next week, even if there is no agreement with the Waqf," prompted an angry response from the Islamic trust.

Waqf manager Adnan Al Husseini said the minister's statement was "an unnecessary provocation." He denied there was any agreement between the Waqf and the police about allowing "Christian or Jewish" tourists onto the plaza. He said "the Waqf is the only authority on the mount and it will ultimately decide who can enter and who can leave."

Nonetheless, Hanegbi's statement, made at the Knesset House Committee in response to questions by Yuli Edelstein, MK (Likud), drew relatively moderate responses by Waqf and Palestinian Authority officials, considering the PA's organized campaign against such visits only last week.

Waqf officials confirmed there are contacts with the police to address the problem and one said there was a "commonality of interests" between Israel, the PA, and Jordan to reach an agreement. "The Waqf is under pressure from both the PA and Jordan" to find an accommodation that would allow tourists onto the plaza, he said.

The Prime Minister's Office said it knows nothing about plans to reopen the mount to non-Muslim visitors. Just before the hudna (cease-fire) took effect, Jerusalem police began allowing small groups of tourists, Jewish and Christian, onto the plaza, which had been closed to non-Muslims by the Waqf since the day after then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited the mount in the fall of 2000 as part of his campaign against Ehud Barak's readiness at Camp David to consider alternatives to Israeli sovereignty on the mount. Sharon's visit sparked Palestinian rioting that evolved into the intifada.

But shortly before Tisha B'Av, police said they were halting the visits, out of security concerns, particularly since several MKs from the right announced plans to visit the mount on the fast day commemorating the destruction of the two Temples of the first two Jewish commonwealths.

Yesterday, Jerusalem police chief Mickey Levy said the decision to keep the mount closed to non-Muslims on Tisha B'Av was out of concern that disturbances could break out that would affect the thousands of people gathered at the Western Wall below for Tisha B'Av religious services.

Hanegbi said he is optimistic about reaching an agreement with the Waqf but "the coming week will be a test and the last week of waiting for an agreement ... We can't wait more than a week and we will have to renew the visits to the mount unilaterally, if necessary." He added Israel wants to restore the status quo ante that existed before the start of the intifada, "which lasted for 33 years," with the waqf having control over access to the mount but keeping it open to tourists of all faiths.

The waqf and Muslims worldwide are fearful of various Israeli lobbying groups interested in building a Third Temple that would supplant the Al Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques. Indeed, the Palestinians named their uprising the Al Aqsa Intifada, signifying that it aimed to guarantee Islamic control over the plaza, after Sharon declared during his visit it was under Israeli sovereignty that would never be given up.